Women as Key Players for Mediation, Peace and Security

Loredana Teodorescu

EU and Internation affairs coordinator, Istituto Luigi Sturzo and member of WIIS-Women in International Security

In 2000, the UN recognized the role and responsibilities of women at the center of the international security agenda. As nowadays most conflicts affects civil society, especially women and children, women must be seen as actors who can provide important resources and powerful voices of peace for the prevention and resolution of these conflicts. Since the UN recognition, the participation of women in mediation processes and the gender sensitivity of peace agreements have increased to some degree, but not enough: women can be often found but not always seen at the forefront of conflicts and violence prevention innovations. In order to enhance their work, networks of women have an important role to play. The Mediterranean Women Mediators Network is a good example in this direction, as it is working to promote women’s contributions to the stability in the Mediterranean region. 

Enhancing the participation of women in mediation and peace processes

The participation of women in all aspects of society and their inclusion in decision-making processes, together with a gender perspective, are essential for inclusive and democratic societies. While this still being a goal to be completely achieved, in the last decades, a new attention has been focused on the important role that women can play as contributors to sustainable peace and security.

In October 2000, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 has been a landmark in this sense: its adoption represented a significant development in UN’s history concerning women’s rights, putting the role and responsibilities of women at the centre of the international security agenda for the first time. It stresses the impact of armed conflicts on women and recognizes that emancipation and gender equality are meaningful to ensure stability and sustainable growth, as they generate well-being and functional state-society relations.

The resolution points out that women experience conflict differently than men, and this requires tailored attention and expertise. Today most conflicts are intra-state rather than inter-state, in which civilians are increasingly targeted, affecting mostly women and children. The focus should therefore shift from the security of states to the security of the population, including human security. The resolution also recognizes women as actors who can provide important resources and powerful voices of peace for the prevention and resolution of conflicts, stressing the critical role that women can and already do play in peacebuilding efforts. The involvement of women represents a benefit not only for women themselves, but for the society as a whole. The Resolution urges therefore all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. 

Since the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, a broadening agenda on Women, Peace and Security has been established, with seven further resolutions (UNSCR 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122 and 2242). Followed by multiple national and international efforts to implement the commitments, they call for greater and more effective participation of women in conflict mediation processes; for the inclusion of dedicated gender expertise in all peacemaking efforts; for the specific needs and concerns of women and girls to be addressed; and for the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence. 

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda has a transformative potential to prevent or overcome conflicts, to create inclusive and more democratic peace-making and to foster local dialogues, better policies and more equitable peace deals. In addition, in a broader sense, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) prohibits discrimination and disparaging treatment on the basis of gender. Two CEDAW recommendations provide particular guidance on the application of temporary special measures to promote the participation of women (recommendation 25) and on the role of women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations (recommendation 30).

Nowadays, there is an increasing agreement that women’s perspectives are crucial to fully understand the impact of a conflict and to establish lasting peace. A gender-responsive mediation process is not only about enhancing the representation of women; it is also about gender mainstreaming, ensuring that all policies and activities take into account the effect they will have on individuals as a result of their gender, and the inclusion of gender dimensions of crucial topics on the agenda. Ensuring the systematic and structured participation of women leaders, gender experts and women’s organizations help to identify the gender dimensions of the negotiation and bring a different understanding of the causes and consequences of conflict, thus creating a truly inclusive conflict settlement or peace process and generating more comprehensive and targeted proposals for its resolution. Finally, enhancing female representation and including women’s needs and concerns allows to deliver a more comprehensive response that can create a more stable and secure peace.

Therefore, a gender perspective is needed not only because principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment are firmly grounded in international law and should be reflected in all legislation and policies, but also in terms of efficiency, comprehensiveness, effectiveness of the process, and, in the end, for a truly sustainable post-conflict stability and security.

Even so, the participation of women in mediation processes and the gender sensitivity of peace agreements have increased only gradually and women are very often excluded from decision-making. Bridging the gap between aspirations, commitments and reality still remains a challenge.

