Women Bridge Divides Between Unlikely Groups
Women are adept at mobilizing diverse groups for a common cause. They often work across ethnic, religious, political, and cultural divides to promote peace. For example, in Colombia in 2002, women’s groups united across the ideological spectrum when the government broke off formal negotiations with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and began a major armed offensive. Women responded with a protest that mobilized 40,000 marchers against the war and the growing militarization of society. Organizers used the diverse groups’ desire for peace to build the women’s coalition into a major force in Colombia.
In Liberia, Leymah Gbowee and others organized Christian and Muslim women who, together, pressured warring parties into the 2002 negotiations that ultimately ended years of horrific war. Recognizing that achievement, the Nobel Committee awarded Ms. Gbowee the 2011 Peace Prize for her “nonviolent struggle for… women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Women Have a Unique Understanding of Community Needs
The priorities women address in peace agreements extend beyond the struggle for power or territory to the everyday needs of communities. Only when these needs are addressed can durable peace take root.
In the negotiations leading to the May 2006 Darfur (Sudan) Peace Agreement, women delegates pushed for previously neglected provisions addressing safety for internally displaced persons and refugees, food security, and gender-based violence.
Former US Ambassador to Angola Donald Steinberg highlighted women’s contributions in another way. He described important lessons learned when no women were included in talks leading to the 1994 peace agreement between the Angolan government and rebel forces: “Not only did this silence women’s voices on the hard issues of war and peace, but it also meant that issues [such] as internal displacement, sexual violence, abuses by government and rebel security forces, and the rebuilding of social services such as maternal health care and girls’ education were given short shrift – or no shrift at all.” (Source: PeaceWomen E-News)
Women Have Access That Men Don’t
Partly because women have often been excluded from formal power structures, they are typically perceived as being less threatening than men. This perception means that, paradoxically, they frequently have a kind of access that is denied to male leaders. In Somalia, for example, women are able to move physically between clans with a freedom that men do not have. During conflict, these Somali women have sometimes served as first-line diplomats and mediators.
Elsewhere, Uganda’s Betty Bigombe secured unprecedented access to the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony in the 1990s, although she was a government official. After the military failed to defeat the rebels, she risked death and kidnapping to negotiate with Kony to try to convince the guerillas to lay down their arms. She initiated contact with Kony’s commanders through women associated with the LRA and built trust in order to get a meeting with Kony himself.
Because of their unique roles and access, women are often particularly well-placed to get a negotiation process started and keep it moving forward.
Women Have Untapped Power
Women wield influence within their families and communities – influence they can use to moderate political and religious extremism. Researchers note that women recognize when their sons, daughters, or husbands exhibit telltale signs of violent ideologies. In Pakistan, members of a coalition of women focused on moderating extremism travel regularly to remote areas of the country to persuade young men against becoming suicide bombers.
In Afghanistan, women report having the most to lose if the Taliban should reclaim power. This makes them natural allies of NATO forces in the effort to stabilize insecure areas and strengthen the central government and civil society. Since 2001, women have mobilized repeatedly to ensure their own perspectives on peace and security are addressed. Their leadership has inspired confidence in inclusive governance among Afghans and, perhaps most important, has been key to countering extremist narratives.
Similarly, in the political sphere, women can overcome suspicion and bridge even extreme divides, as happened after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians became the first cross-party caucus. Women’s involvement helped ease the challenging period of political transition when trust in new procedures and officials was needed.
Women Increase the Operational Effectiveness of Police and Military Forces
Working within security institutions, women make fundamental contributions that help achieve broad mission objectives. There is evidence that uniformed women are more likely than their male colleagues to de-escalate tensions and less likely to use excessive force. Female police, border guards, and military officers can also perform critical duties that may be difficult for men for cultural reasons, such as searching women at security checkpoints.
Because women are often uniquely able to reach out and communicate with women in the general community, police and military forces with female members can gain a fuller picture of the entire community’s needs. They can learn about the nature and extent of gang violence and recruitment, human trafficking, intimidation and extortion by organized crime, drug use in schools, and much more. Increasing the number of women police officers also improves responses to crimes involving domestic and sexual violence, which are among the most prevalent crimes in postconflict (as well as nonconflict affected) societies.
Women Inspire a Culture of Inclusion for the Next Generation
Research on the impact of Indian women in local government finds that when more women enter politics, girls have greater aspirations for their own futures and their parents are more willing to support their access to education and employment.
In Rwanda and South Africa, women have led campaigns to consult with the public on matters ranging from constitutional reform to peace negotiations. Not only are specific policies and institutions strengthened through insights of diverse constituents, but civil society’s participation promotes the practice of civic engagement that builds solid democracies.