Women face specific and systematic gender-based issues in conflict situations. The challenge is how to empower more women in the peacebuilding process.
More and more women are taking up combat roles on the front line, playing a key role a year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this hasn’t always been the case.
All military roles available to men were only opened to women last year, with a wave of new recruits joining after the February 2022 invasion.
Gender-inclusive reforms in 2018 gave women the same legal status as men in the armed forces and ended bans on women holding 450 different occupations in Ukraine – including welding, firefighting and many defence roles – in an attempt to abolish Soviet-era stereotypes maintaining that some work was damaging to reproductive health.
Women and girls in conflict environments, in combat roles or otherwise, may seem to face the same dangers as men. But in the lead up to International Woman’s Day this week, we’re reminded that females face specific and systematic gender-based issues like sexual violence, human trafficking and maternal deaths. The UN special advisor to the secretary-general on gender issues estimates 70 per cent of non-combatant casualties in recent conflicts are mostly females.
In 2000, the United Nations adopted the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, recognising the need for women’s participation in peace building processes and the importance of their role in global peace and stability. It also recognised that women are not just victims, but active participants as peacebuilders, negotiators and peacemakers.
But more than a decade later the resolution has fallen short of expectations – violence against women persists, and many barriers, both cultural or societal, remain for women to be fully involved in building and maintaining peace.
In Afghanistan, historical patriarchal norms and attitudes have posed significant challenges to the overall development of women and their participation in any constructive activity. “People in Afghanistan believe that a woman is born only to give birth and care for her children and husband. She should not be doing anything else,” said Fatima (not her real name) an Afghani student studying overseas. “Many women work for peace, albeit secretly in most cases. I, too, worked as a teacher for the UNHCR.”
Between 2005 and 2020, nearly 80 percent of peace talks in Afghanistan have excluded women, with women participating in only 15 of 67 meetings and negotiations, according to Manzoor Hasan and Arafat Reza at the Centre for Peace and Justice at BRAC University, Bangladesh.
“With limited access to education and deliberate exclusion from decision-making processes exacerbated by [a] patriarchal mindset, it is unsurprising that the path before Afghan women to make any meaningful contribution to peace-building and conflict prevention is fraught with countless obstacles,” they said.
“Afghan women have played an important role in preventing violence and building peace with the help of some local and international organisations. They are involved, among other things, in raising public awareness about the importance of education and peace, women’s rights, and countering extremist beliefs.”
But with the Taliban back in power, many women are likely to fear participating at all.
Research suggests that the presence of civil society organisations, including women’s organisations, reduces the possibility of peace agreements failing by 64 percent.
But there is still progress to be made even in the leading global peace organisations like the UN. Eleanor Gordon, senior lecturer at Monash University, said mothers can face a dilemma in continuing their career in the sector due to “organisational, work culture issues and gendered assumptions about who does peace and who does care work.”
Gordon previously worked for the UN for a decade before leaving to have her son. “Women with children are often disinclined to raise issues about their caring responsibilities for fear they will be judged as unprofessional or not committed,” she said.
“Conversely, women with children may sometimes be judged as poor mothers when they choose to work in this sector, seemingly prioritising the needs of their work above their children. “These barriers to the engagement of parents in peacebuilding is a significant factor in the underrepresentation of women in the [peacekeeping] sector.” She said reccomendations to improve the culture to be more supportive towards caregivers include more parental leave, re-engagement support for returning employees, transfering spouses to the same mission and prioritisation of family duty station posts. “Crèches and safe spaces for nursing mothers, flexible work schedules and more part-time and job-sharing opportunities, work-life balance messaging and practice, and transparent disciplinary procedures to guard against discrimination [would also help],” she added.
On a national basis, women’s full and equal participation in public life is critical to building and sustaining strong democracies. Yet in conflict-affected or post conflict countries, their representation in parliament is lower than 21 percent, according to the UN.
Even in partriarchal societies like Malaysia and Thailand, some women are bucking the trend, with their involvement crucial to advancing gender equality.
For decades, Thailand’s southernmost regions have been plagued by armed conflict and insurgency. Despite numerous failed attempts at resolution, women have been absent from formal peace negotiations, but the appointment of the first female Muslim governor in Pattani province, Pateemoh Sadeeyamu, may change that.
“Her leadership style is about bridging divides between communities; she embraces both Muslim and Buddhist communities, youth and seniors, political and non-political agendas,” said Anna Christi Suwardi, lecturer at Mae Fah Luang University. “Southern Thai Muslims — whose ethnicity, culture and language differ from the Buddhist majority — believe they are treated as second-class citizens.”
Since the escalation of violence in 2004, women’s groups in the three Thailand border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been trying to engage in peacebuilding initiatives. “Peace negotiators in Thailand’s deep south could learn from the peace process in Mindanao, the Philippines, that included women at decision-making level,” Suwardi said.
Consolidating women’s groups can unify their voices to become a bridge between the security sector and their wider communities. “When women are part of the negotiations, they will ensure that the peace agreement is fair and takes into account the needs of both men and women,” she said. (360info.org)
By Tasha Wibawa,