Women are central contributors to peace processes. But the crucial roles that women play in transitions from war to peace are rarely acknowledged. The focus on the negotiating table and formal politics – the diplomatic aspects of conflict resolution – is a too narrow understanding of peace processes. Recent case studies on Somalia and Bosnia found that such a narrow focus has undermined the many arenas in which women contribute. It is necessary to reconsider the way we think within the field of ‘Women, Peace and Security’.
Peace is not created at the negotiating table alone. In countries struck by armed conflict whole populations are severely affected. Peacebuilding does therefore not merely happen on paper, but in the people and societies where peace is to be created. Peace mediators and other relevant actors need to broaden their horizons. By examining women’s roles a more thorough understanding of peace processes can be obtained. When men go to fight, women often become the main providers of their families and relatives and take over many of the roles previously occupied by men. In transitions from war to peace, women are active in various societal arenas such as through civil service, education and voluntary organisations. Women therefore have knowledge and experience that is crucial for societal transitions towards more sustainable peace.
A forum for discussing peace mediation in Oslo
This week leading peace mediators, central politicians and other actors meet in Oslo, Norway, for the annual Oslo Forum. Over the course of two days, experiences will be exchanged and the participants will reflect upon how the strategies used in peace mediation can be further developed. Women’s roles in peace processes will be a central part of the talks, not least since it is a priority area of Norwegian foreign policy. A fruitful discussion at the forum would be to consider how the strategies could be adapted, or even transformed more thoroughly, to facilitate the inclusion of women’s perspectives. Laying the ground for more inclusive and nuanced processes is part of what the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, is all about.
Peace processes do not stop with a peace agreement. As part of more long-term peacebuilding, the WPS agenda has a strong focus on, among other issues, women’s formal political participation. A popular strategy to increase women’s political participation has been to introduce quotas. However, as the Global Study on the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace, from 2015 stresses, there has been little success in including women into formal peace processes. Studies at PRIO suggest that the focus on formal politics might be too narrow, and that the WPS agenda is experienced as distant and, at times, irrelevant at local levels.
Broadening the horizons
In Somalia and Bosnia, two of the case study countries, the focus on women’s participation in formal politics has shadowed for how gender dynamics and social structures operate in the Somali and Bosnian societies. Clan-led (in Somalia) and patriarchal political systems hinder female politicians from contributing in a meaningful way. Women politicians feel that they need to adapt to the ‘male’ way of doing politics. The assumption that including women into formal politics will contribute to more inclusive policymaking, which ultimately will lead to more peaceful societies, therefore appears more idealistic than realistic.
The big question is: Are they allowed to discuss their opinions? Or do they have to represent the party, the President’s opinion? They chose women to be part of the party, giving them false power. But they have no real power.
(Male politician, Bosnia)
Global strategies and checklists might seem the most intuitive way to implement the WPS agenda, given that it is considered to be a global normative framework that should be implemented in local contexts. However, the question is whether such strategies are the most promising means towards the goal of more peaceful and gender equal societies. Can global ideas really be translated to local settings? For the WPS agenda to be meaningful and lead to societal transformation, changes in attitudes and ideas of what is normal, or normative, are necessary. Helping women into politics might be a start. But isn’t it more useful to consider the gender dynamics in the societies in which the WPS agenda is to be implemented as a whole? The international community and national actors should shift their focus from the global to the local.
Unlike the dominant way of thinking, related to the misconception that women traditionally have been passive bystanders in peace processes and that they now need to be activated, we need to acknowledge the important contributions that women already have to peacebuilding. Rather than taking the global normative framework as a starting point, the focus should be on the many ways in which women already are contributing, as well as on local processes that are in line with the agenda. In Somalia, debates on women’s roles in public and political spheres are taking place irrespective of the WPS agenda. The country has had a strong women’s movement dating back to at least the 1960s. The civil war, which broke out in 1991 and lasted for more than two decades, led to many changes in Somali societal structures and in gender dynamics. In recent years, transitions towards more stability have reintroduced debates on gender roles and relations in Somalia. Somali women have contributed to society in important ways, through education, business, civil service, civil society, consultancy, research, media, art, and the women’s movement itself. Acknowledging these roles might be a fruitful starting point for empowering Somali women, in the political realm and beyond.
Women were the families’ breadwinners. But they were generous. They wanted peace, so they said: “We will take care of the family if you [the men] take care of creating peace.” But our roles were not acknowledged.”
(Female politician, Somalia)
Women’s empowerment revisited?
For women to have access to the diplomatic and political aspects of peace processes – part of women’s rights and which one hopes could contribute to more sustainable peace – we first need to acknowledge women as serious actors. We need to realise that the many arenas where women are contributing are, in fact, crucial for peacebuilding. Women’s position and influence could be strengthened if their roles in peace processes were acknowledged. So far neither the international community nor national initiatives have succeeded in changing those very power structures that are hindering women from participating in meaningful ways. I encourage the participants at the Oslo Forum to include such perspectives in their discussions the coming two days.