Women leading in the peace

Caroline Sweetman Fragile contexts, Gender, Gender & Development Journal, Governance

According to World Bank estimates of September 2016, two billion people live in countries where development outcomes are affected by fragility, conflict, and violence. By 2030, the share of global poor living in fragile and conflict-affected situations is projected to reach 46 per cent. Caroline Sweetman, Editor of Gender & Development, introduces us to the theme of gender in fragile contexts and to the articles in the journal’s latest issue.

Fragility, of course, doesn’t only create acute poverty and want: it means no security, peace or access to justice. It is widely seen as creating global problems, beyond fragile contexts themselves, linked to globalised conflicts and terror.

The power dynamics which play out in fragile contexts, are gendered. They’re about men and boys taking up weapons and turning on each other, and on the women and girls seen as belonging to the enemy.

Hyper-masculinities – ways of being a man that focus on physical strength and dominance- have long been acknowledged as a driver of fragility, by feminist researchers. In her article in this issue of Gender & Development Isabella Flisi highlights the need to challenge and change social norms about what it takes to ‘be a man’. Focusing on Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programmes in Colombia (DDR), she argues that they’ve largely overlooked the relationship between violent ‘militarised’ male identities and behaviour – and therefore carry risks to women´s security, as well as sowing the seeds of potential future conflicts.

The flipside of hyper- masculinities is the continuing marginalisation of women from power and decision-making, which they claim as a human right, and the loss of their voices from peace-building and reconstruction processes.

Women and girls in post-conflict and fragile contexts face a range of challenges arising from gender roles and unequal power relations, and the social norms which drive gender inequality also drive fragility and conflict. Humanity still has to travel a vast distance to attain the interlinked aims of ‘Equality, Development and Peace’ first voiced four decades ago at the start of the UN Decade for Women.

Currently, efforts to ‘integrate gender and women’ in development and humanitarian work in fragile contexts are ramping up. Yet progress is patchy, as Diana Koester and her co-authors argue in their article asking how donors could improve their support to gender equality in fragile settings. Women cannot necessarily rely on the advocacy and action of development and humanitarian actors to promote full and equal participation in governance. This is not surprising, since development organisations themselves reflect the same biases as the state.

Without ending gender inequality, peace will never really come

What do we need?

As Bele Grau argues in her article in this issue focusing on Afghanistan women’s rights movements, women’s rights are spoken of by many different actors in conflicts and fragile peace – but what women actually need is the space to speak and act themselves to end fragility. Women’s organisations in fragile contexts evolve solutions to fragility on the ground. They provide daily support to women and girls facing acute economic want, and often also endemic violence – which may not even be registered as such by the formal institutions set up to identify conflict and restore peace. In their article, Sara E. Davies, Jacqui True, and Maria Tanyag highlight the silence that can exist around indigenous women’s experiences of violence in low-intensity conflicts: women’s rights themselves are fragile.

Where women and girls do appear in accounts of fragile contexts, they are depressingly likely to be depicted simplistically and passively, as ‘vulnerable victims’ of conflict and war.

As Rachel Sider and Corrie Sissons point out in their article focusing on Oxfam’s work with women in Iraq, any additional risks run by women are created by inequality and injustice – vulnerability isn’t natural or innate. What’s needed is an empowerment approach, but also something more than that: an approach which demands justice and asserts women’s rights as leaders in peace processes and governance more generally. Governments and the international community desperately need women as actors, experts, and leaders, to end fragility and bring about sustainable peace. The language of vulnerability patronises women, and ignores the scandal of women’s continuing marginalisation from decision-making about war and peace.

It’s scandalous for all of us – not only women themselves – because without ending gender inequality and challenging the social norms which create ideas of brave male leaders and vulnerable women, peace will never really come.

Last year, UN-Women undertook a 15-year Review of Resolution 1325, assessing progress to achieve meaningful, empowered gender parity in peace processes. Women’s presence in peace mediation and negotiations increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 per cent, and lasting 15 years by 35 per cent. It accelerates economic revitalisation after conflict, increases the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian assistance, boosts the effectiveness of protection efforts. It’s madness that most peace processes still marginalise women. It’s time to make gender equality and women’s rights truly central to work to end fragility and create sustainable peace.


Julie Thekkudan