WOMEN are natural mediators. They act as peacemakers in their families and communities. They bring together conflicting clans, calm tensions, and prevent flare-ups.
GUEST COLUMN: BETTY BIGOMBE
But the important role they play in preventing and resolving conflicts, and the contributions they could make as peace-builders in high-level, formal negotiations had not been officially recognised until the passing of a landmark United Nations Security Council resolution 20 years ago.
On October 31, 2000, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1325, affirming women’s crucial role in peace-building activities and urging all actors to increase the participation of women, and incorporate gender perspectives, in all their peace and security efforts.
Before this resolution, in the eyes of many, mediators ought to be men. Men were the fighters, and hence they were the decision-makers.
I played a part in changing this deep-seated perception. My work in northern Uganda led me to become one of the first internationally recognised women mediators in the world. It was examples like mine that paved the way for the international community to recognise the unique role that women play in peacebuilding and peacekeeping.
I started my peacebuilding efforts in Uganda in 1988, at the very beginning of a conflict that lasted 23 years and displaced more than two million people. The rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, abducted civilians, killed and maimed them. It recruited children and created armies of child soldiers. It raped girls and used them as fighters and couriers. I did my best to deal with all these issues and tried to reconcile fractured communities to the best of my ability.
So when I heard about the passing of Resolution 1325, I was overjoyed. The few women mediators around the world have been fighting for recognition and support for a very long time.
Thinking we finally reached a turning point, we celebrated. We had a lot of hope for the future. We thought, with the UNSC’s support, more women would automatically and immediately be included in peacebuilding activities.
But we were naive. In the end, the resolution was not a key turning point, but just a tiny step in the right direction.
Has there been any progress?
As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And, 20 years on, Resolution 1325 has not been implemented as widely as we hoped for.
Yes, there has been some progress. When I first started my career, it was unheard of for a woman to mediate in a high-level peace process, or for women’s community-level mediation work to be recognised. Today, women mediators are more common. I am, for example, a member of the Women Mediators across the Commonwealth Network, hosted by NGO Conciliation Resources, which supports 50 female mediators working for peace across different countries and communities around the world.
But women are still in the minority in peace negotiations and other high-level peacebuilding efforts. Take the peace talks currently taking place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There are only four women in the Afghan government’s 21-member delegation and none in the Taliban’s negotiating team. I am currently involved in mediation in South Sudan, but despite my years of relevant experience, I have not been given a leadership role. If you look around the world, there are hardly any female chief mediators.
Three reasons why women are still excluded
There are three challenges that persist.
First, governments fail to recognise that including women in peace talks will massively increase their chances of achieving sustainable peace.
Today, women on mediating teams are often there to fulfil a quota, part of a box-ticking exercise. They are included not to incorporate gender perspectives and women’s issues into the negotiations, but because they are loyal to a particular political faction.
Women bear the burden in conflicts, and yet governments do not see that if women’s concerns and priorities are not clearly communicated during negotiations, the possibility of reaching a comprehensive agreement that is acceptable to all involved parties is almost impossible. There is, after all, hard evidence that women’s direct participation in peace negotiations increases the sustainability and quality of peace.
Second, outdated and harmful cultural mindsets exclude women from negotiating.
High-level negotiations are often conducted with much machismo. Men from both sides barge into negotiating rooms, shout at each other, and bang on tables to “win” the discussion. As a result, many believe that women, who usually refrain from banging on tables, would not be able to drive their points home.
In Africa, as a result of cultural stereotypes, women are often expected to remain in the kitchen. They can be nurses or teachers, but when it comes to such complex negotiations, women have no place at the table.
When I started work, LRA rebels threatened to kill me if I did not stop, arguing that mediating conflict is a male domain. This was war, how could a woman be involved?
These issues are not unique to Africa. I have worked on post-conflict resettlement in Sri Lanka and mediation in Colombia. I have worked with refugees and grassroots peacebuilding groups and I have trained senior UN mediators. And I sadly saw that cultural stereotypes that hold women back were everywhere.
Until we can break gender stereotypes and show the international community at large that women are just as mediators as men, progress will stall.
Third, political game-playing keeps women out of negotiations. Peacebuilding is a political business, with many interested parties lobbying for the outcome they want. Mediators are still chosen by heads of State, and they have their favourites. Unless you have political clout in the right places, you are going to be ignored.
Through my conversations with other members of the Women Mediators of the Commonwealth Network, I know that when the compositions of negotiating teams are changed due to political and financial pressures, the female members, who are less likely to have political clout, often end up being the first ones to be sacrificed.
It has been exactly 20 years since the passing of Resolution 1325. Then, we thought change was finally in sight. Twenty years on, we are extremely disappointed.
We cannot remain where we are for another 20 years.
To see the resolution fully implemented, international organisations must stop playing politics with our lives. They must stop using the rhetoric that women should be involved, but then fail to walk the talk.
As women mediators, we must keep on fighting. We must magnify our voice, until we are heard. There is an abundance of effective, talented, courageous women who are willing to dedicate their lives to ending violent conflict.
Women must be empowered to take part in peace negotiations and they must be presented with training opportunities to reach their potential as mediators. Some good work has started in this area, but it must expand — not just to those of us involved in high-level mediation, but to the women who are wives, mothers and sisters of fighters and have a powerful opportunity to influence their future.