Tell us some success stories of women being part of peace negotiations.
In the late ’90s, Northern Ireland had a separate women’s delegation, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, at the table, negotiating on equal footing. In Liberia in 2003, it was women who mobilized, pressed for the peace talks to take place and challenged the warring parties. The peace agreement was finally signed, and women kept up the pressure for Liberia finally having a period of some stability. We know from the Philippines, if we have women-led groups monitoring the cease-fires, they are much more successful because they can see the problems, they can be preventive and people can trust them. More recently, we saw the importance of women’s participation in Colombia’s peace agreement, the text of which is one of the most inclusive and comprehensive agreements. The challenge there now is implementation.
We have examples of successes, but the issue is that from an international community standpoint, we’re not building on the good practices.
Despite the progress, why does women’s exclusion from peace processes remain the norm?
Traditionally, peace processes tend to be like a football game where there are just two sides taking part. It’s a flawed model, because so much of society is affected but not represented. The U.N. system and our diplomatic structures are still constrained in how they recognize civil society, and peace builders, who are majority women, are still not widely recognized. You can get individual bureaucrats or envoys in these processes who, despite all the research showing that women have a positive impact, think their involvement is of secondary importance or say things like, “Women will rock the boat.” They question and dismiss what the women in these societies know, and prefer to go down a traditional path, even though the exclusive peace processes don’t work. So there’s this triple whammy of sexism, racism and systemic flaws in how peace processes are designed, how mediation teams play politics and how they are pressured by states and armed groups.
Central to your work is bringing women to the table as full and equal partners, but it’s not easy. What empowers you to keep pushing forward?
The women I work with. Peace builders are creative, and they’re optimistic — they’re driven by hope. I’m always in awe of how they carry on despite everything that they face.
When I started this work 25 years ago, there were women stepping up in Rwanda, Guatemala, Israel, Palestine, and one could have argued those were special cases. But over the years as I’ve done this, I’ve always been struck that when conflict or violence erupts — every society has these women in them that emerge on the front lines. It’s very lonely work. It’s very dangerous work. Not everybody runs to the problem. On the one hand, what these women are saying and doing is extraordinary and unique in their setting. On the other hand, there’s something incredibly universal about it. Introducing them to a global community of women doing this work — a place where they can feel at home; that’s what keeps me going.