Sudanese Women

Women’s Leadership for Peace: Towards a Model of Multi-Track Leadership

Sudanese women celebrate after protest leaders struck a deal with the ruling generals on a new governing body, in Khartoum in July. Women were largely excluded from negotiations. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a well-acknowledged fact that women are significantly underrepresented among the ranks of high-level peace mediators. In international mediation the numbers of envoys are small and the number of female envoys even smaller. One of the reasons for this disparity is the way in which we understand leadership in international peace and security generally, and mediation in particular. It is a common refrain, when questioned about the lack of gender diversity in high-level mediation appointments, that there were simply not enough qualified women available.

International mediation is defined by leadership from the front. The criteria for appointment as an envoy include such opaque terms as “authority,” “convening power,” and “gravitas.” What this usually means in practice is that mediators are  senior former statesmen, people considered to hold power and personal charisma that they can bring to the job of mediating violent political conflict.

Given the gender bias in these terms and criteria, it is unsurprising that the number of women in these roles is small. For women to succeed as leaders they need to succeed in the existing game of power and influence: those women who do attain high-level positions tend to do so on the basis of adopting the same power-based style of leadership that is the accepted norm. We can therefore understand the low numbers of women in high-level mediation roles as merely symptomatic of the way in which the international community understands leadership and its role in mediation.

But increasingly it is no longer possible to rely on the model of leadership from the front when it comes to mediating violent political conflicts. The nature of conflict has become increasingly fragmented in recent decades. Where once mediation was a case of brokering a deal between the representatives of opposing armed groups, mediation now requires engagement with a range of different actors from all levels from the global to the local.

Reflecting the changing nature of conflict, mediation theory and practice now incorporates the idea of multi-track diplomacy and the fact that each conflict needs to be addressed at a number of different levels to achieve a sustainable peace. This multi-track diplomacy model has, however, created its own gendered hierarchies. Studies show that while women are significantly under-represented in “track one” official mediation, they are better represented in “track two” unofficial processes, and over-represented at grass roots, or “track three,” level mediation. It is clear that women bear the burden of mitigating the effects of violence in their own local communities. Yet even the way we talk about tracks implies hierarchy. The “hard” security approaches of track one are elevated over the “soft” peacebuilding work that happens at the track three level.

While women are excluded from formal positions of leadership in international mediation efforts, that does not mean that they are not demonstrating leadership for peace. Having accepted the idea of multi-track diplomacy, we now need to consider adopting a model of multi-track leadership—including for mediation. This approach would move away from the model of leadership from the front, towards a relational approach where actors work together to achieve a shared purpose. It emphasizes building trust and connections between actors, and embracing diversity of experience and expertise within mediation efforts.

Multi-track leadership shifts the focus away from one central figure and one high-profile process towards recognition of the different ways in which leadership is exercised across the conflict spectrum, and the integral nature of this leadership to the success of all mediation efforts, including track one. In particular, the idea of multi-track leadership for peace requires reflection on why women’s mediation is not equally valued in international peace and security. Would paying closer attention to the skills and values that women bring to mediation encourage a different approach to peacemaking?

Multi-track leadership would enable closer scrutiny of three current dilemmas in mediation policy and practice.

First, debate on increasing the number of women mediators often centers on the assumption that women are inherently more peaceful. While this approach can have the concrete effect of marginalizing women and pushing them into certain narrow roles, it also raises broader questions about why the gendered characteristics this discourse implies are so routinely dismissed as not important for international mediation.

For example, empathy, listening, and relationship building are shown to be more commonly associated with women, characteristics that are associated with the facilitative or relational approaches to mediation that are more common in track two and track three. As such they become “gendered” and devalued in international mediation practice. While these approaches favor relationship building over the assertion of power and authority, there is clear strategic value in building trust and confidence with conflict parties that can sustain the possibility of dialogue through difficult phases of negotiation.

Second, with current models of “inclusion” we are seeking to include women in structures that are not set up to allow them to make a difference. A small number of women mediators will not change this. What is required is a serious engagement with how the skills and values that women bring to mediation can help to transform the structures themselves. Greater recognition of women’s leadership in track two and track three mediation would open up process design to new ideas about how to enhance the inclusivity of mediation, resisting the idea that certain issues or certain approaches must compete with each other for priority.

Finally, considering leadership as something that happens at multiple levels, and not just at the very front of a process, begins to break down the implicit binaries that exist in mediation between the “hard” business of stopping the violence and the “soft” business of addressing social inequalities. Multi-track leadership would reinforce the complementary and mutually supportive role of both these approaches, rather than prioritizing one over the other. A model of multi-track leadership recognizes the need to lead not only from the front, but to engage with the skills and approaches being used by mediators, including women, across the spectrum of multi-track mediation initiatives rather than maintaining the “separateness” of the track one model. This approach acknowledges diversity and the value that complementary experiences and skill sets can bring to mediation.

Dr. Catherine Turner is an Associate Professor in Law at Durham University. She specializes in how the law regulates matters of war and peace, including international humanitarian law, peace mediation, and transitional justice.