Women at the peace table: Global perspectives and priorities on women’s rights, peace and security


Statement delivered by Roshmi Goswami, Head, Women, Peace and Security Unit, UN Women South Asia at the Gokarna Dialogue Meeting 2012: Women at the Peace Table – Asia Pacific, The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, March 13-15 2012 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Respected Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends – Greetings from UN Women, Namaste, Good Afternoon.
Let me begin by saying how privileged I feel for being able to speak in front of such an august gathering of women peace mediators, activists and experts. I would especially like to extend my thanks to Jean Marie Guehenno, Antonia and the rest of the Humanitarian Dialogue team for convening this Meeting on Women at the Peace Table and bringing together such a group of experts. The priority of UN Women reflects that of all of you gathered in this room whether you are here today in your individual capacities or representing organizations. This is therefore a great opportunity for UN Women to learn from you, deepen our partnerships, explore ways of collaborations in pushing the agenda of Women, Peace and Security in the region and together reiterate commitment to promote peace and advance gender equality in the region. I have no doubt that the interactions and exchange of information in the room today and in the next few days will be extremely valuable to one and all.

I have been asked to reflect on means and challenges for enhancing the participation of women in peace and conflict resolution processes. I will outline what UN Women has been doing in the area, the challenges we have been facing and some prospects for advancing women’s role in peacemaking. As we all know, UNSCR 1325 unlike other resolutions goes through an annual review process which provides an important opportunity for stock taking. So since 2000 women and peace building has become increasingly talked about and today promoting women’s participation in all aspects of peacebuilding, including peace negotiations and mediation is grudgingly or strategically being recognized as a key issue in successful peacebuilding. It is also increasingly being recognized that exclusion of women and lack of gender expertise in negotiations leads to irreversible setbacks for women’s rights, leaving crucial issues, such as women’s engagement in post-conflict governance and women’s access to economic opportunity, justice and reparations, neglected in the peace accord.

At the policy level then, women’s critical and undervalued contribution to conflict resolution is now recognized. Since 2000, the UN Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General have repeatedly called for the inclusion of dedicated gender expertise and greater numbers of women in peace negotiations. More recently a couple of developments have also given a shot in the arm in this struggle for recognition of women’s leadership in peacebuilding and peace processes.

The creation of UN Women shows the commitment of the UN system to strengthening its coherence and coordination when it comes to women, peace and security.Having Michelle Bachelet a former institutional head of a country at the helm of affairs of UN Women has raised much hope and expectations more so because both in her inaugural speech in 2010 as well as in her 2012 pledge she committed to focus on increasing women’s participation in peace processes and political transitions. I think too that the 2010 Secretary-General’s seven-point action plan on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding is one of the most pragmatic proposals in years to address the barriers to women’s empowerment and gender equality in conflict and post-conflict environments. It provides clear guidelines and objectives to strengthen women’s roles in conflict resolution, post-conflict planning, financing, economic recovery, rule of law and governance efforts. And in December 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize award to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen has sent a strong message around the world: Peace and Security is advanced through the participation of women.

But what does it mean to have a few women at the top or a few women’s contribution recognized? How much has really changed on the ground?

As most feminist leaders will confirm – it is extremely lonely at the top – so much to do, so few women, and not enough support from colleagues similarly placed. Is it possible to form a coalition of strong female global institutional leadership (from Dilma Roussef, to Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachelet, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and more). The reality is that politics and personal life choices may move these women on from their current positions of power. It is important therefore that there should be more women at the decision making level for continuity and effective implementation of the WPS commitments. We should have a strategy of ensuring concentric circles of women around the ones who are at the top so that when one set leaves we have others immediately taking their place.

We need women at different levels and in different bodies around the peace table. The absence of women in formal negotiations is also often evident in technical bodies assisting mediation and in implementation bodies such as ceasefire monitoring teams, constitutional commissions, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration commissions, land and law reform commissions, and truth and reconciliation bodies. Women continue to be marginalized in other crucial post-conflict decision-making arenas, such as governance institutions, donor conferences, and planning processes.

So going back to the question how much has really changed on the ground ? The Report by the UN Secretary-General on Women, Peace and Security, in 2011 while noting that there is growing recognition of women’s roles in peace and security, and increasing number of innovative measures and good practices, points out that “ the levels of women’s participation in peace negotiations, in preventative efforts and other key decision-making processes related to peace and security remain unacceptably low”.

