The right to be part of peace-making and peace negotiations is also based on women’s rights simply as people affected by the existence of war and armed conflict. Women are not peripheral to conflict. Particularly in the conflicts of today, civilians, mainly women and children, are the major victims. The majority of refugees are women; the majority of displaced persons are women. In World War I the percentage of civilian victims was 5%, in World War II 48%, today: 90%. Women are especially vulnerable in war and conflict – without weapons, without training in warfare. They are in fact vulnerable physically, emotionally, mentally and in every way possible.
Women also suffer in another way in a conflict situation, particularly in a situation of prolonged, armed conflict. Women are on the disadvantaged side of militarized society. Clearly gender relations are affected by the militarization of a society. In militarized society you have the elevation, adulation and privilege of the male protector. The male is seen to play an essential role for the society, for the nation, leaving the women in a sub-ordinate, auxiliary position, at best a helper. In a society at war, male qualities are those that are most respected: strength, power, aggressiveness. These qualities are deemed more important than the soft qualities associated with women. Further, in a society involved in armed conflict, men have an advantaged position also by virtue of their expertise or experience in the one area most important or most highly valued and needed: the area of security, of warfare. Almost by definition, this is an area in which women will have far less if any expertise or experience, an area far less available or open to women or associated with women.
Add to this still another aspect of societies engaged in conflict: increased violence. Societies engaged in conflict have increased rates of family violence, of honor killings, of murders of wives. There is an established connection between societal violence and domestic violence. And finally, in conflict situations women not only sacrifice their sons and loved ones. Very often they are called upon to sustain society, to sustain daily life, providing daily needs in the face of the hardships of war and conflict.
But aside from the demand for rights, for equality, and aside from the argument that women are far from peripheral to conflict and therefore should be part of peace-making, there is also the added value or simply good sense of having women involved, as agents of change, providing something different. It is not just the right to be at the negotiating table but the positive – or at least different element that women may bring to the table, by virtue of their experience.
Women may have a different perspective, for example, a perspective connected with individual well-being. Given women’s role regarding the very basic, personal needs of the family, they may be more sensitive to such issues. It is known that women perceive “security” differently from men, viewing it in terms of shelter, food, health, while men tend to perceive security in terms of weapons systems, arms. It is possible, though not necessarily so, that women approach peace from a rights perspective, the perspective of human rights. Such a perspective would emphasize fairness, tolerance, respect for difference, for minorities, for “the other”, because women live as “the other,” as a minority – not in numbers but in the attitude towards them in society. Thus, they may place a greater emphasis on the protection of personal rights, fairness, respect for difference, and these are the key elements to peace-making and conflict resolution.
In this connection, we might also mention the ideas of inclusiveness and transparency. It has been found that when women are involved in peace negotiations, for example in Northern Ireland, what women brought to the table was greater concern for inclusiveness and transparency, perhaps because women experience exclusion, having been shut off from information and decision-making.
It is not a matter of possibly innate qualities, or qualities that may be found in all cases or all women, but it has been observed that women tend to operate on a win-win basis. It is possible that this is due to a background of avoiding conflict, avoiding confrontation – perhaps as peace-makers in the home, between children or similar situations. Perhaps this is a result of socialization. But it is apparent even in the games that children play: boys, for example, displaying distinctly competitive, win-lose attitudes as distinct from girls.
Moreover, for whatever reason, women do tend to listen, rather than engage in monologues. They both listen and often are more willing than men to reveal emotions, fears or concerns, as well as to hear what others are saying. This is not just a pleasant phenomenon; it is communication, including emotions, listening, hearing – all of which can provide eye-openers, information, a “reality check” for matters that may be essential or advisable for sustainable peace. Thus they may build into a treaty or agreement other considerations, previously unnoticed or ignored. For example, it has been said that the Oslo Accord division of the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into areas A, B, and C might have been different had the negotiators realized what it might mean to break up communities; todays security fence/wall might be conceived differently if one considered the fact that a children’s school would be on the other side of the wall from the children’s homes. Palestinian feminist Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas has said that the Geneva Accord would have had some discussion of human rights protection and greater emphasis on reconciliation had women been negotiating.
Indeed the matter of sustainable peace and reconciliation is another point in question. There is a tendency to think that an agreement will be reached – and there will be separation, each side going its separate way. But particularly in today’s conflicts, this is rarely the case. Sustainable peace is not simply the absence of war. There is a need to create, in agreements, the conditions that will provide for a decent society, equality, the possibility for human fulfillment. There is a need also to create peace between the peoples involved. This is not just a truism. In order to last, especially when dealing with long, entrenched conflicts, there is a need to build from the bottom up, there is a need for the restructuring of conflictual relationships. This is done through education and civil society – the two areas where women are indeed the most active and have the most experience.
Civil society is where we have seen women to be involved in peace-making today. While still demanding to be at the negotiating table, on the various grounds I have mentioned, women are nonetheless active in peace-making as members of civil society. This is being done primarily through dialogues, crossing the divide, bridge-building. It is being done in Cyprus, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine/Israel. Women meeting, mediating. For example in Sudan they have actually achieved something between warring tribes in what appears to be an intractable civil war.
It is more difficult for men to cross the divide. Men tend to be the ones in official positions, unable to cross lines, leaving the task to civil society, NGOs. Men have more to lose and therefore risk more. Women are perhaps more open to bridging, less stigmatized as the oppressor. The women may not be seen as the soldier, the combattant – the enemy, yes, but not the oppressor. At the very least the starting point among women is slightly less hostile because of the element of shared experience – even if this shared experience is their very exclusion from the negotiating table.
So we see Iraqi women demanding a seat at the table, for example, the group that went recently to the Woodrow Wilson Center; we see Women Waging Peace at Harvard in which Arab and Mediterranean women, North African, Iranian, Saudi, Israeli women meet; Cypriot women – Greek and Turkish meeting in no-man’s land in Nicosia, arguing but trying to break down barriers; Suzanne Mubarak’s Women for Peace – Call for Action in September 2002. These encounters are not easy; no one gives up her national identity or her national interests. But they are attempts to find areas for cooperation. In many ways these are efforts born of frustration – frustration over the continued warfare that officials, leaders, military – absent, women, without women-- are not solving. But these same efforts by women can not only prepare societies for an end to conflict, they can, could, if women were allowed, change negotiations from a discourse of stopping the war to one of creating the conditions for sustainable peace and reconciliation.
For this reason the women of the Jerusalem Link -- Palestinian and Israeli women who have been meeting for over fifteen years, recently launched the creation of an International Womens Commission for Just Peace in the Middle East. Designed as a consultative and advocacy body, this Commission will be composed of twenty outstanding women from the international community, and twenty women each from Palestine and Israel. Based on a set of agreed principles, coupled with the reputations and abilities of the women "Commissioners" and regularly informed by grass-roots meetings that have already begun, the Commission will seek entry into negotiating processes and discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether at the local or international level. Ongoing contact with organizations such as the EU, the UN, and the Quartet will be of particular importance. The purpose is, finally, to bring women's voices to the negotiating table, as demanded by UN resolution 1325, for the achievement of peace.