Women are already negotiating peace—let’s give them a place at the table.
By Kerri Kennedy and Jessica Chiu
You’ve probably never heard of France Remy. France lost her home in the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. While reconstruction efforts focused on relieving the immediate needs of earthquake survivors, France saw another problem growing in the camps: widespread violence.
Tired of the incidents she faced daily, France decided to do something about them. So she joined the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an organization dedicated to lasting peace with justice, and has been working for peace in Haiti ever since. Her efforts have involved schools, neighborhood representatives, and government officials in mediation and dialogue—with good results.
Though her work is not widely known, France is hardly alone. Ravaged by war and natural disaster, beset by violence, and hamstrung by weak government, women like France have long mobilized to transform their communities. History is rich with instances of women using local networks to end violence. Yet many of those efforts have been overshadowed or diminished by low representation in formal peace building bodies. Women’s peace building activities are considered ‘informal’ and thus are marginalized in the annals of history. ‘Formal’ peace building, a male-dominated affair, takes center stage.
How does this exclusion play out? Women in Liberia mobilized to end civil conflict there, but they were not included in the all-male team that formally negotiated the terms of peace. Women of the tiny island of Bougainville drew on long-standing community relationships to help end a fight for independence from Papua New Guinea. But they were similarly sidelined in official mediation processes. In fact, officials estimate that a mere 7 percent of official negotiators in all peace building processes worldwide have been women.
The exclusion of women from official peace building processes comes at a cost. In many countries, including East Timor and Bosnia-Herzegovina, political gains that women earned before, during, and immediately after conflict were weakened without women’s full participation in official peace-building processes.
In 2011, three women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a record-setting win by women. Of the nearly 100 recipients in the history of the Prize, only twelve have been women. In presenting the 2011 Prize, committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland claimed that the Prize not only honored the women as activists but held a broader message that women’s rights are essential to peaceful and democratic societies. The Prize winners, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, may not have been household names in the United States. But their selection helped elevate women’s participation in international peace efforts.
Lasting peace can only flourish when democratic governance, human rights, rule of law, and sustainable development allow for rich participation and engagement from diverse communities, including women. In studies by the Institute of Development Studies and others, gender equality is linked to reduction in state conflict, improvements in community welfare, improved respect for human rights, and the promotion of democracy.
We need women peace-builders at every level of political engagement—from local councils to national legislatures, from the school board to the White House—to guide and lead peace building and development goals. Prioritizing women’s rights is in our shared interest. And ensuring women’s full participation in peace building and politics is a necessary first step.
How do we get there? To start, we need more women in chief negotiator positions and commitment from governments to require that women be given a seat at official tables. We urge you to spread the word that peace is not only possible but practical—and that despite all the obstacles, women are leading the way.