According to the 2018 Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security, “women remain underrepresented and unrepresented in efforts to negotiate peaceful political resolutions to conflict […]. Although women continue to play instrumental roles in all efforts to resolve conflict, including humanitarian access agreements, ceasefires and corresponding efforts related to development, their successes often go unrecognized and their work, largely, does not result in access to subsequent political processes. Between 1990 and 2017, women constituted only 2 per cent of mediators, 8 per cent of negotiators and 5 per cent of witnesses and signatories in all major peace processes”. The report also highlights that “the inclusion of gender-responsive provisions in peace agreements is still not consistent”, and that “the barriers to the full and effective participation and leadership of women in decision-making are still very present. In this sense, it stresses that “little progress has been made […] in increasing the political representation of women in conflict and post-conflict countries”, and “As at July 2018, only 17 countries had elected a woman to the position of Head of State or Government, none of which were post-conflict countries”.


Women, Peace and Security Agenda and the role of civil society: the networks of women mediators


The role of civil society in backing Women, Peace and the Security Agenda is very important, and a number of projects are spreading to raise the awareness on the issue, creating a stronger network among women and supporting them. 

Networks of women mediators have continued to evolve and connect across regions as a way to enhance the influence of women throughout the duration of peace processes, providing an important resource for linking knowledge and capacity across mediation efforts locally and globally.

Women’s organizations are indeed particularly active in civil society peace initiatives, developing alternative political solutions to the conflict, building trust, engaging in joint projects or bringing parties across conflict lines together to talk. Moreover, they are usually a rich source of information and they are able to liaise with both men and women, even if some segments of the society are not accessible by males.

As Sanam Naraghi Anderlini points out “wars today are affecting mostly societies, there are not just two nations fighting each other”; “women are often in the frontlines, but they are not only passive victims, being affected, attacked or displaced, being raped or sexually assaulted. They are also often the first people to raise up and start to try ending a conflict, to bringing relief or to creating bridges between their communities”.

I had the chance to meet Sanam, internationally renowned for her pioneering work in the field of women, peace and security, who advises and trains women activists around the world. Her personal history played a role in the issue: Iranian, she lived the revolution and developed an interest in the non-violent conflict transformation, acknowledging the role women are often playing as peace actors. This is how she started supporting their voice and lobbied for the UN Resolution 1325 to pass. She wrote about that experience in the book Women Building Peace: What they Do, Why It Matters (Lynne Rienner, 2007) and she herself founded a network called Women’s alliance for security leadership based in the USA.

When I asked her why it’s so important to involve women in peace process, she pointed out that women can always be found, but not always seen, at the forefront of local conflict and violence prevention innovations. Their work is often neglected. On the contrary, the role these women are playing, in dangerous conditions, needs to be recognized, together with the expertise, experience and knowledge they gain, that can be very useful for peace negotiations. She also emphasized that it’s important to bring women perspectives to the table and that their involvement can improve the dialogue. Finally, she stressed that women know the cultural context and know how to talk with local people: an invaluable resource.

The participation of women has indeed a broader effect. First of all, it has a direct correlation with the sustainability of peace. Secondly, if women are involved in the processes, the chances of reaching an agreement that is more gender equitable is higher. Finally, this is strictly related to democracy itself, as the consensus is reached dealing with different voices.

When asked if she can see some progresses, 19 years after the 1325 Resolution, she is cautious. She sees progress in terms of acknowledge and awareness: the civil society is very active and the number of countries that are supportive of this agenda is increasing. However, the change is taking time: there is still a lot to do to make the peace process really inclusive and to translate promise embedded in the UN Resolution 1325 into effective policy and practice.

Networks of women have an important role to play also in this view, and possibilities are emerging for women to become actors in the security field and play a critical role. The Mediterranean Women Mediators Network (MWMN) is an important example that goes in this direction. 

All shores of the Mediterranean are confronted with common challenges, like increasing general insecurity and instability, migration, terrorism, cultural divide and polarization. And, at the same time, stability in the Mediterranean is a prerequisite for security in the whole region. Advancing the role of women in the complex socio-cultural context of the region and their involvement in responding to these challenges could have a number of positive outcomes, from the way gender balance in negotiations can help parties to dialogue, to the role of women in the prevention of radicalization and in fostering greater economic development. Even in countries which are not primarily affected by high security-related issues, polarized societies are still an obstacle to dialogue and inclusion, and women are often paying a high cost.

