Yemen Women's Unions

The Importance of Inclusion and Human Rights to Building Sustainable Peace

Members of Yemeni women's unions hold banners during a rally calling for more gender equality in decision making and for an end to the country's political crisis. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The issue of women’s inclusion, women’s rights, is broad—one could spend a whole day talking about it and not scratch the surface. I will therefore set the scene with a couple of examples.

In Yemen, women at the community level are negotiating for life-saving humanitarian access. They are gaining the trust of armed groups to open roads for food and essential medical care. We also see this incredible work in Syria and Afghanistan, in peace processes that have been exclusionary across-the-board. In Afghanistan, women have been particularly excluded from political processes by both domestic and international actors: not much seems to have changed since gender considerations were infamously called, “pet rocks” for which the rucksack of peace does not have space.

In Sudan, as Human Rights Watch has written about, women have for years been at the forefront of “protests, rights campaigns, and other public action” including advocating for political change. As Alaa Salah so powerfully put it in her statement to the United Nations Security Council last month, “Women led resistance committees and sit-ins, planned protest routes, and disobeyed curfews…” in the recent political transition there. “Many women were teargassed, threatened, assaulted, and thrown in jail without any charge or due process. Both women and men faced sexual harassment and were raped.  Women also faced retaliation from their own families for participating in the protests.”

In the Central African Republic, despite sexual violence being fundamental to the violence that country continues to experience, and despite the mobilization of women leaders at every level, women were virtually excluded from recent peace talks, and were—as in so many other cases—brought into the discussions only at the tail end.

These are but a few examples at a time when women’s rights are increasingly under threat, as the UN has duly noted, and when the changing nature of conflict is often built in part upon misogyny.

How do we change this situation? How do we ensure that we are moving towards better inclusion in peace efforts? Women play a central role in peace efforts, and the truth is that equality is not only a right in and of itself, but is fundamental to peace.

We have many tools in international frameworks. We have the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda, which has been on the UN Security Council’s formal agenda for almost 20 years now and has resulted in 10 Security Council resolutions. Since 1979, we have had the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This binding treaty has made clear that participation is a right for women. There is also the Beijing Platform for Action from 1995, CEDAW Recommendation 30, and over 80 national action plans on women, peace, and security at the national level. We also, of course, have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—specifically goal 5 on gender equality, and goal 16 on peace.

At the core of all of these international frameworks is the explicit understanding that women’s participation and women’s rights are central to peace. And yet we are stuck. All available data points to women’s representation averaging under 10 percent in formal peace processes. A lack of a structural approach to addressing this imbalance means that women who are leaders for peace in their community and active at the grassroots level are still relegated to “parachuting in” techniques. When Libyan women, for example, managed to gain last-minute access to the Palermo talks last year, it was through sheer persistence. They were, with some support, forced in at the last minute. This held echoes of women leaders from Mali flying themselves to peace talks in 2012.

We need to change our approach to inclusion, and to our understanding of rights as part of that inclusion. We need to change the processes that we deploy to build peace, and we need to address the lack of accountability for commitments on women’s rights and roles. These are structural and political barriers that require structural and political solutions. As Dr. Catherine Turner has compellingly written, “we are seeking to include women in structures that are not set up to allow them to make a difference.”

So how can we change the model of “inclusion?” I do not have the answer, but here are some thoughts and suggestions.

First, use creative mechanisms to increase women’s participation. During a consultation with WPS experts earlier in 2019, a participant noted there is a need to “think outside the damn box.” We need to creatively deploy political capital to place women’s rights and participation at the center of political decision-making. Here I would emphasize an “ecosystem” approach, and not place all of our “participation eggs” in one basket, which will of course entail, again, women being parachuted into talks at the end. Let’s deploy resources across the board in multiple efforts by multiple actors so that participation is not limited to one woman who has all the expectations of women’s rights placed upon her, but rather so that the substantive structural work to ensure that women’s rights and women’s roles are embedded across processes. This focuses on women’s participation in formal talks as an outcome, not the intervention that we are using to address women’s rights. It is high time we embrace new thinking on temporary special measures, including quotas, to increase women’s participation not only in elections and political processes, but also in peace efforts.

We need to significantly strengthen accountability on commitments on the WPS agenda, and change the political calculus for engaging on it. Implementation of the agenda needs to move from being solely a matter of individual responsibility—including for the rare women who make into elite decision making processes—to being embedded in institutional mandates. How to create these incentives and costs for compliance remains an outstanding question. Again, I do not have the answer on how we incentivize political actors to do this, but it should be an ecosystem approach in multiple fora, making the cost of excluding women and women’s rights too great to bear.

And finally, of course, funding. Financing remains a fundamental concern underpinning all these challenges. In addition to the “projectization” of WPS funding, conflict tends to drive resources to the security sector, reducing the resources available to support gender equality and long-term peacebuilding. Through consultations with key stakeholders, particularly civil society organizations, donors need to change how and for how long they allocate resources. Financial commitments to the WPS agenda should tangibly support civil society organizations, and research on issues central to WPS. Crucial to this is support to women’s human rights defenders.

Dr. Sarah Taylor is a Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute. This article is based on remarks given at a recent event at the International Peace Institute on inclusion and human rights in peacebuilding.