All over the world, women are defying the odds to make meaningful contributions as peacebuilders and peacekeepers. We asked four of these pioneers about the greatest challenges they face.
Kristin Lund was the first female force commander for the United Nations as head of the peacekeeping force in Cyprus. She is a serving general in the Norwegian army.
“The biggest challenge is that women and civil society actors are excluded from pre-negotiation talks and agreements, which are also highly secret. As a result, women and civil society are unable to introduce their needs and concerns during pre-negotiations when the agenda for the formal talks and the root cause are set. Most peace processes focus on ending political violence but fail to acknowledge the different forms of violence experienced by women and minorities, like Indigenous peoples, leaving these forms of violence in place and failing to address the security concerns of half of the population.
“First, leaders must take into consideration that women must be on the mediation/negotiation team from the start. Second, they must have the authority to bring issues to the table.
“Another tool could be establishing women mediators’ networks. Inspired and partly sparked by a South African initiative, the Gertrude Shope Annual Dialogue, a regional Nordic Women Mediators network was launched in Oslo in November 2015. The network was established to address the limited participation and access of women to peace processes by strengthening and supporting women’s participation at all levels and stages – be it by amplifying women’s voices and concerns, advocating for more inclusive processes, undertaking joint projects, exchanging experiences or networking and relationship-building with other women mediators’ networks. Since then, five national networks have also sprung up in each Nordic country.”
Mariam Safi is the founding director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies in Afghanistan. Her primary areas of research include peacebuilding, human security and countering violent extremism in Afghanistan and South Asia. She believes that women are crucial to counter-extremism efforts.
“Women often face numerous challenges when engaging in peacebuilding efforts in countries undergoing transition from war to peace, like those existing in Afghanistan. Some of these challenges stem from structural barriers while others stem from social conservatism.
“The centrality of women’s rights, including political, economic and social equality, is enshrined in the constitution and reflected in the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan. However, laws empowering and protecting women do not work if they are not enforced.
“The deterioration of security continues to affect women’s mobility and sense of safety. At the provincial level, women peacebuilders remain key targets of insurgent-related attacks. Security threats facing women also stem from a rise in generalized insecurity fueled by local gangs, power brokers and militias who are no less dangerous than the Taliban insurgency.
“Women in rural areas suffer from poor educational opportunities and low awareness of their rights, while women’s influence at the national level is still challenged by the absence of supportive policies. Women’s limited economic prospects also figure significantly in their level of engagement in peacebuilding efforts, a challenge which is further exacerbated by the pervasiveness of corruption.
“To address these challenges, we must first ensure the full implementation of the national action plan and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 [on women, peace and security], as they directly address barriers to women’s participation in all aspects of peacebuilding. This must be followed by an awareness campaign that educates the public on the benefits of these laws to replace the misogynist thinking that ‘still prevails in our new generation,’ as stated by President Ashraf Ghani.”
Megan Roberts is the associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her research interests include international organizations, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.
“A growing body of evidence shows the important contribution of women as peacekeepers and peacebuilders, yet women continue to be underrepresented in conflict prevention and resolution efforts. This represents not only a challenge for women peacebuilders, but also a significant impediment to international efforts to reduce and prevent conflict.
“In U.N. peacekeeping operations, evidence shows that in addition to serving in the same roles as men, women can perform functions that their male counterparts cannot. One of the most important is in connecting with and gathering information in vulnerable and marginalized communities. This is a critical task for peacekeepers, nearly all of whom serve under a mandate to protect civilians.
“And yet, despite the important role that women can play, progress in increasing their ranks has been too slow. In the last 10 years, the number of women serving in military roles has inched up from 2 percent to just under 4 percent. While some point to the low number of women in national armed forces, research shows that a number of countries that deploy women peacekeepers do so at a rate that is lower than the proportion of women in their armed services.
“The United Nations is taking important steps to increase the number of women serving in civilian, police and military roles in peace operations. And gender has been elevated as a focus area in recent multilateral discussions on peacekeeping. But turning rhetoric into reality remains a challenge, and progress will continue to lag until gender parity is viewed as an essential part of peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies.”
Ufra Mir is Kashmir’s first and only “peace psychologist.” She works with women and youth affected by the conflict. She is also the founder and chairperson of the NGO Paigaam.
“Women, I believe, are at the forefront of pain and conflict anywhere and everywhere. And yet, if you choose to change the narrative of your life, by choosing to not just survive but also be a conscious agent of positive change and resilience as a woman peacebuilder, you tend to face way more challenges [than men].
“The most common one, based on my experience, is cold reception in the field due to gender stereotyping and bias. Women are seen as peacebuilders in family disputes but not in the outer world. Men tend to think that the space for analysis, policymaking and intellectualism, all of which is important to peacemaking and building, somehow should be better occupied by their own.
“Additionally, I believe women peacebuilders end up doing more than they should be doing sometimes because of their duties for their families, running households, earning an income and also trying to build peace out there. It is physically and emotionally straining, to say the least. On the other hand, I think women sometimes tend to underestimate their inner strength and power, again due to societal pressures and stereotypes, which stops them from seeing themselves as good empathetic leaders because power is perceived as something ‘bad.’
“What can be done about it? Spreading awareness about the field itself and the importance of the place for women in it; showcasing and highlighting stories of women peacebuilders from around the world; encouraging women peacebuilders through awards, fellowships, invitations to international conferences and U.N. forums so that more people understand how ordinary women are doing extraordinary things; leadership programs for women peacebuilders; building a strong network for women peacebuilders in connection with male peacebuilders; and maybe having male peacebuilders support women peacebuilders in their countries to help get rid of gender stereotypes and bias.”
You can find out about many more women peacebuilders through this database from Inclusive Security.
The interviews in this article have been edited for length and clarity.