Women and Peace: A Special Role in Violent Conflict

Colombia Talks to End War Highlight Women’s Contributions to Peace

Published: 
March 18, 2016
By: 
Fred Strasser

In Liberia, women, excluded from talks to end the country’s civil war, besieged negotiators until they signed a deal. In Guatemala, where insurgents and the government each had a female delegate in talks, pressure from women put indigenous, gender and labor rights into an accord. In Northern Ireland, women placed the needs of victims and political prisoners on the agenda after winning a role in peace negotiations. Wherever there’s an effort to settle violent conflict, women’s involvement improves the outcome, according to experts who took part in a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

From Left to Right: Kathleen Kuehnast, Ambassador Kåre R. Aas, Ginny Bouvier, Carla Koppell

Research shows that when women effectively influence a peace process, it’s more likely that an agreement will be reached, implemented and sustained, Norway’s ambassador to the U.S., Kåre Aas, said at the March 8 event to mark International Women’s Day. Norway is involved in negotiations to end conflicts in 20 countries including the Philippines, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, he said. In every case, his government stresses the need to hear and adopt women’s views, he said.

“There is growing awareness of gender perspective and it’s key to the legitimacy of the process,” Aas said during the event, co-sponsored by the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum of Johns Hopkins Advanced School of International Studies. “Inclusion is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing.”

Inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.” -- Kåre Aas, Norway’s ambassador to the U.S.

The role of women in the effort to end more than 50 years of internal warfare in Colombia was the focus of the discussion, as talks between the country’s government and guerrillas work out an agreement to extend a self-imposed March 23 deadline for a final accord. Colombia, Aas said, has been Norway’s most successful engagement as a mediator, in part because of the way women mobilized to support the peace process and the role they played as a result. Colombia is the best example to date of how women can shape a potential peace deal, the panelists agreed.

Historically, women have been largely excluded from direct involvement in negotiations for peace. According to a United Nations report in 2010 and updated in 2012, of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011, women made up 9 percent of the negotiators, 4 percent of the signatories, and 2.4 percent of the mediators, said Virginia Bouvier, a USIP expert on peace processes and Colombia. Of 585 peace agreements signed between 1990 and 2010, only 92 even referenced women, she said.

Yet the number of women directly involved is less important to the outcome than their influence through groups such as women’s civil society organizations, networks or delegations, according to a U.N. study published on March 1 with the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative. In cases where women’s groups wielded substantial influence, the chances of a final agreement being reached and sustained were much higher than when women exerted even a moderate influence, the study of 40 peace processes found.

Women and War

The effects of excluding women go even further: A 174-country study by Harvard University found that the greater the gender gap in a country, the more likely it is to experience war internally or with its neighbors, Bouvier said.

“The themes are clear,” said Carla Koppell, USIP’s vice president for applied conflict transformation. Women bring a larger perspective and a longer-term look to the big issues of a peace process, particularly reconciliation and refugee returns, she said.

In Colombia, where USIP has helped organize a network of women mediators, women have engaged in many on-the-ground campaigns, Bouvier said. Women’s groups have negotiated local ceasefires with armed groups and won the release of hostages. They have pressured insurgents to lifts roadblocks and documented human rights violations. Women have protested budget priorities of local governments and sought solutions to drug trafficking and other illegal activity.  It was women who kept the plight of the war’s victims—now addressed in detail in the preliminary accords—in the public eye, Bouvier said.

Women were participants in secret exploratory talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that produced the current negotiating agenda, she added. 

In October 2013, a year after the peace talks were announced with a commitment to include under-represented groups, almost 450 women held a National Summit of Women and Peace in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, and demanded a place at the negotiating table for women. Two weeks later, President Juan Manuel Santos named two women to the government’s team, bringing them to one-fifth of government negotiators. Across the table, the FARC negotiators have included 10 percent to 20 percent women.

At the Table … and Beyond

The two sides also established a gender sub-commission at the talks in Havana to assess how the proposed accords would affect women and ensure the terms promote gender equality.

“Women’s limited engagement at the table provides little sense of their tremendous contributions to the peace process,” Bouvier said. “They helped prepare the table, and are at and around the table in a variety of capacities, providing strategic, technical, substantive, legal and administrative support at all levels,”

Women have played a perhaps even greater role on the guerrilla side. According to Bouvier, women are thought to make up about 40 percent of the approximately 7,000 remaining FARC fighters and 47 percent of the insurgents’ full complement of people working on the talks in Havana.

How FARC women will reintegrate into society if the guerrillas demobilize under the peace accords remains a major question. Many young women join the insurgents because they are looking for leadership roles, Bouvier said. They may have spent their adult lives carrying a weapon in the jungle and attained the status and power of commanders. When they return home, their families may reject them for having abandoned traditional gender roles to pick up arms, and they may have difficulty getting jobs or education, Bouvier said. 

Entering politics will be even harder—both because of the deep animosity toward the FARC cultivated during decades of war, and because of gender inequities in the political and economic roles.  While Colombia does better than many countries on female political representation, at the local level, less than 10 percent of elected office holders are female.

Women have not fared well when previous armed groups such as the M-19 and the EPL guerrillas demobilized, Bouvier said.

Yet so far, the Colombia peace process has been a striking success compared with many others, according to Aas. If a final agreement is reached and implemented, there will be lessons for Norway and others seeking to resolve violent conflicts in the future, he said.

March 18, 2016
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