Beyond war: women transforming militarism, building a nonviolent world

If we want to ensure that humanity is not doomed to repeat its bloodiest century, the logical move would be to mount an international campaign to see that competent women are swiftly accepted into policy-making positions in all conflict countries, says Scilla Elworthy

Scilla Elworthy
20 May 2013

Next year will mark the centenary of the start of the “war to end all wars”.  Watching television news today, you might conclude that humanity is doomed to repeat its bloodiest century. But watching the trends, you would see a very different picture - a picture that shows the key role of women in decreasing violence worldwide.

In a brilliant article in December 2012 former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans spelled out the facts: “Over the last two decades, major wars and episodes of mass violence worldwide have become much less frequent and deadly. After a high point in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, there has been a decline of well over 50% in the number of major conflicts both between and within states; in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities; and in the number of people killed as a result of them.” 

Explanations of this phenomenon vary. Steven Pinker: “The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years.” Evans concludes that this is due to “the huge upsurge in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking, and post-conflict peace-building activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half – most of it spearheaded by the much-maligned UN.”

Our own experience at Peace Direct would enhance this explanation by demonstrating the fast increasing role of women in peace-building. We have so far documented 164 active and effective women’s peace building organisations in conflict areas worldwide - with 23 such organisations in Pakistan alone - and there are surely hundreds more to research worldwide.

A 16-year-old woman takes on the Taliban

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one of the most fragile provinces in Pakistan. Militant groups incite extremism and violence, increasingly amongst young people - most suicide bombers are under 26 – and Pakistani forces struggle to maintain control. For women especially, religious extremism has led to growing insecurity – many fear kidnap or worse.

Local peacebuilder, Gulalai Ismail, is working with women and young people to create real change.  She says: “Women are not only victims of conflict, they are drivers of peace. Women’s voices must be heard if peace is to last.” At just 16 Gulalai set up Aware Girls with a group of school friends to change the lives of young women in Pakistan. They began by focusing on women’s rights, and as their membership has grown, they are now training young activists to become local peacebuilders, challenging violence and extremism.

Gulalai is well aware that her work challenges the Taliban's power.  Her fellow youth worker Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for backing the education of girls. But Gulalai computes that the radicalisation of the region where she lives poses a greater danger, and believes passionately that building a grassroots community challenge to extremist intolerance is key to peace in the region: “I cannot accept the deeply rooted gender inequalities, and I do not want to be part of the injustices! I want to change the world for myself and other young women.”

It was the women’s rights work that came first, but Gulalai soon realised how many young men were being convinced to become jihadis. Almost every aspect of children's upbringing is affected by extremism. Even school textbooks urge children to be ready for jihad, says Gulalai, and they are bombarded by songs and films that glorify war, martyrdom and violence. The result was the Youth Peace Network, which she set up in 2010 and which has now trained over 75 activists who last year reached 600 young people vulnerable to radicalisation. They identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants and organise study circles to discuss the causes and consequences of conflict and the history of Talibanisation.

From NGO women’s leader to wife of the Prime Minister

When the Somali peace talks began in 2000, only traditional clans were recognised as legitimate units of representation. There were five clans in the war-torn country but not one of them considered women important enough to become part of the negotiations.

The women could have sat back and accepted this as their destiny. But not when their country was falling apart in a wave of unprecedented violence. And not when a woman like Asha Hagi Elmi was around.

So the Sixth Clan was born, entirely female. And it has paid off for Somali women - who have become a driving force for peace building in Mogadishu. Through the pressure group Save Somali Women and Children, founded by Elmi in 1992, they gradually edged their way into the talks. When the peace agreement was signed by Somali warlords in 2004, Elmi – known as ‘The Lioness of Somalia’ - was the only woman and the only civilian to sign.

The results have been encouraging. The Federal Charter of Somalia now stipulates that at least 12% of the Parliament must be women. There is a Ministry for Women and the Family. Elmi herself was elected to the Pan African Parliament in Johannesburg in May 2006. She also chaired the Somalia National Committee on Female Genital Mutilation and Harmful Traditional Practices. Fazia Jama, writing on Somalia for Conciliation Resources, says : “Many women peace activists have found the struggle for peace inextricably linked to that for women’s rights”.

In 2006 Elmi was invited to advise those building the concept of The Elders. 'Save Somali Women and Children' now run training workshops on conflict transformation, as well as organising an annual literacy programme. In addition, they provide practical support to some of the country’s most vulnerable and marginalised women through rights awareness workshops and campaigns to end early and forced marriage. Elmi says "I would rather die making a difference. I'm doing it for my daughters, for a new Somalia."

Elmi has received many honours for her work including being nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2008 she was one of several recipients of the Right Livelihood Award.  She worked for years building her organization with almost no financial support, and now finds herself the wife of the new Prime Minister since her husband,  Abdi  Farah Shirdon, was elected. With her new position and status, Elmi has helped Somali women make a historic gain by the appointment of the first female Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, as well as the first Deputy Minister of Justice and other important ministerial portfolios.

Analysis of the results of women’s conflict transformation work has increased exponentially, with 23 in-depth studies over the past 12 years.

The role of women in peace building is recognised in many international agreements and resolutions, and the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, was public recognition for the impact of women peacebuilders. But whilst they have made vital contributions to peace processes in diverse places such as Northern Ireland, Guatemala and Liberia, the reality remains that women are denied meaningful participation in most peace processes.

Not at the negotiating table…

Even when peace agreements are painstakingly negotiated, over 50% collapse within a few years, plunging regions or countries back into violence. 2012 statistics indicate that from 1946 to 2004, 60% of civil wars that were ‘resolved’ relapsed into violence. There are today more old wars that recur than new ones that start.

One of the reasons for this is that peace building cannot succeed if half the population is excluded from the process. As the No women, No peace Campaign shows: ‘You can’t build peace by leaving half of the people out’.

A UN Women study found that women make up just 2.5% of signatories to peace agreements. ‘A review of 31 major peace processes since showed that only 4% of participants – 11 out of 230 – were women, and that women made up only 2.4% of chief mediators, 3.7% of witnesses, and 9% of negotiators’. 

Women make a difference, in part because they ensure that all stakeholders are included, and because they insist on addressing key social and economic issues that would otherwise be ignored. Nevertheless, women remain marginalised in formal processes and under-represented in the security sector as a whole.

A full decade after United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was unanimously adopted, the striking absence of women from formal peace negotiations reveals a troubling gap between the aspirations of countless global and regional commitments and the reality of peace processes.

It is not as though able, trained and experienced women are not available. There are in existence registers of scores of qualified women in 32 conflict areas, from Iraq to Uganda – women highly trained and experienced - who are not yet being recruited to serve in official prevention processes, mediation or post conflict reconciliation. The Institute for Inclusive Security includes The Women Waging Peace Network, a network of more than 2,000 women peacemakers from conflict areas around the world, ranging from Colombia to Congo, Lebanon to Liberia, Sri Lanka to Sudan.

If we want to ensure that humanity is not doomed to repeat it’s bloodiest century, the logical move would be to mount an international campaign to see that competent women are swiftly accepted into policy-making positions in all conflict countries.

And that would also please a great many voters in countries that are not embroiled in conflict.

This article is part of a series framing the themes of the fourth Nobel Women's Initiative international conference Beyond Militarism and War: women driven solutions for a nonviolent world in Belfast May 28-31.  openDemocracy 5050 has covered the Nobel Women's Initiative conferences since 2007 and will be reporting from the conference.

Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences


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