More women are participating in peace processes, but institutions still need to make sure that women’s roles are meaningful rather than just symbolic — and that requires looking far beyond reserving seats at the table during peace negotiations.

A scene from discussions on how women contribute to peace in their communities in Madura Island, Indonesia. October 7, 2017. (Ryan Brown/U.N. Women)
A scene from discussions on how women contribute to peace in their communities in Madura Island, Indonesia. October 7, 2017. (Ryan Brown/U.N. Women)

The peacebuilding field needs to elevate women’s diverse voices in decision-making, as their inclusion is a crucial boost for the likelihood of success. “When women are part of the peace process, [those peace outcomes] are 35 percent more likely to last beyond 15 years," said Liz Hume, the executive director of Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Speaking at a virtual event, Hume and other women practitioners and researchers from a range of generational and geographical backgrounds discussed equity and inclusion in the peacebuilding field.

One theme was constant over the course of the conversation: The status of women in a society indicates what challenges those women will face when that society is in conflict. “It is so important that, when we look at how to prevent conflict, we ask ‘Where are women in this context?’” said Dorothy Nyambi, the president and CEO of Mennonite Economic Development Associates. “If women have agency at all levels within societies ... the ability for us to prevent conflict has become higher.’”

The Importance of Cultural Context

However, perceptions of what constitutes women’s inclusion — as well as how to best facilitate it — vary across cultural contexts and even within cultures themselves. “Culture is also not a monolith … from organization culture, professional culture, and even what I would call generational culture,” said Esra Çuhadar, a senior expert on dialogue and peace processes for USIP.

Issue prioritization can vary greatly across these cultures. Therefore, recognizing intersectionality across cultural and generational perceptions is a key to understanding women’s existing roles in peacebuilding and peacemaking.

But for all the variance across cultures and generations, women peacebuilders do share some lived experiences — which makes standardizing women’s inclusion in peacebuilding through frameworks like the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda a useful baseline to work from if implementers are mindful of context-specific perspectives

These sort of systemic challenges and cultural perceptions can impact how communities view equity and inclusion, along with how success is defined in creating inclusive spaces. “It can be uncomfortable in the peacebuilding system, in Washington, D.C., in particular, to name ‘patriarchy’ as a system that is negatively impacting peacebuilding work ... and yet it is one,” said Shannon Paige, a policy associate at Peace Direct. “[Patriarchy] manifests differently in different contexts, which is where we have to have that cultural understanding, that ability to turn to local communities and say, ‘What does this look like for you?’”

Finding the Gaps

Peacebuilders and peacemakers in both the Global North and Global South face gaps between the proclaimed goals for women’s inclusion in the field and the steps that are being taken toward actualizing those goals.

Western organizations sometimes make the mistake of imposing perceptions of feminism on communities where the realities of women’s roles are quite different. “We defer to local leadership for how to reach communities … [but in some instances] we have failed to recognize what that looks like when these communities are different and may not value women’s leadership in the same way,” said Paige.

Sometimes, even once women are hired as co-facilitators in peacemaking processes, their colleagues hesitate to share resources or power. This stems in part from what Çuhadar calls an “identity threat.” Some groups perceive women’s involvement as a threat to their own social identity — that women’s inclusion is a Western idea being imposed on them, or that it’s a threat to the traditional family structure. Overturning systems that stifle women’s inclusion requires questioning the roots of this hesitancy, so that there might be cooperation between Global North and Global South systems.

It is not enough to get women involved, they must be supported and protected in their roles. “About 20 percent of women mentioned that they were threatened physically or did not feel safe,” said Çuhadar. “Protection of women peacebuilders on the ground is a real necessity.”

Surface-level symbolic inclusion can also prevent women from meaningfully engaging in peacebuilding spaces. “Sometimes, people in different organizations don’t act in a purely exclusive way … On the surface, they include women, but there are so many subtle non-inclusive ways that they are using,” said Çuhadar.

“Power analysis and conversations around power need to be put on the table,” added Nyambi. Power imbalances lead to the kind of surface-level, symbolic inclusion in the name of the WPS agenda that hinders women’s opportunities to contribute their knowledge and experience to peacebuilding processes.  

Empowerment cannot start with bringing women to the table for peacemaking negotiations — it needs to go back further. A lot of precursors to conflict and hindrances to women’s inclusion can also be traced to inequities, some of which are connected to climate change, economic challenges and gaps in educational access. “For women to have a voice and bring agency [to the peacebuilding field], they need to be economically empowered” as well, Nyambi explained.

Finding Solutions that Bridge Gaps and Cross Borders

Power-sharing is essential to women’s inclusion in conflict prevention as well as peacebuilding work, and this includes power-sharing across identities and borders. “Women on the ground in Ukraine, in Myanmar, understand their troubles,” said Nyambi. “Northern NGOs need to understand that in-country women and people understand their [own] context. They need power and agency to bring their perspectives to the table.”

Peacebuilding and peacemaking spaces cannot be considered truly inclusive until they are designed to meet the unique physical and circumstantial needs of women. This must not be conflated with a view of women’s exceptionalism that silos them to only working on “women’s issues.” Inclusion is an essential human need, and equity and inclusion need to be embedded at every step of the way in peace processes.

“Nothing changes a society faster than violence … In these social upheavals, gender roles change, and roles become less equal. This is a major challenge in our work,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, director of gender policy and strategy at USIP. Therefore, Kuehnast added, the question must continue to be asked: “How do we [as peacebuilders and in the peacebuilding field] incorporate the diverse perspectives and the diverse contributions of women into justice, diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility?”

Lyndi Tsering is a research analyst for USIP.

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