We had gotten used to hearing that we live in an era of unprecedented peace before the Russian invasion in Ukraine happened. We also often hear that we live in an era of unprecedented gender equality. The truth is that in both cases, the reality is disappointing: there was never really peace, and women and men were never really equal.
Text: Manouk Driessens
Image: Alina Talipova
Worldwide, there are currently between twenty and thirty violent conflicts going on, ranging from civil wars to armed conflicts between states. Needless to emphasize, the result is a lot of insecurity, wasted resources and immense human suffering. And when it comes to gender inequality, well… Granted, a lot of progress has been made, but the work towards women’s empowerment and true gender equality is still nowhere near done.
These issues of violent conflict and gender equality might seem unrelated, but in reality, they are closely intertwined for many different reasons. For starters, it is widely accepted that armed conflict disproportionately affects women and girls, more so and in different ways than it does men. There are vulnerabilities that need to be reckoned with: exposure to human trafficking, sexual violence, and other types of gender-based exploitation and abuse. Recently, there has been a growing awareness of the fact that this use of violence is not simply a by-product of war, but is also often used as a tactic in its own right. Women are victims of violent conflict. The scope of this problem is enormous, heartbreaking, and demands our efforts. But the story does not end here.
Women at the table
Women are victims, but they are also so much more than that. In spite of their unique challenges and vulnerabilities, women still manage to do groundbreaking work for justice, peace and security. Practice has shown the value of their work in conflict areas, such as Northern Ireland, Guatemala, Liberia or Kashmir. The success of women’s involvement in conflict resolution is clear, and it has been demonstrated by experts that peace agreements are thirty-five percent more likely to last at least fifteen years, or more, when women are meaningfully included in the negotiations.
However, there is one important side note: this practice is rare, as women’s contributions continue to be sidelined and highly undervalued in formal peace processes. According to the United Nations (UN), only thirteen percent of peace negotiators and only six percent of mediators between 1992 and 2019 were women. Seven out of ten peace processes did not include any women at all. These numbers are ridiculous, as one would think it to be obvious that the exclusion of half of society’s perspective makes no sense with a view to creating durable peace. After all, a deep and thorough understanding of any conflict from all perspectives is essential for creating a peaceful solution as well as sustainability thereof.
The central role of women in conflict situations has not only been demonstrated clearly by researchers – even the international community has accepted this fact and consequently brought into life the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agendas. More than 22 years ago already, on October 31st of 2000, the UN Security Council passed its landmark resolution 1325, which not only acknowledges how conflict affects women and girls, but also how women’s roles in peacebuilding remain undervalued. This sounds like a win, and to some extent it is. What seems to have happened, however, is that the rhetoric has evolved a lot further than the reality on the ground.
Why are women still largely excluded from peace processes then? And when they are involved, why are their efforts underappreciated? Hm, could it have something to do with the pervasive societal structures that lead us to systematically undervalue women and their contributions to society, otherwise known as the patriarchy? The short answer is yes, it has everything to do with that. In 2020, a study by the UN Development Program demonstrated that nine out of ten people have a bias against women. Staggering numbers, but recognizing this widespread bias as an obstacle, a constructive question is: what exactly do women bring to the table in these peace processes? Peace lasts longer when women are involved, but does that mean that women are better at conflict resolution than men?
Hold on – this feels like a trick question. Is this essay testing the nature of my feminism? On the one hand, as a general rule, I will jump at every opportunity to hype up other women. I am a feminist, and as far as I’m concerned, the Queen trumps the King in any game of cards. This means that on a personal note, writing a downright unnuanced essay arguing that women are simply the best – including in conflict resolution and peacebuilding – sounds like guaranteed fun. I do not hate men – I just think they could use a break from the spotlight. So, there’s that. Then again, do I really want to build an argument on the basis of specific gender-ascribed characteristics or skills? I am a social scientist, and gender is a construct – so, maybe creating a men versus women narrative is not the constructive way to go.
So, why does peace last longer when created at the hands of women? It turns out that some academics have already elaborated a loophole to shift the focus away from this so-called ‘difference thinking’. Already in the early nineties, Deborah Kolb and Gloria Collidge emphasized the flexibility and the variability of characteristics related to gender. Because women have so long been excluded, their contributions are often original and innovative, and most importantly: they turn out to be effective. Therefore, we must actively challenge the (unconscious) idea that men hold all solutions. We must recognize women’s added value and draw lessons from the methods that they bring to the table. This is about creating dialogue and constructive communication techniques. It is about sensitivity and empathy. It is about introducing issues related to human rights, gender-based violence, education, disarmament, and the list goes on.
It should be clear that the answer does not lie in figuring out which is the intrinsically superior gender. It is not about dethroning all men from their positions and replacing them with women – that was never the point. It is about including the voice of those who have been historically excluded. It is about shaking off the patriarchal bias against women and recognizing the value of their contributions. Or as Antonia Potter put it: “let those disproportionately represented, decision-making men hear these words not as a threat but as an invitation, and an appeal to their better nature: peace matters today more than ever.”
In short: when we talk about violent conflict, we must talk about women. And when we talk about women’s struggles, we cannot neglect the conflict dimension. It needs no argument that peace and security are central to all of our wellbeing. For the sake of our own lives and those of the next generations, we have to work towards sustainable peace. To this end, we have to make sure that women’s struggles are recognized and addressed. We also have to give women a seat at the table. We have to shine the spotlight on those who are already making a difference, and empower all others so that they too, can start doing the same. Women work magic; all we have to do is let them. In the end, we will all be better off.
6 Kolb, D. M. & Collidge, G. G. (1991). Her place at the table: A consideration of gender issues in negotiation. Negotiation: Theory and Practice. 261-277.