The MWMN is an example of a new commitment arising from the civil society. The Network was initiated at the time of Italy’s mandate as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and launched at the end of 2017 by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in cooperation with the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and the Italian branch of WIIS Italia (Women in International Security). It combines Italy’s role in the Mediterranean area, with the support of preventive diplomacy and the commitment to empower women in conflict prevention, resolution processes and peacebuilding and promotes gender equality policies.

It aims at fulfilling the need to increase the number of women involved in peacemaking efforts and facilitating the appointment of women mediators at local and international level, thus reducing the networking capacity gap in the Mediterranean area. The Network has now gathered together 50 women of different age groups, skills and backgrounds, coming from 25 Mediterranean countries. The project seeks to enhance women’s mediation capabilities, delivering educational and networking programs, in order to promote their contributions to the region’s stability. This could be a catalyst for mediation efforts in ongoing and potential crises and post-conflict stabilization processes and it could also foster synergy and coordination among existing initiatives.

According to Maria Hadjipavlou, member of the MWMN and expert in conflict resolution and gender, the contribution of the regional Network is bringing together the diversity of the Mediterranean region and connecting women who are facing same challenges, in societies where too often only male voices and the male understanding predominate. In her opinion, the network is indeed creating a new gender consciousness in women’s contribution to social change, bringing out the talent that women have and demanding that it is used and acknowledged. It is useful to strengthen and raise the awareness on the skills that women may have, at different levels, and can really contribute to setting a conflict, mediating, or bringing people together. The initiative brings also out the need for solidarity among women: exchanging experiences, talking face to face, helping developing a feeling of closeness to the other’s struggles. 

The Network is now bearing its fruit also in terms of consolidation and strengthen women involvement at local level. The first national antenna of the Mediterranean Women Mediators Network was launched in Cyprus in May 2019, and will be followed by Turkey at the end of June. Another example of how this kind of initiatives can be inspiring for many women, help them advancing their agenda and gradually bringing a change.

 The national Antennas are intended to function according to the local needs of each country. In Cyprus for example, as pointed out by Magda Zenon, peace and human rights activist and member of the MWMN, it is also an opportunity to bring, also in physical terms all women of the island together, bridging the divisions which are still affecting the country; and possibly help finding a solution. Moreover, in a country were the conflict has been mostly discussed along ethnic lines, the initiative could help framing the issues in a more inclusive way, enriching the discussion with gender-related aspects of the conflict and enhancing the understanding of how women and men experience the divided society in their daily life.

Future perspectives: from commitments to action

There is an increasing understanding of the key roles women can play, and international commitment to improve lives of women and girls. Many initiatives, promoted by bilateral and multilateral agencies, governments and civil society, aim at reducing gender inequalities, empower women and enhance their participation at all levels of decision-making. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes as a specific target that of ensuring “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (5.5).

The UN Beijing Action Plan called for measures ensuring women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making, and urged steps to increase women’s ability to participate. And the UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security recognizes women’s key role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and aims at engaging women in providing security for all.

These initiatives provided and could still provide the momentum to push the agenda on women’s political power and leadership. If a core aspect of mediation, negotiations and peace processes is to promote human rights, one of the best way to accomplish it is to showcase in practice how it can be done, challenging any stereotype, ensuring that women are strategically placed and also occupy leadership positions, serving as role models for other women. 

The EU could also play a stronger role: raising the awareness on the importance of the issue, encouraging members states to improve gender balance; to nominate more women in missions, and to support initiatives arising from the civil society at local, national and regional level. Leadership commitment to equality between men and women, as the higher awareness about the meaningful participation of women in conflict resolution, must be backed up with concrete policies. 

Several challenges are still limiting the progress. As highlighted by the Expert Group Meeting hosted by UN Women in May 2018 on the issue, they include patriarchal systems and persistent gender inequality, institutionalized gender bias and discrimination, institutional and cultural barriers, and limited recognition for women’s expertise and lived experience. Presumptions around lack of “capacity” or relegation of women to “women’s issues” pose as well a significant obstacle to women’s meaningful participation. 

After all, the most important factor for the future is related to a real change in mind-set. Women organizations and networks of women mediators could provide a positive and tangible contribution towards it.