The Common Good
June 2007

Women's Work

by Laurel Rae Mathewson | June 2007

The better half of peacemaking.

The Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in May 2006, seemed promising on paper—any step toward stopping the Khartoum-sponsored genocide was a good step. Yet soon after the signing, violence in many areas increased, humanitarian access decreased, and now the agreement is dead in the water. What went wrong? One crucial factor was lack of buy-in by all stakeholders. Women leaders, for example, were largely excluded from the negotiations, and the Darfur Peace Agreement proved insufficient to its crucial task.

In peacemaking processes the world over, women are consistently underrepresented. At 50-plus percent of the population, we are the largest group to have this problem. It's not just a matter of fairness or equity: Creating sustainable solutions for conflict and post-conflict societies without the active leadership of women produces structural failure. Evidence shows that gender equality is not a pie-in-the-sky value, but a critical component for effecting long-term peace.

Perversely, modern warfare leads the way in "including" women, children, and civilians—it kills more of them than soldiers—and our approach to forging peace must follow. International Crisis Group's research in Sudan, Congo, and Uganda, for example, suggests that peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction, and governance do better when women are involved.

Why? Women have their fingers on the "pulse of the community." They live and work close to the roots of the conflict, witness unrecorded wartime atrocities, and understand necessary components for lasting reconciliation—such as bringing war criminals to justice. In the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, sex crimes against both men and women got significant redress only when women judges were on the bench.

Frequently, women outnumber men after a conflict has been resolved (in Darfur, more than 80 percent of the displaced persons living in camps are women and children), and thus drive on-the-ground implementation of peace agreements. It's not surprising that this works out better if they have had a significant role in deciding what it will take to heal their communities.

In addition, women are generally a powerful force for bridge-building. While there are exceptions, social science research supports the theory that women emphasize collaboration and judicious compromise more than men. In the conflict in Northern Ireland, more than once the men walked out of peace talks in frustration, leaving the women to continue the dialogue (which they did).

ONE FACTOR IS that women often claim an identity—such as "mothers"—that cuts across contentious ethnic, national, and religious borders. Concern for their children's future affects women's commitment to reconciliation processes that stabilize communities. In Sierra Leone, for example, women conducted healing rituals for returning child soldiers to facilitate their acceptance back into the community. This is the kind of work that's usually lower on the priority list for the male generals and government officials who typically make up the peace-agreement crowd.

In decision-making in the wake of war, women are "fighting corruption, demanding accountability, and maintaining transparency locally and nationally," according to Camille Pampell Conaway of the U.S. Institute of Peace. And women put their money where their mouth is: A 2005 World Economic Forum study found that when a critical mass of women holds political office (30 to 40 percent), they spend less on the military and more on health care and education.

In 2000, U.N. Resolution 1325 affirmed the need for full inclusion of women in all aspects of peace and security processes. Other international bodies have followed suit. Unfortunately, we still need to push past the paper affirmations and on to actual implementation. Despite these diplomatic strides, Swanee Hunt, director of the Initiative for Inclusive Security, says "the U.N. has failed to realize meaningful, broad-based women's inclusion," and notes, "We have the women, and we have the words. But we lack the will."

When women are not visible among the leadership of peacemaking operations, it is noticed by women—and men—on the ground. "We [the women leaders of Nepal] are saying, 'Why don't you become a model? Start it,'" says Prativa Rana, a founder of Nepal's Inter-Party Women's Alliance. When the United Nations comes to Nepal, says Rana, "Why not have women in the peace committee? … It will be easier for us to even lobby our own government." The United Nations peacekeeping teams can be an example.

The lack of adequate representation of women in U.S. and U.N. leadership has serious consequences around the world. House Resolution 146, which insists that U.N. Resolution 1325 be fully implemented by all U.N. member states, would help rectify the situation—and could be one step toward sustainable peace.

Laurel Rae Mathewson was an editorial intern at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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