Vital peace constituencies

The last decade has seen much more detailed attention to the many, sometimes contradictory, roles women play in conflict situations. But women remain a vital peace constituency

Shelley Anderson
18 February 2010

Diana Francis’s argument that a sustainable and just peace can only be built by local peacebuilders is both compelling and cogent. As she also points out the chances are high that those local peacebuilders will be women.

The reasons for this are many. As a group women are often excluded from political power, and from decisions regarding armed conflict. Any political benefits gained from armed conflict are likely to be less for them. Coupled with the higher rates of civilian casualties in modern warfare - indeed, civilians are frequently a specific target - women’s stake in armed conflict is even less.

Women’s kinship and community networks and their knowledge of local affairs often make them very effective early warning monitors. They can be among the first to hear rumours of or see preparations for war, such as a sudden influx of small arms into the community. This was why, when market vendors began refusing to sell goods to members of another clan, and marriage celebrations were shortened so that participants could return to the safety of homes earlier in the proceedings, concerned women in Wajir, Kenya, came together to explore ways to reduce the increasing community polarisation and to prevent violence.

New approaches to peacebuilding

Mobilising as many community members as possible for peacebuilding and conflict prevention makes sense. For this reason alone, supporting the involvement of women in peacebuilding is important.

There are other reasons to support women’s peacebuilding, however. Case studies of women’s peacebuilding, ranging from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) and the Liberian Women’s Initiative to Las Madres in Argentina and the Naga Mothers’Association in India, show approaches that contrast sharply with attempts initiated at the level of the ‘international community’. These approaches emphasise a willingness to compromise, community development (in response to poverty and unemployment, often among the root causes of conflict), support for survivors of violence and the inclusion of all community members in peace processes.

Trauma counselling, small scale economic initiatives, and setting up programmes to involve youth in peacebuilding are just a few of the peace activities women often turn to. Labelled `soft´, such work may seem less glamorous than rebuilding a bridge that hits the headlines or brokering high level peace talks. But it is exactly this type of work, when initiated by local peacebuilders in response to local issues, that build vital peace constituencies. Organizing an income generating project that brings women from different communities together can produce benefits, but does not fit in with a traditional peace or reconstruction framework.

At its best, women´s peace work offers new approaches to conflict transformation. Women can ask different questions and bring different ideas to peacebuilding, such as the `politics of listening´ the NIWC tried to develop during its work in the Northern Irish peace process. Such perspectives are much-needed alternatives to military solutions to conflict, alternatives that build on the untapped potential of active non-violence referred to in Diana Francis’ first article.

Researchers such as Cynthia Cockburn argue that women’s life experiences create a potential for a type of social intelligence, or the skill of building and maintaining personal and community relationships - and a type of social courage that is willing to cross the lines and engage with opponents when these relationships are threatened or destroyed. Both these qualities are vital components of successful conflict transformation.

Contradictions and opportunities

The last decade has seen much more attention for women’s roles in conflict situations. International campaigns to support women’s peacebuilding have had some victories, such as United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325  and the newly appointed UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. These initiatives have recognised the very specific ways armed conflicts impact on women and girls, and how women´s roles in armed conflict, whether as victims, perpetrators or peacebuilders, have been ignored.

Activists in this field are all too aware of a contradiction that war brings with it for them: along with the suffering inflicted by war, public space can also be opened up for women, space where women can assume leadership and political power. The campaigns have put pressure on governments to listen to women peacemakers, to increase the representation of women in all decision-making bodies involved in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and to make funding and training available for women peace activists.

Despite the usual lip service from official bodies in response to these measures, activists have been able to widen the political space for women’s peacebuilding and have developed new paradigms.

Men’s roles

Thinking about women’s roles in conflict transformation has inevitably led to re-thinking men’s roles, and to the need for a gender perspective in exploring questions of war and peace.

War, preparations for war, and the entire process of militarization, are highly gendered activities. Ideas about masculinity and femininity are used to promote and sustain violence, including the centuries-old, well-entrenched, socially approved violence of armed conflict. At the root of war and violence of all types, is a mindset that values control and domination. These values are linked to a specific type of masculinity which researchers call hegemonic masculinity, in which the ideal man is physically strong, competitive, completely self-reliant, and exercises power over other men and all women.

War glorifies this type of masculinity, while the military as an institution fosters and cultivates its practice. This notion of masculinity and the accompanying notion of femininity as subservient, passive and weak, is also reflected in the ways governments and politics are conceptualised and structured. Indeed, these notions permeate the attitudes of entire cultures - so much so that male aggression and female passivity are seen as natural and inevitable.

Armed conflict does not erupt out of a vacuum. Violence against women and girls provides a training ground and helps reinforce armed conflict. Between 40 to 60 percent of the world’s women and girls will experience sexual violence, in the form of rape, partner abuse or incest, at least once in their lives. The ´private´ violence of such sexual abuse and the ´public´ violence of armed conflict lie on a continuum and are linked. The attitudes and values that give rise to the former lay the groundwork for the latter. A mindset that justifies the use of force by a ´superior´ against an ínferior´ cannot be safely relegated to one corner of life, such as the home or to certain intimate relations. War and other forms of structural violence need certain gender roles in order to stay in place. Certain gender roles need structural violence in order to remain.

War is a construct

Militarism - defined by researcher Cynthia Enloe as "the step-by-step process by which something becomes controlled by, dependent on, or derives its value from the military as an institution or militaristic criteria" - is a product of linking masculinity with these values of control and domination.

Gender perspectives such as these challenges the warrior mystique and reveal the cost to men of active participation in war. It has broken the silence around the sexual abuse of men and boys during war, and focused attention on women and girls as combatants during war, and contributors to conflict.

Any approach to conflict transformation that ignores gender and the many roles that women play both in war and peace will fail. Like gender, war is a construct. The institutions and ideologies that support war can be dismantled, changed, replaced. This is the hope. What remains is the long, hard work that makes this hope a reality.

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