“The role of women in conflict resolution cannot be overestimated,” says Anna Timmerman, general director of PAX.
“That’s why we put female peace activists front and centre to talk about how they work for peace, despite the obstacles. You can’t expect that peace talks and the building of new power structures will lead to lasting peace if, during negotiations, more than half of the population is excluded.”
It is Peace Week (19-27 September), and PAX is drawing attention this week to the importance of women in achieving peaceful societies all over the world.
Women key force for change
The number of demonstrations against authoritarian regimes has skyrocketed over the past decade. Just look at the massive demonstrations in Belarus, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan. These are regular people who fearlessly fight for equal rights, freedom and democracy. Women often play a central role in these demonstrations and they play a crucial role in preventing violence. Timmerman: “In Belarus, we are seeing that just having women present in the demonstrations means less bloodshed. When women offer flowers to police, it makes them less likely to engage in violence; women sometimes stand between male activists and government forces, keeping them apart. In Sudan, women were at the forefront of the demonstrations that led to the fall of dictator Omar Al-Bashir last year. In fact, according to international media, 70 percent of the protesters were women, and it was even called the women's revolution. Yet, in the political process that followed, women were once again completely excluded. We therefore call on the international community to demand that women be allowed and enabled to participate fully in peace and political processes and to monitor the practical implementation.”
Current system does not work
Hala Al-Karib is regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) - a partner organization of PAX in Sudan. She says, “If we now ask women what they have achieved within their political party, the answer is: Nothing! Nothing at all happens to women and that is extremely frustrating. During the formation of a new government and the peace negotiations, there was at one point exactly one woman and that was only temporary.” PAX helps facilitate the exchange of knowledge between female peace activists from Sudan and Iraq. We also support activists in their struggle to make sure that women are themselves doing the talking at the negotiating tables, not merely being talked about. “Unfortunately, women aren’t represented in the decision-making process. As long as there is no basic agenda for gender equality and no agenda against violence against women, nothing will happen. So we have to change the dynamics. That process must begin before women enter the political arena, so that they can speak clearly about what they want.”
Iraqi women standing up
In Iraq, too, women are at the forefront of demonstrations against a corrupt and oppressive government. Yasmin, a young lawyer and peace activist from Baghdad: “Unfortunately, women do not have the resources to become political leaders in this community. I see a lot of courage and need for female leadership, but there is still a big gap between those needs and what is possible. We have to get rid of the old standards and we have to change the law, that is the first step to improve the lives of girls and women. International pressure is the only thing that can change our society.” Yasmin wrote a letter to the United Nations that was signed by more than 7,000 Dutch people. She and other peace activists called for support for equal rights for women and protection during demonstrations. She explained how important that was to her: “It already feels like a victory that people in the Netherlands hear our stories. Even if nothing changes and the international community does nothing, I am still happy that so many people heard us.”
Increase the chance for peace
Most peace agreements do not address gender equality or women's rights. Between 1990 and 2018, only one out of every five peace agreements contained special provisions on women, girls or gender (UN Women). Research shows that enhancing women's political and social participation significantly reduces the risk of relapsing into conflict, even in the long-term. One study shows that an agreement was 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years if women participated in its creation. Timmerman: “Globally, it is still mainly men who sit at the negotiating table to reach agreements, while the female half of the population watches decisions being made from the side-lines. It is remarkable how the international community is incapable of supporting peaceful civilians who are rebelling. A policy based on gender equality and inclusive decision-making can strengthen their struggles. Not only during the demonstrations, but also during peace negotiations and the building of new political processes. ”