By Grace Bennett
The continued advancement of women over the past several decades has been nothing short of remarkable. Across the globe, the weight of gender-based restrictions is slowly lessening, and the obstacles that have traditionally plagued women and hampered their opportunities seem to be gradually fading into the history books. Women have made tremendous strides, seizing for themselves economic, legal, and educational rights that would have been unheard of only a few decades back. Politically, global female enfranchisement has been climbing steadily for years, quota systems have increased female representation in parliaments across the globe, and in some countries, like Rwanda, women even outnumber their male counterparts in parliament (as of 2013, 63% of seats were held by women).
Despite these very meaningful and hard fought changes, however, it’s nothing if not an understatement to assert that there are many roadblocks left to clear. Across the globe, in both domestic and international spheres, women continue to face obstacles to equal opportunity, especially to the equal representation of their voices, needs, and experiences. One area where there is a great dearth of equitable representation that is particularly obvious and dangerous, is at the tables of peace negotiations.
The beauty of peace negotiations often lies in their ability to bring combative sides together in a diplomatic setting, in order to address the issues and grievances held by all parties so that a lasting peace may be negotiated. Women are certainly stakeholders in these conversations, with their own set of issues and grievances, and their own conception of what is necessary to ensure peace. Despite their particular stakes in conflict, however, female faces are rarely seen at the tables of peace talks across the globe.
According to UN Women, from 1992 to 2011, only 10% of negotiators at peace talks were female. When looking at general participation at peace talks, the situation grows even bleaker, as women made up only 4% of participants at talks during that same period. Worse still, a recent study by The United States Institute of Peace found that of the 585 peace treaties drafted over the last two decades, only 16% directly reference women and their role in either the conflict or the rebuilding effort. Clearly, the conversations that constitute our best efforts towards ensuring peace following conflict are male-dominated and male-centered, with women’s experiences and perspectives rarely accounted for.
At the most basic level, the absence of women from any efforts at international problem solving should trouble us. When we attempt to meet the problems of the world without mobilizing the efforts of more than half of its population, we’re bound to come up short. Perhaps this rings even more true in areas of conflict and in our collective attempts to end and transform it.
The brutality of war, and the cruelty of conflict, certainly do not discriminate in their ability to torment peoples and upend the lives of populations. Men, women, and children suffer massively from the hostility and instability of continued conflict, and indeed the existence of such suffering is one of the reasons that diplomatic attempts at conflict resolution remain so important. Despite the nondiscriminatory chaos of conflict, however, it is difficult to ignore the special impact that conflict has on the lives of women. Women face many of the same threats as men during periods of open conflict, and are playing increasingly active roles in armed forces and insurgency groups. In addition, however, conflict tends to aggravate a number of issues that primarily affect women, such as sexual assault, domestic abuse, and human trafficking. By any metric, it’s obvious that women have a particular stake in the effective and definitive resolution of conflicts, and yet they are all but systematically excluded from attempts to end it.
The international community today seems to have reached a consensus on the importance of women’s active participation in peace negotiations. 2015 marked the 15th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which recognized the disproportionate consequences of conflict on female populations, and stressed the necessity of women’s perspectives and suggestions in creating sustainable and working treaties. Unfortunately, consensus, especially in a preoccupied and chaotic international system, often fails to translate into workable plans or tangible results, and women’s involvement in peace processes remains uncertain at best. A recent Freedom House report considered the 24 major peace negotiations that took place between 2000 and 2011, and found that in more than 50% of them, women’s participation did not reach 5%. In nine of the cases, women were excluded completely.
In 2013, the United Nations, unpleased with the real world results of Resolution 1325, adopted Resolution 2122, which laid out a more detailed framework for including women in the peace-building process. Despite this admirable step, however, the reality remains that women’s voices are too often left unrepresented and their experiences of conflict rendered disturbingly irrelevant at most negotiation tables. In recent weeks, a number of articles have questioned whether the Syrian peace negotiations appropriately consulted and included the female population. Most authors seem to have determined that they did not, and that the exclusion of women will only make peace more elusive in what is already a dragging conflict. In order for the international community to truly stand a chance at resolving and pacifying the most awful of human interactions, we must do better at including all affected parties. We must do better at ensuring equitable representation.