So the reality is that on the ground, the implementation of the women, peace and security agenda has been uneven. In the area of conflict prevention, coordinated efforts have been provided to prevent conflict-related human rights abuses of women. Protection patrols and community policing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti and Darfur as well as escorts for women during livelihood activities have helped deter sexual and gender-based violence. In the area of relief and recovery, the last 10 years show improved awareness and responses to the needs of women and girls in post conflict needs assessments, basic service delivery, provision of temporary employment, and transitional justice programmes.

But too many of these initiatives remain small-scale, ad hoc and/or under-funded. They also come at a time where women’s representation in peacemaking is recognized as one of the most neglected areas in the gender equality agenda. Almost no progress has been made either quantitatively with regard to the number of women in Track 1 processes, or qualitatively as measured in provisions in peace agreements addressing women’s human rights. For instance, only six peace processes since 1989 have ceasefire agreements that mentioned sexual violence as a prohibited act.

Nearly three years ago, UN Women supported an inter-agency High-Level Colloquium on “Conflict Related Sexual Violence and Peace Negotiations”. At the opening of the colloquium, the moderator – the BBC news anchor Lyse Doucet — asked the mediators present: Did you address sexual violence in any of your experience of mediating conflicts? They all admitted that they did not. Lyse then asked: Why not? Why, even in places where sexual violence was a major tactic used in the conflict, were you not able to raise it during the negotiations? All of them, without exception, could not justify their failure to address this issue. But none of them had made special efforts to engage women in the talks so that women could raise this and the many other issues that they are concerned about. Since 2008 there have been three Security Council resolutions on sexual violence as a tactic of warfare, so it is possible that mediators would give a different answer today. They should be more aware of the issue. They should know that they are not permitted to suggest amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence.

Mediators now receive guidance on how to address sexual violence in ceasefire talks and peace talks – this guidance was launched just last week in New York by the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

But we all know that much more must be done to ensure that issues such as sexual violence prevention, justice for victims, and redress are addressed directly in conflict resolution processes, including in ceasefire negotiations and peace talks but also in international contact group meetings, meetings of Groups of Friends for certain peace processes, and even donor conferences.

We also know that addressing gender issues in peace processes is not only a matter of providing the right expertise. Women’s absence from the peace table is a major reason why negotiations rarely cover equally the specific concerns of both women and men. In 2011, UN Women launched a joint strategy on gender and mediation with the Department of Political Affairs to

(a) increase the availability and quality of gender expertise in mediation processes; and

(b) support greater numbers and more effective participation by women at all levels of conflict resolution and peacemaking including through the identification and preparation of qualified female mediators, observers and negotiators in all peace processes managed by the UN.

As part of this strategy, the Department of Political Affairs increased the proportion of women candidates in its rosters of senior mediators, mediation team members and thematic mediation experts to 33 per cent. Through a training programme, they have also strengthened the capacity of around 200 women leaders from West Africa, the Balkans, Central and South East Asia to scale up conflict prevention initiatives and engage in peace processes.

But overall, when it comes to promoting women’s engagement in peace and security, the international community has performed poorly. In 24 peace processes since the mid-1990s, women averaged fewer than 8 percent of the members of negotiating delegations representing parties to a conflict. A similar pattern holds if we look at what kinds of experts are supplied to peace talks. Let us not forget, as well, that to date no woman has been appointed as chief mediator of a UN-managed peace process. And very rarely have mediation support teams included specialists on how to shape peace agreements so that they preserve women’s rights and ensure women’s participation in the decision-making bodies that oversee the transition to a new political order.

Even when peace talks are facilitated by non-governmental actors, women’s rights are still marginal to the discussions and women hardly ever participate in the negotiations. In the Aceh peace talks in 2005, negotiating parties only included one woman. Later on, she recognized that she was not aware of resolution 1325, nor did she at the time realize what the exclusion of women and gender issues meant for the future of the peace process. She could have used some advice on a range of issues but no support was available to ensure that mediators and parties to negotiations were aware of the implications of their proposals for gender equality and for women’s rights.

There are two reasons for women’s under-representation in peace processes and the resulting lack of progress in addressing gender issues in mediation efforts. They are: a lack of political opportunity and low technical capacity.

