By Elena Palaiorouta

Peacebuilding is the foundation for creating sustainable human security and fair development in countries emerging from conflict. It is a prolonged process as it should bring people to dialogue, mend relationships, and reinvent institutions. Most importantly, for peace to last, everyone affected by the conflict has to be involved in the process of building peace, especially the most vulnerable.

Gender is relevant in peacebuilding because conflict is a gendered activity. Men and women experience conflict differently, something that was recognised by the international community and highlighted in the final document of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) the Platform for Action (PFA). While entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society as well as their sex. Therefore, looking through a gender lens is important for understanding the overall situation.

Although the inclusion of women in the peacebuilding processes has gained momentum in policy discussions over the last 20 years, the number of women in decision-making positions, whether during peaceful times or in times of war, remains relatively small. UNSC resolution 1325 recognises that women should play a key role in achieving lasting peace after conflict because women are disproportionally affected by conflict. This resolution passed unanimously after decades of feminist activism deriving primarily from conflict-affected countries. Even though the resolution was received with enthusiasm, a quantitative review of 31 major peace processes conducted by UN Women in 2010 found that women made up only 2.4% of chief mediators, 3.7% of witnesses, and just 9% of negotiators.

What is more, women are mainly involved in what is seen as “women’s issues”; the peace process or the protection of women as victims of gender-based violence. Rarely is the role of women in efforts towards the prevention of violent conflict examined, or their inclusion in traditional security issues studied closely. Furthermore, women are acutely aware of issues beyond military action, including health restrictions, economic and legal barriers, gender and political biases. Yet, according a study done by the European Parliament, only three out of 11, or 27 %, of peace agreements signed in 2017 contained gender-sensitive provisions.

Nonetheless, women have significantly impacted peacebuilding processes and outcomes informally at local and grassroot level. There is overwhelming quantitative evidence gathered by organisations working in peacebuilding which shows that when women influence decisions about war and peace, and take the lead against extremism in their communities, it is more likely to resolve the crises without recourse to violence. As  Elisabeth Porter, author of “Feminist perspectives on Ethics” among many other texts, notes; women are particularly active in “peace protests, inter-group dialogue, the promotion of intercultural tolerance, and the empowerment of citizens”. Also, Zohra Moosa, a Feminist and Executive Director of MamaCash, points out that women’s activities “are not always what is traditionally understood by peacebuilding, [they] are important contributions to a ‘positive’ peace that will meet the needs of both men and women”.

Evidence indicates that when women are able to participate formally in peacebuilding negotiations, they contribute to the quality and durability of peace agreements as they are usually focused less on the spoils of the war and more on reconciliation, as well as a higher number of provisions aimed at political reform and higher implementation rates. Women are a factor of stability and reconciliation. Their contribution can improve the quality of decisions due to the fact that they take into consideration the specific needs of women, men, girls and boys. We all know this in theory, but what is stopping us from actually implementing it?

According to World Economic forum, a major challenge is that women are often not perceived to have the skills, knowledge or social status needed to bring about change in post-conflict environments. Organisations working in peacebuilding say that women mediators have to work harder than their male counterparts so as to continually prove their worth, but also in many instances they have to maintain their credibility, something vital to their protection and ability to meaningfully participate. Changing the above bias requires a mind-shift by negotiators and mediators on how they view the role of women. What is more, women are still primarily seen as victims of conflict, as opposed to perpetrators, or more importantly, agents of change.

Given that women’s roles in conflict are complex, there is a need for relevant systematic policy research and analysis. Research is needed to analyse conflicts, and how peacebuilding can happen in a way that makes space for women and their interests and needs.

Women are a precondition to achieve peace, not an afterthought. Whether peacebuilding, peacekeeping or conflict response, the international community must invest more in the meaningful inclusion of women. While women are actively engaged in local, national and regional peace-building, they are systematically excluded from formal peace negotiations and agreements. We can no longer afford to continue to exclude women community leaders and peace-builders from formal peace processes while warlords and leaders of fighting parties, historically all male, have seats at the table where our fates are decided.

This is why the international community must redefine who can be hold a position in the reconstitution of post-conflict societies in order to prevent future conflict, and to ensure a sustainable peace, founded on human rights and gender equality.