Why Women Need a Greater Role in Peace Processes

“Women remain on the periphery of formal peace processes, and they’re largely excluded from rooms where decisions are made.” This quote from António Guterres, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, addresses the ongoing issue of women not being equally represented in conversations and decisions about international peace and security. Mr. Guterres goes one step further than simply noting the lack of representation of women, he also says the rights of women are often being diminished: “the clock on women’s rights has not stopped. It’s moving backwards.” He says this in a discussion of the increased rates of violence and misogyny, the lack of women in leadership roles, and specifically in conflict zones, the increasing cases of sexual violence, reversals of women’s rights, and exclusion of women from political processes.

The Council on Foreign Relations has said that in major global peace processes from 1992 to 2019, women made up an average of 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators and 6% of signatories. In about 70% of peace processes, women were not involved at all. Since women make up approximately half of the population, they need more say in discussions and decisions about peace. UN Women has stated that in many cases, women are the most negatively impacted by conflicts and humanitarian crises. Not involving women in discussions on peace wrongfully quiets their voice on issues that greatly impact them.

The lack of representation of women in peace processes also hinders the effectiveness of these processes. Evidence has shown that the involvement of women in conflict prevention and resolution can reduce conflict and increase stability. Women’s groups also have a history of leading successful campaigns to encourage progress in peace talks, however, a lack of funding to women’s organizations makes it difficult for these groups to increase their influence. Evidence has also shown that in peace discussions, women tend to focus more on issues such as reconciliation, economic development, and education, whereas men focus more on the war and conflict itself. Both sides of this discussion are necessary, however, focusing solely on war and violence without strong consideration of these other factors is arguably not the most effective way to create a sustainable peaceful response.

The most common response to the problem of the lack of representation of women is to note the need for an increase in the representation of women. The UN has been a key voice in this issue, arguing for the need for women in leadership to become the norm, and calling for governments and the Security Council to step up to support women and to promote women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace processes. UN Resolution 1325 was passed in October 2000 and urges UN member countries to increase the participation of women in peace processes. Sima Bahous, the Executive Director of UN Women, argues this Resolution is promising, however, it is not enough on its own. She has advocated for decreasing military spending and using that funding to invest in other areas including women’s rights. UN Women has a women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. This agenda is implemented through research and data collection, and through supporting UN Member States in using the WPS agenda in their policy practices. The UN, and specifically UN Women, are significant actors in the movement towards greater inclusion of women in peace processes.

The issue with the common response to this problem is that although it emphasizes the importance of increasing the role of women, it does not set out measurable goals to signify progress or change. This response is more about acknowledging the problem than putting steps in place to change it. UN Resolution 1325 is necessary for making clear the importance of women’s involvement, however, since its implementation in 2000, there has not been a drastic increase in women’s involvement in peace processes. The Resolution does not set out clear goals, such as a desired percentage of women involved in peace processes. This leaves the process of how to implement the Resolution up to individual discretion, and as is seen by the number of women in peace processes, this response has not been adequate to cause significant improvements to this problem.

Despite the slow change in the response to this problem, there are actors taking important steps towards increasing the participation of women. Women are using social media and radio to involve women in peace processes. There are civil society organizations made of women to represent women and to help them work together to have a stronger voice. These and many other efforts are important steps, however, without support from larger groups and organizations, at national and international levels, these initiatives are unlikely to spark the level of global change that is needed.

A potential response to this problem could be guided by the ideas of the 30% Club. This is a global organization that aims to have 30% of members of boards and leadership tables be women. The reason this organization uses a threshold of 30% is that research has shown that 30% is the point where a minority group becomes large enough to impact the conversations and decisions being made. Ellen Duffield, citing research from Rossabeth Moss Kanter and others, has said that research has shown “that when a minimum of 30% women are included in decision making tables around the world, levels of crime, corruption, terrorism, poverty and abuse go down . . . Quality of life, healthcare, education, organizational health and economic wellbeing go up.” Implementing a threshold such as 30% women involved in peace processes could be a way to provide women with a meaningful voice in decision-making and to cause positive impacts on the outcomes of peace processes. With the current statistics of only 13% of women negotiators and 6% mediators and signatories in major global peace processes, this threshold would require major change and a significant amount of effort. However, if reached, this could drastically change the amount of say that women have in peace processes.

It is important to be aware that the quota response is not always productive. Odi Lagi, the Program Director of the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions Nigeria, has said that quotas should be used carefully. Quotas carry the risk of being used as a strategy to appeal to minority groups, while not actually providing women with a more meaningful opportunity to share their opinions. In implementing quotas, governments or organizations need to actively want to pursue change. This avoids the risk of quotas being used simply for the positive image they might bring. Despite her cautions, Odi Lagi has said that “quotas as a temporary measure to achieve gender equality in political participation is very much necessary.” She is aware of the potential downfalls of quotas; however, she believes they are an important and necessary response.

If the UN were to take the first step in implementing quotas at the organizational level in their peace processes, they could serve as a leader in responding to this problem. Since the UN is involved in most major global peace processes, change within the UN alone is a major change. Also, given the large influence of the UN, if they were to implement a 30% threshold, or something similar, they could encourage individual states and other organizations to do the same in their peace responses. This response of a 30% threshold requires significant change and direct efforts to increase the involvement of women in peace processes. In contrast to the current common response, it is measurable and sets out clear goals. As such a powerful organization, the UN is in a position to implement this response and be a leader that models the way in opening the doors to women in peace processes at the global level.

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