7 Myths Standing in the Way of Women’s Inclusion
This post is adapted from an Official Background Paper for the 2013 Oslo Forum, a gathering of the world’s top mediators, high-level decision makers, and key peace actors. The paper was written by Jacqueline O’Neill and Alice Nderitu.
When speaking with decision makers about meaningfully including women in peace processes, we frequently hear, “Yes, but….” Many support this representation in principle, but cite barriers to implementing it in the midst of complex, high-stakes negotiations.
Here are seven common myths that, left unchallenged, may prevent peacemakers from doing their best work.
Myth #1 – Introducing New Actors Will Destabilize the Process
A recent examination of 83 peace agreements in 40 countries from 1989-2004 found that peace is 60% less likely to fail when both civil society actors and political parties participate in the process. Limiting seats only to those who bear arms reinforces negative incentives; including diverse perspectives increases durability of peace.
BOTTOM LINE: The benefits of broadly inclusive negotiations outweigh the risks.
Myth #2 – Women’s Perspectives Can be Incorporated Later
Around the world, from Liberia to Colombia, women have been integral in ushering unwilling parties to the table. When they participate directly in negotiations, they create an atmosphere of collaboration and ensure underlying drivers of conflict are addressed. In Uganda, female leaders insisted the core issue of long-term reintegration of combatants be on the agenda. These perspectives are essential from beginning to end of a peace process.
BOTTOM LINE: Including women isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing—both short- and long-term.
Myth #3 – Mediators Don’t Have the Authority to Insist on Women’s Inclusion
Mediators may be politically impartial, but when it comes to values, they have to take a stand. The UN Security Council has passed numerous resolutions recognizing the importance of women’s participation in peacemaking. While mediators may not be able to insist on compliance, they can influence parties, model inclusive practices (within their own teams), and offer positive incentives, among other tactics.
BOTTOM LINE: There’s a large and growing body of mandates, guidance, norms, and established practices mediators can use to ensure meaningful inclusion of women.
Myth #4 – Urging Parties to Include Women Expends Valuable Political Capital
Parties to negotiations and mediations can benefit enormously from broadened participation. Beyond reinforcing international legitimacy, consulting with women in civil society and including them in delegations strengthens public perception. In the Philippines, negotiations were considered more credible and legitimate after women were appointed four out of five official mediators.
BOTTOM LINE: By framing the inclusion of women as a means to advance common interests, mediators can demonstrate insight and strengthen relationships with all parties.
Myth #5 – “Women’s Issues” are Separate From the Other Issues on the Table
Women have differing perspectives and priorities, but the term “women’s issues” perpetuates a misconception that these topics are only relevant to one gender. During negotiations, female leaders in Sudan and South Sudan stressed environmental regulation in petroleum agreements (by no means a “women’s issue”), because they witnessed the implications of unregulated oil extraction. Polluted water sources meant women had to travel farther to collect clean water, exposing them to attacks and sexual violence.
BOTTOM LINE: Where communities are involved, there’s no such thing as “women’s issues.” The vast majority of topics raised by women are security-related.
Myth #6 –Inclusion of Women is Western-Driven and Sometimes Culturally Inappropriate
The “culture argument” is often used by those who suppress others to gain or maintain control. Undoubtedly, in every context, women want a say in the decisions that affect them and their families. There are many non-Western communities (e.g., Somalia, Afghanistan) where females traditionally play the role of peacebuilder.
BOTTOM LINE: Including women may require a culturally-sensitive approach, but that’s a matter of tactics, not values. Mediators should learn the history of women’s leadership in each particular culture.
Myth #7 – Peace Agreements Can, and Should, be Gender Neutral
A gender-neutral peace agreement would apply equally to men and women, who should be partners in designing, implementing, and evaluating programs. Unfortunately, the conditions for such an agreement don’t yet exist. Instead, “[g]ender-neutral language can be one way to disguise exclusion” of women and erase them from many provisions that affect them.
BOTTOM LINE: According to Ambassador Donald Steinberg, “A peace agreement that is ‘gender neutral’ is by definition discriminatory against women and likely to fail.” Mediators should insist on inclusive terminology, such as “s/he” and “men and women.”
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