Five Frequently Asked Questions on the Inclusion of Women in Peace Processes

Members of women's groups across Somalia participate in a review of progress made by the government in ensuring a sustainable peace. (AMISOM Photo / Omar Abdisalan)

Why, if there are substantive reasons for including women and their rights in peace and security processes, and research demonstrates positive outcomes from this inclusion, has involving women proven challenging? Women make up at least half the global population—they are not a minority group. Yet, when thinking about including more women in peace processes, there are often an array of questions expressed that in some way relate to the fundamental question: “why women?”

Outlined below are some of the most regularly-raised questions by observers, mediators, and others on the particulars of “why women” in peace processes, and brief explanations that lay out the human rights basis for women’s participation in peace processes, indicating recent research and analysis about their roles in negotiations and their outcomes.

Research increasingly shows that peace processes that are inclusive of women—crucially, where it is more than token—tend to result in more durable and sustainable peace. Research also indicates that the strong influence of women in negotiation processes positively correlates with a greater likelihood of agreements being implemented. There are thus clear benefits to including women in the process of negotiating peace.

And yet, women have historically been excluded from all stages of efforts to end conflict, this despite their roles in conflict, both as members of armed groups and as peace activists. This exclusion contravenes established international obligations and norms regarding the right of women to participate, as per the The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), including General Recommendations 23 and 30, the Beijing Platform for Action, and as supported in numerous Security Council resolutions and regional treaties.

Women’s exclusion continues despite evidence that women and girls are targeted for specific, gendered types of violence in conflict—including sexual violence—and are often affected differently by abuses committed during conflict. The rights of women and girls are often an afterthought, if they are considered at all, in peace agreements and in the implementation of accords. Not addressing these violations, in formal and informal agreements, runs the risk of impunity and repetition.

It may seem like more women are participating in peace processes and that their inclusion is no longer as urgent an issue as it once was. However, recent research shows that “women’s participation [in peace processes and political agreements] is almost always challenged by the main armed groups, political parties, and mediators.” Available data also indicates that women’s participation remains low—usually between four and eleven percent of negotiators—and that agreements themselves rarely include mention of particular women’s rights concerns, let alone address them substantively in the text and obligations.

1. What difference does it actually make if women are included in peace processes? Won’t women who are included by negotiating parties simply toe party lines?

There is an important distinction to be made between representation—meant to indicate an individual’s role representing a constituency—and participation, which is broadly used by women’s rights advocates to denote substantive participation, not token representation. Negotiators, regardless of gender, are indeed meant to represent a constituency in peace talks, while mediators, for example, are meant to provide a space for relevant parties to navigate those constituent demands.

Women’s participation in peace processes is not, therefore, solely about adding one or two women to existing negotiation teams—an approach that is often called “add women and stir.” Rather, women’s participation refers to the multifaceted and various ways women and their rights are reflected in these political processes. From this perspective, the significance of technical advisors, civil society advocates, gender advisors (who need not be women), and women on negotiation teams are all better understood. This type of inclusion also entails the ongoing representation of women on negotiation teams (e.g., as in Colombia); the provision of gender expertise—both training and technical input—to mediators and negotiation teams to understand how women’s rights are part of issues under discussion (whether that be ceasefires, political power sharing, justice efforts, etc.); and mechanisms for civil society to input ideas, concerns and proposals (e.g., as in Guatemala).

2. Many countries suffer through grinding conflict for years. When there is an opportunity for a ceasefire, isn’t this valuable opportunity being disrupted by demanding women’s participation?

Research does not show that the inclusion of women disrupts or derails peace processes. Rather, there are numerous examples of women finding creative ways to ensure peace processes get back on track once they have stalled.

There is no doubt that getting men with guns to the negotiating table is important. But there are several points related to the rights of women that this approach neglects, beyond the fact that it is not supported by research.

First, this argument does not reflect the reality of who has the guns. It is not uncommon for women to comprise 30 percent or more of armed  groups, so excluding women means there is also a lack of women with guns at the table. It also disregards the challenges faced by these women in fighting forces, including the additional risk they face.

Then there is the substance of what a particular ceasefire covers. Recent examples from Colombia and Myanmar show that when violations  of women’s rights (e.g., sexual violence) have been central to the waging of the conflict, ceasefires need to include the cessation of these tactics and strategies. If these are not included, then the ceasefire can essentially allow conflict to continue, and undermine chances for an effective long-term peace process.

Beyond this, if initial negotiations result in more than a ceasefire and lead to a substantive peace process, “waiting until later” to push for women’s inclusion and for their rights to be addressed usually means both are substantively excluded. Women from Afghanistan, Libya, and Myanmar are currently seeing these processes continue without them because of the “urgency” argument, i.e., that the most urgent need is to get men with guns to the table, and other actors may be brought in later. Prioritizing men in the initial talks sets up an approach that continues into broader talks long after peace negotiations, with little space for women’s rights advocates in the discussions on security, political power sharing, and other topics that shape post-conflict communities.

3. There are many groups that are excluded from peace talks, so why is there so much emphasis on women?

It is true that both informal and formal peace talks tend to be exclusive of many people. But calling for women to be substantively involved at all levels is part of a broad call for inclusivity. This means ensuring groups that often are excluded from negotiations—indigenous groups, labor unions, inter alia—have a voice in peace efforts. As these groups face similar challenges regarding participation, women often face barriers to their participation within these groups as well. In other words, they are doing the work but are not represented in leadership, including in political delegations. Women face multiple challenges due to their many identities—whether indigenous, ethnic, religious, or others. Therefore, just as recommendations for women’s participation recognize the need for broad inclusivity, calls for broad inclusivity need to specifically recognize the particular barriers that women face.

4. How is it possible to know if women will advocate for women’s rights? Where are the guarantees that the “right” women are at the table?

It is crucial to emphasize that in peace processes and in general, a woman’s participation should not mean she is only there to advocate for women’s rights. Expecting women to exclusively shoulder this responsibility is problematic as it does not reflect the complexity of how both men and women participate in negotiations. This expectation also limits the role of women in negotiations, constraining them to talking about one issue area, and “silo-ing” both the issue and the women themselves. Women’s rights can be and should be raised by both men and women—including the mediators, negotiators, and experts—on the various issues under discussion, whether disarmament, reintegration into communities, political integration, ceasefires, etc. Equal participation means the ideas and concerns a woman brings to the table shouldn’t be shackled to her right to be there.

5. What does women’s inclusion look like in complex conflicts that need urgent attention?

There are multiple ways to support women and their rights in even the most complex conflicts. In Colombia, women had been mobilized for years to push for peace, resulting in multiple levels of engagement in negotiations, including in the official talks.  In Syria, this includes dialogue between leaders of negotiation processes and women who are struggling to have their voices heard. This means all negotiating parties should include women in their delegations, in addition to the Women’s Advisory Board and additional future mechanisms for women’s inclusion. In Yemen, it entails raising concerns when women were not allowed to travel to participate in initial discussions, and calls for victims to be respected in negotiations. In Myanmar, it means inclusive negotiations and political reform, with inclusion of women’s rights, while not neglecting the urgent Rohingya crisis. Specifically, previous agreements on quotas for women should be implemented, not rolled back. In Libya, it has meant, in part, women’s political participation in post-Ghaddafi transitions. In Afghanistan, it means accountability for governments and donors regarding their pledged commitments to women’s rights and women’s participation in crucial talks at all levels, and at all stages. And, on the regional and global stage, new networks of women mediators provide a promising opportunity to make women’s participation not only a regular occurrence, but a transformative one.

Sarah Taylor is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute and oversees the organization’s work on women, peace, and security.