Worsening violence against women is often a precursor to — and early outcome of — the rise in coups and authoritarianism that have made recent headlines. Not only does protecting women’s participation in public life and decision-making go hand-in-hand with democracy, but the former is actually a precondition for the latter. As we mark International Women’s Day in 2022, we would do well to remember that global efforts to prevent violent conflict and sustain peace are significantly undermined when women are deterred from access to participation and full leadership without fear of reprisals and violence. 

Korotoumou Thera, executive director of Femmes et Développement, speaks to local media after the USIP co-hosted Women Preventing Violent Extremism National-level Dialogue event in Bamako, Mali. September 13-15, 2021. (USIP)
Korotoumou Thera, executive director of Femmes et Développement, speaks to local media after the USIP co-hosted Women Preventing Violent Extremism National-level Dialogue event in Bamako, Mali. September 13-15, 2021. (USIP)

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently testified to the U.N. Security Council on the urgent need to protect women’s participation in peacebuilding and the dismal track record of investment in local women’s organizations to date. She emphasized that “the work of addressing discrimination, inequality, denials of women’s civic space and gender-based violence should also be viewed as a priority for building peace.”

The call to protect women who are active in the public sphere is not about women’s weakness but about the perceived threat that women pose to those seeking to rule through force and coercion. Women, who are not a homogenous group, have a significant part to play in transforming inequitable and unjust systems across society. However, they cannot do it without the engagement of men and male-dominated institutions. Policy makers and international actors need to be more attentive to women peacebuilders and the organizations and movements they lead. Two areas where women have demonstrated such leadership are highlighted here. 

Participation in Environmental Peacebuilding

Beyond the list of countries and regions where women peacebuilders face severe risks — Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and the Sahel, among others — there is a category of actors who have increasingly become the target of attacks by state and non-state groups. These are environmental defenders and peacebuilders, indigenous women prominent among them, who  seek to protect their communities and mitigate conflict in the face of heightened natural resource competition and climate change. Their efforts drive at the heart of existing political economies that rest on exploitation and inequalities.

Women are on the frontlines of defense against land-grabs, gender-based violence linked to natural resource control and conflict exacerbated by environmental crises. On the ground, gender inequalities, security concerns and environmental changes are inextricably linked. They cannot be separated in the lives of people impacted by related conflict and violence. Yet, the security and environment policy communities continue to operate in siloes and demonstrate a lack of gender analysis and policy awareness. The gender dimensions need to be better understood, integrated and prioritized in security and climate policy packages, research and programming if all these lines of effort are to succeed.

Participation in Preventing Pandemic-Related Violence

By most indicators, gender inequality has worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and trends limiting women’s freedoms, well-being and security worldwide. Millions of women have been forced to leave the workforce and take on additional unpaid care while their access to health care, education and other public services shrink.

This includes shrinking options for escaping intimidation, abuse and violence. The rise in gender-based violence within and outside the home has been referred to as a hidden or shadow pandemic and a syndemic — when two or more pandemics interact to compound the severity of each. As women spend more time online during the pandemic, many confront the gender digital divide while others experience heightened online discrimination and harassment. In addition, authorities have used the pandemic to close civic space and institute intrusive forms of surveillance with few checks and balances, while armed groups have exploited the crisis to set up their own COVID-19 checkpoints and patrols, exposing women and civic leaders to greater risk.  

In response, civil society around the globe has mobilized to collect data, share research and elevate women’s voices to turn the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity to build more just and inclusive societies. One promising aspect of these efforts is the momentum gained by the multidisciplinary approach of initiatives such as the Gender and COVID-19 Research Project, which recognizes that the reality of women’s lives can’t be properly understood with political, academic and bureaucratic siloes.

Promote Peaceful Masculinities

Another important component of supporting women’s leadership and participation in peacebuilding is promoting peaceful models of masculinity. If men are to join in genuine partnership with women, norms about masculinity and those ideas that normalize violence as a form of power and leadership need to be transformed.

In conflict-settings, harmful masculine norms are often tied to violence — violence that is mostly directed toward what is valued less and perceived as property, including women and girls. Unlearning violent responses to conflict and recognizing sources of strength and power that encourage inclusion and partnership requires socializing alternative, peaceful models of masculinity. Whether it be through psychosocial support for displaced men, reintegration programs for ex-combatants, or educational programs for young men and boys that draw on social media and the arts or other creative interventions, more research and investment are needed to build the evidence base for programming and scale-up what is proving successful.  Addressing how masculinity and male behaviors shape gender relations and security — from the household to the state to the international arena — must be included in our policy and practice efforts.

Reject the False Binary of Women’s Agency

In addition to a greater investment in what we know works, including support to women’s collective actions and capacity-building at all levels, we need to address the conceptual barriers that stand in the way of better responding to circumstances on the ground. This includes moving beyond the false binary of underestimating or overstating women’s agency. Rarely is it the case that women have no rights or ability to act, although disparities are stark. Nor are women superhuman, able to secretly wield power in the home and against armed forces. The reality lies in between and requires gender-attentive consideration of context, of local norms and needs, and of constraints and possibilities. We have much to learn from the contributions of women peacebuilders, such as those recognized by the Women Building Peace Award. And we should do everything in our power to protect them, because creating safe and inclusive mechanisms for women’s meaningful participation in every arena is critical to ensuring a secure and peaceful future for us all.

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