Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Turning the Peace Tables

By Rachel Chanel Adams

The purpose of peace talks is to alleviate the dependency on militarism and bring an end to violence in general, but the absence of women’s voices in the discussions often results in the absence of a focus on women in the solution. 

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When more women in government and NGOs participate at the table, it increases the diversity of outcomes.   Representing various groups of stakeholders is imperative, including proper representation of women.  In international peace talks, the United Nations (UN) has put in place a system that is consistently being improved upon to ensure women’s voices are present in the decision-making process and implementation of the law. 

Progress is gradual, and there is tremendous room for improvement.  Although women are present in the discussion of peace in some capacities, they are kept in positions as a minority, often seen and not heard.  The positions and roles that women are assigned often position them in a complementary role to the male-dominated political agenda, rather than as equals. 

Seen, Not Heard

Previous peace talks in which women were involved in decision making processes have led to quotas on women in the police force, appointment of women in government, and other forms of affirmative action.   In return, there has been an increase of women’s involvement, but not substantially.  According to the United Nations, a “limited but reasonably representative sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 reveals that only 4 percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and 9 percent of negotiators are women”.    

Most recently reported by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Geneva II Syrian peace process talks in January 2014 completely excluded Syrian women.  This was despite the fact that a group of women civil society members had mapped out a clear roadmap for achieving (gender-sensitive) peace. 

When representatives from Peace Women pushed for women to be present at the higher levels of negotiation, they were told by diplomats: “This is not a round table; it has two sides only.” This quote exhibits the persistence of the concept of war as something concerning two (male) aggressors – two “sides” whose views are exclusively valued in reaching a peace agreement.  Such a conceptualisation completely overlooks the range of experiences of those involved in and affected by conflict, not least women.  In the end, women’s involvement in Geneva II was confined to participation in side-events, and in the WILPF-organised Peace Summit, in which women leaders discussed the barriers they face as peacemakers.

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Rim Turkmani speaks at WILPF's Peace Summit (Credit: WILPF).

Sexual Violence Still Not Properly Addressed

Approximately 257,000 women were victims of sexual violence during Sierra Leone’s War.  These women were enslaved, raped, and forced to be soldiers.  A story in the UK Telegraph from an escape female prisoner depicts the reception when she returned home “her mother…hid the young pair [of the victim’s children] from neighbours, who would have killed them because of their association with the rebels.”  Sierra Leonean women victims continue to endure cruel ridicule, reoccurring abuse, and other forms of violence as a result of the stigma that war-time sexual violence has left on them.  Stories echoing the same problems can sadly be found from all the world’s conflicts.

The UN reported in 2012 that 75 percent of women’s peace demands have focused on sexual violence as a primary concern.  The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, as well other international legal measures such as Security Council Resolution 1325, has influenced progression in transforming decision-making structures.  However, resolutions about sexual violence during war have missed the mark.  According to the UN, in 2009 only 6 out of roughly 300 peace processes mentioned sexual violence as a violation of a ceasefire. 

A lack of focus on sexual violence is linked to gender bias. The lack lustre response to the problem of sexual violence during war is in part due to the fact that most victims are women.  Furthermore, even when men are victims – a recurrent phenomenon, although not sufficiently focussed on - the problem is still conceptualised as something relating to the female sphere.  In a patriarchal context, the issue is deemed not to be central; it is relegated as a “women’s issue”, not a human issue, not a governmental problem, and not crime of war. 

Transforming talks into action

In order to avoid limitations in peace talks that derive from patriarchal viewpoints, gender diversity that incorporates multiple backgrounds and experiences is required.  When a group of people come from similar backgrounds and perspectives, this increases the possibility of intentional or unintentional intolerance and discrimination - a sort of “groupthink”.

The female representatives in peace discussions must exhibit diversity as well.  The vast majority of the women in peace talks are in political positions that influence decisions based on the consensus of their political party.  Woman politicians often function in a complementary role to the main male-dominated agenda, rather than disrupting the patriarchal parameters of the negotiations.  A diverse group of women from different organizations, governmental and non-governmental, is necessary to prevent the dominance of political agendas, and to articulate the concerns of women in the community, who are often those who have felt conflict most heavily.

Talks lack detail strategic plans to target violence against women when women are not involved in the solution.  Peace tables also miss the opportunity for diverse, comprehension action plans when it fails represent the affected population’s diversity.  The above-mentioned Geneva II peace talk is a critical example of both. 

Globally, women are underrepresented, and we must challenge this.  Women must be present, and present not only appease international standards, but as a means to effectively implement structures that promote peace.  Women should not be an addition to the male-dominated agenda, but independent to bring value to discussions and regulation as any other member in peace talks. As Rim Turkmani, the founder of Madani, stated at the post-Geneva II Peace Summit, “Not all women are a voice for peace… women are a power for peace”.

Rachel Chanel Adams is an American entrepreneur and human rights activist.  She began organizing for human rights with the Center for American Progress and Organizing for Action.  She currently focuses her efforts on combatting sexual violence against women around the world.  

This is the 6th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.