Two years ago I began a journey that has taken me to places affected by conflict that I could not have envisaged had I not seen them for myself, such as South Sudan and Sierra Leone. I have met inspiring people who have endured the most terrible experiences, where many live in desperate conditions and whole communities see no future.
These encounters have been in support of the UK’s commitment to the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which acknowledges the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls, and promotes the important role women play in building sustainable peace and stability. Today is the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It is a critical reminder that women still face exclusion from peace negotiations, of the risks they take to resolve conflict and build peace, and how their fates are mostly determined by those in power.
This work often seems a far cry from our lives in the UK and, in the grip of the Covid-19 crisis, it is perhaps hard to think of as a priority. Yet women and girls around the world have shared experiences of the pandemic: increased domestic violence, greater childcare responsibilities, lack of access to good education, little or no justice or accountability for sexual and gender-based violence. In a world that desperately needs women to be listened to, now more than ever we must do as much as possible to drive the objectives of this resolution forward.
Covid-19 has pushed so much off the agenda. In countries prone to conflict where progress was being made in creating peace, attention has been diverted and in some cases violence is increasing and fighting has resumed. The UN Secretary General issued a call for a global ceasefire at the start of the pandemic in March, but progress has been slow.
Yet all over the world, women continue to plough on. In Yemen, they are training young medics to deal with Covid; in Kashmir, women are bringing people together online to discuss the fallout from the pandemic, including stress, domestic violence, financial worries, and employment issues; in Sri Lanka, young women peacebuilders are being mobilised to support the fair allocation of food. Whether it’s women who are actively engaged in politics or running community support groups to help make life just a little more bearable, what I see is action at its best.
The battle that women peacebuilders and mediators still face is the outdated attitude that they are not qualified to have a place at the negotiating table. This is a paper-thin excuse and I find myself asking whether anyone has ever studied the credentials of the other people in the room? Sadly, patriarchal systems are still in place in many conflict regions, which has kept women out of these vital conversations.
Evidence shows that if women are at the negotiating table, peace will last on average a further 15 years than if the agreement was negotiated by an all-male party. Women have been the unsung heroes campaigning for peace and solving local conflicts informally for generations. They come from many different backgrounds: business, medicine, law; others have limited education and training. But they all know their communities, they have powerful voices and can be strong agents for positive change. Women who started by mediating in their villages have gone on to become international peacebuilders. How can you say to the Sri Lankan woman who challenged armed guerrillas and urged them to attend peace talks, that she isn’t worthy of a place at the table? Or how do you tell the Pakistani woman who helped de-radicalise families that her experience doesn’t count?
This week I met virtually with women peacebuilders in Libya who, despite ongoing conflict for almost a decade since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, have been working tirelessly to reconcile local divisions and contribute to the future stability of their country. Their experiences can teach us vital lessons about what works. The recent ceasefire announcement in Libya and ongoing political talks present an important opportunity to ensure their voices are heard and they bring their valuable knowledge to bear.
These women do not do it for reward or personal gain, and they often undertake peacebuilding at a terrible price. Many of the women I have met have suffered frightening consequences as a result of their work. They have been threatened, imprisoned, subjected to violence – including sexual violence – and expelled from their countries, with many living in fear of arrest on their return. Some women have even disappeared, like Seham Sergiwa, the Libyan MP abducted over a year ago. This must stop.
A new protection framework, presented this week by the UK to UN member states presents an opportunity to protect, as well as promote, women peacebuilders and human rights defenders. This is the first international guidance on how to protect women who take part in peace processes, because what we now need is action, not just words. We must encourage the acceptance that women’s full and meaningful inclusion is the norm.
Supporting women peacebuilders is one of the most uplifting things I do. They are interesting, diverse, engaging and funny. They are people who get things done.
There are no magic wands when it comes to negotiating peace. Any and every negotiation will be fraught and difficult, requiring enormous patience and effort from all sides, open minds, a willingness to concede, but above all the desire to find peace. Including women in the process is essential and means a greater chance of sustained peace. Who wouldn’t want that?