On a recent visit to Colombia, I visited a deeply moving space for reconciliation, Fragmentos, where the guns of the FARC have been hammered into a beautiful rippling floor by many of the women who suffered terribly during the conflict. It was a powerful reminder that though women often bear the greatest burden during times of war, they are also often leaders on the path to peace. In my three decades of doing this work, I’ve repeatedly been humbled by the women I’ve met who have risked their lives and found creative ways to build peace—from women forming neighborhood councils in Syria and Iraqi women securing their legal rights through relentless efforts, to grandmothers riding around on motorbikes to intervene in local disputes in Kenya.

A June 2019 dialogue on preventing extremism in the Eastleigh community of Nairobi, Kenya, organized by the Sisters Without Borders network, USIP's partner for the Women Preventing Violent Extremism–Horn of Africa project. (Steven Ruder/USIP)
A June 2019 dialogue on preventing extremism in the Eastleigh community of Nairobi, Kenya, organized by the Sisters Without Borders network, USIP's partner for the Women Preventing Violent Extremism–Horn of Africa project. (Steven Ruder/USIP)

It was women who brought an end to the 14-year war in Liberia, organizing daily sit-ins, staging vigils, and taking to the streets until negotiators agreed to sign a deal. It was women who led the movement to topple a dictator in Sudan, with a 22-year-old young woman named Alaa Salah inspiring thousands of Sudanese protesters to demand change. It was women who mediated many local cease-fires in Colombia and broadened the agenda in formal negotiations to address core grievances and resolve more than 50 years of bloody conflict. And in Afghanistan, few realize that the courageous People’s Peace Movement was first sparked by women in Helmand province.

Throughout history, women have played key roles in ending and preventing conflict, but their efforts too often go largely unrecognized.

USIP wants to change that.

New USIP Women Building Peace Award

Next fall, USIP will honor an extraordinary woman peacebuilder from a conflict-affected country with a $10,000 prize and the public recognition she deserves through our inaugural Women Building Peace Award. We hope this award will raise awareness about the important role women play in building peace and inspire future generations. Nominations opened last month and close in January. Our Women Building Peace Council—a brain trust of distinguished leaders and experts—will help us select the winner, who will be publicly recognized in the fall of 2020.

The Women Building Peace Award builds on 10 years of USIP’s existing work to empower women, elevate their voices, and support their roles in local and national peace processes. In September, USIP led a high-level negotiation workshop in Istanbul for Afghan women leaders. USIP-trained networks of mediators in Colombia have helped strengthen and maintain the peace accord signed in 2016. And for years, USIP has supported critical research on the roles of women amid violent conflict, convening researchers from disparate academic fields who pinpoint the ways that governments and civil society organizations can better prevent sexual violence in conflict.

USIP is committed to supporting women for a simple reason: Decades of research demonstrate that for peace to be sustainable, the process must be inclusive.

Women are Key to Building Lasting Peace

Most practitioners are well-versed on the oft-cited statistics that point to the efficacy of women peacebuilders: When women serve in key roles (as mediators or signatories, for example), peace accords are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. A 2015 global study on implementing U.N. Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 found that, “Supporting women peacebuilders and respecting their autonomy is one important way to counter extremism.” Groundbreaking research from Dr. Valerie Hudson found that the greater the gender gap in a country, the more likely it is to experience war.

And yet, despite the evidence, the world has only slowly expanded women’s roles. Between 1992 and 2018, women made up only 3 percent of mediators, 4 percent of signatories, and 13 percent of negotiators.

There is some progress worth noting. Before UNSCR 1325, which moved to include women in all aspects of preventing and ending violent conflict in 2000, only 11 percent of signed peace agreements included a reference to women. Fifteen years later, that figure more than doubled, with 27 percent of peace agreements referencing women. Though this number is still low—and we still have a very long way to go in terms of including tangible provisions that address women, girls, or gender—it does demonstrate that efforts to include and recognize women can have an impact, which is what the Women Building Peace Award is all about. More recently, Senators Shaheen and Caputo spearheaded bipartisan legislation that created a commitment in U.S. law for America to train government personnel on the issue, work with all sides to include women in peace processes, and require a national strategy on women, peace, and security.

A Special Role and a Special Force

What is it about women that makes them effective peacebuilders? Evidence indicates that women participants in peace processes are usually focused less on the spoils of the war and are more invested in reconciliation, economic development, education, and transitional justice—critical elements of a sustained peace. Betty Williams, the 1976 Nobel Peace laureate who promoted a peaceful resolution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, summed it up well: “The voice of women has a special role and a special soul force in the struggle for a nonviolent world.”

In today’s complex and interconnected strategic landscape, where global violence is on the rise and nearly half of all peace agreements fail within five years, we cannot afford to neglect and exclude the field of peacebuilding’s most effective practitioners. As USIP marks its 35th anniversary and reflects on three and a half decades of making peace possible, we are reaffirming our commitment to elevating the invaluable role that women play in building peace. Through the Women Building Peace Award, we hope to pay tribute to that special role and special force that animates our shared struggle for a nonviolent world.

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