From the outset of mediation efforts, mediators, mediation teams, negotiating parties, regional and international organizations can use practical tools to bridge these gaps. Standard minimum procedures on addressing gender issues and facilitating women’s engagement in peace talks, peacebuilding fora and donor conferences are urgently needed. For instance, parties to negotiations could be encouraged and provided with incentives to include women. Within the early days of the process, mediators and their team could commit to hold consultations with women from civil society.

Availability of gender expertise within the mediation teams could be made mandatory for every peacemaking process. All mediators could be required to request parties to negotiations to include women on their delegations. These would be simple minimum expected procedures that would at least enable women to get a foot in the door. Mediators are expected to uphold all manner of international laws and procedures in terms of the conduct of mediation efforts. So why not insist upon a minimum set of actions to enable women to learn more about the negotiations, to be updated constantly, to input to decisions, and perhaps to be selected as delegates?

Clearly therefore all international effort needs to be shored up by delivering on the commitments of the frameworks and of putting facts where the assertions currently are about what peace processes would look like if women were equally involved. We need to move from saying what it might look like to saying what it actually is. In this regard there are multiple roles to be played by advocates, activists, analysts and donors.

What is it that we are mediating for – what is on the table during peace talks, who determines what should be on the peace table. What do you compromise on, what is non negotiable, can women’s interests be non negotiable?

In the South Asia Regional Open Day on Women Peace and Security organized by UN Women in September 2011 in New Delhi, women peace activists and leaders from South Asia emphasized the need to challenge peacebuilding as an apolitical engagement and to use peacebuilding as a transformative agenda set out in UNSCR 1325 that necessarily questions both the patriarchal nature of states as well as the patriarchal development paradigms that are set in motion in the post conflict reconstruction scenario. They added that women must remain cautious of what kind of partnerships/alliances they become part of in the post war period to ensure that they are not being co-opted by the very same patriarchal processes they were challenging earlier.

This is of course easier said than done and women actually involved in these processes in extremely contentious and fragile contexts, for instance like in Afghanistan, know just how difficult this is and just how much of balancing. There are priorities, there are negotiations. Different contexts need different responses. Different contexts have different strengths and different weaknesses but all over women persist using different strategies – some overt some covert.

Each has a story to tell . This is why we are here today to see how we can and need to work on multiple tracks. While not neglecting the issue of participation, we also need to address the substance of what gets talked about and agreed during peace processes. We must find our entry points and articulate again and again our added value.

We are here today also to focus on this region. What have the countries and women of Asia Pacific got to tell the rest of the world about making peace and security policy and changing established practice? A lot I believe! This is a highly diverse and plural region with some of the most intractable and protracted conflicts in the world. On the other hand this is also a region with some of the most dynamic, persistent and political peace building efforts led by feminist women and women human rights defenders. We are convening here today to look at what are the best ways to raise the voices of women from our region, and translate their experience for the benefit of others? Should Asia’s sub-regional organisations be leveraged to push the agenda on Women Peace and Security. Could these bodies be drawn in to develop policy frameworks on 1325 the way that the African Union and European Union have done? What can organizations like the Asia-Pacific Regional Advisory Group on Women Peace and Security or the Women Peace and Security Expert Group for South Asia do for you here in this room and those on whose behalf you’re working? Do we need more networks or better networking?

The HD Centre’s Women at the Peace Table project and this meeting is just the kind of catalytic effort that UN Women would like to support. It is work that is driven by the needs and priorities of women on the ground, it tries to find and make strategic space not just for women’s presence, but for their voices and ideas. It also works to change the practices of an established mediation organization and holds its own mediators to account on gender issues, which UN Women and no doubt others see as tangible evidence of ‘walking the talk’.

I look forward to discussing in more details with you of how we can collaboratively ‘walk the talk’ – of what else needs to be done to ensure that the transformative potential of UNSCR 1325 actually materializes into action – what do we need to do to influence the substance of what is on the peace table. I would like to thank again the organizers for arranging such a great opportunity to hear from you and reflect on these issues.

Finally, on behalf of UN Women I salute all the efforts past, present and future , the dedication and commitment of women peacebuilders and peace activists of the Asia Pacific region and look forward to a very stimulating next three days.

Related story: UN Women forms expert group on women and peace in South Asia

Related links: Women at the Peace Table – Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue