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War is a word that justifiably strikes fear. The consequences of conflict are countless – destruction, death, spiralling hunger and poverty. Yet sadly, it continues to remain part of our world in this modern day.
So, what is peacebuilding?
Peacebuilding seeks to address the underlying causes of conflict and the act of securing peace should encompass all members of society. Still, women’s involvement in formal peace and security agendas has remained staggeringly limited. Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, just 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world.
However, how we respond to security threats can be transformed by increasing women’s participation in peace negotiations. When women lead peace talks and roundtables, peace lasts 20% longer, according to UN data, proving the vital importance of women in the durability of peace. Women’s involvement in conflict resolution also has a direct impact on international and national development as reducing conflict and advancing stability in turn lessens the vicious cycle of correlated poverty.
Women and conflict
Take a moment to consider conflict - from its inception to ongoing devastation and completion. Does your image begin with a dispute between men in positions of power strategising their nation’s military, which then leads to women and girls as the victims of displacement, crossing borders carrying children in their arms and supplies on their backs and ending with men negotiating the armistice?
Now imagine a future where women lead the peace-building process – where border issues are discussed and gender-related elements are considered - we think of women sitting around a table devising plans, looking at world maps and negotiating new strategies to prevent war from happening in the first place.
During every conflict it is women and girls who are disproportionately affected by compounding hardships based on their gender, as existing inequalities are magnified. They bear the brunt of violence and are deprived of basic rights. Women and girls also suffer more from hunger as they are primarily responsible for childcare and collecting cooking supplies and often sacrifice their share when food shortages arise.
The harrowing realities for women in wartime have been written about by reporter Christina Lamb, who has worked in conflict zones for over thirty years. The epitome of a Woman of Concern, Christina has dedicated much of her life to reporting on the frontlines of gendered vulnerability during conflict. In her latest book, ‘Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women’ she opens with the line “Rape is the cheapest weapon known to man.” A courageous exposé of the alarming prevalence of this act, she shows that it is only by giving a voice to the women shining in the darkest of contexts that change can happen. Further stories are referenced in her Tedx talk.
While women have been at the centre of conflicts as mothers, wives, and victims and the harsh realities associated with this are very real. Women are so much more than this helpless portrayal – they have an untapped power to bring about change. To stop such devastating burdens from continuing, it is imperative that women are involved in peacebuilding processes from the beginning to ensure lasting peace, not just temporary resolution.
Learning from conflicts around the world
Looking at conflicts globally, particularly those which are underreported in the media, we get a clear picture of how women are affected by war and when they need to be involved in preventing it.
For example; Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered from decades of conflict. It was ranked the second hungriest country in the world in the latest Global Hunger Index and the second least developed country in the world according to the Human Development Index. Concern Worldwide has been operational in CAR for the past eight years working to alleviate the suffering of conflict-affected communities. One key programme is the 'Reinforcement of clean water and food security access' which aims to connect improvement in these two areas via a new 'urban and peri-urban' approach. However, the nation’s escalating conflict and insecurity along the main supply route is preventing humanitarian aid from reaching an estimated 2.3 million people currently in dire need of food and assistance. As we have discovered, this affects women disproportionally.
In the neighbouring country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), the situation is also highly unstable. Concern Worldwide’s partner ACORD (Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development) is working in the nation to strengthen women’s peace-building skills. Hosting workshops with the aim of sensitising women leaders, grassroots women's organisations and peace activists with knowledge and understanding of team dynamics, peace negotiations and lobbying to enable them to engage effectively in the short and long-term processes of peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.
In Lebanon, the large number of refugees that arrived from Syria to an already vulnerable context shows the devastating effects of the spillover of conflict. Lebanon’s population has increased by around 25% since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, with Syrian refugees currently making up a quarter of the country’s population - the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. The situation is causing hunger, increased debt, and mental and physical health problems, as well as increasing risks of evictions, exploitation, child labour and gender-based violence. Concern Worldwide has worked in Lebanon since 2013, responding to the increasing humanitarian needs in the region for both refugees and host communities. With the situation particularly volatile for women this Concern article takes a closer look at women in displacement.
Women at the negotiation table
Given what we have learned about conflict-affected environments, the femalepeace builders with lived experience of overcoming adversity and being involved in peace negotiations in these contexts show that women are not just victims of conflict, but leaders and often unsung heroines.
Quhramaana Kakar is a leading Afghan peacemaker. She is the founder and director of Women for Peace and Participation, which provides platforms for communities in conflict regions. She also leads Women Mediators across the Commonwealth, a network that supports fifty female mediators worldwide. She’s spent her career advocating for women's rights to have their voices heard and has bravely spoken about why Afghanistan’s peace talks were set to fail without women included.
Justine Masika Bihamba is a Congolese activist. She founded Synergie des Femmes, a women's organisation based in Goma, DRC, which has been instrumental in assisting victims of war, especially female survivors of acts of sexual violence.
Mariam Jalabi is co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement and the Syrian National Council’s representative to the United Nations. Despite being detained on several occasions she remains outspoken about her hope for Syria’s future and women's participation in the peace process.
The stories of these peace pioneers, alongside the evidence highlighting how the unbalanced gender ratio in negotiations helps to perpetuate a cycle of violence, serve as a clear foundation for why increasing women’s roles in peace processes is no longer up for negotiation.
As former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said, “There is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole – women and men alike – than the one which involves women as central players.” It will require a concerted effort to enact this change, but it will certainly be worth it to one day see weapons laid down for good.
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