The Power of Women in Peace-building

Musdah Mulia

I have had the pleasure of witnessing many women and women’s groups involved at all stages of peace work, from prevention to resolution. When I define peace work, I mean it in a broad sense, not just the absence of war, but living honorably, dying in peace, having basic human needs met, and post conflict resolutions.

Among 39 active conflicts over the last 10 years, few women have actually been at the table of peace negotiations. Out of 585 peace treaties drafted over the last two decades, only 16 percent contain specific references to women. Furthermore, around the world 1 in 3 women are subject to “non peaceful” or violent situations, including sexual and physical abuses.

Since it is quite obvious that women are very affected by “non-peaceful” situations, and they are 50 percent of this world’s population, isn’t it quite obvious they are a critical voice in the building of peace?

Inequality in Leadership Roles

It is time for women to come out of the shadows at the podium of peace. It goes without saying, men tend to dominate the formal roles in the current peace-building process. Male peacekeepers, male peace negotiators, male politicians, and male formal leaders all take the spotlight.

Power is unequally distributed between men and women and the majority of women do not have a voice in any local or national decision making processes. Such inequalities cause formal peace-building activities and policies to suffer from insufficient understanding of the diverse communities in which they are representing.

Not including women in decisions making processes towards peace often means that female concerns are not addressed. Experiences and insights of both men and women during conflict and peace need to be represented in order to encapsulate all dimensions for holistic solutions.

The landscape of women’s participation has experienced significant change mostly in the area of awareness. All of us, men and women alike, have gender roles firmly embedded within us. The more we all try to pretend they do not exist, the less conscious we are of our own behaviors that promote inequality. Discussion of these issues openly is a first step to dealing with them and getting more women involved in the process of peace.

Getting Out Of Our Own Way

An effective message by female peacemakers overcomes conflict by refusing to kill the child of another mother.

Many current women’s movements and formal policies do not have established mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the progress of their work. Even at the international level, it is very upsetting to see how programs and policies lack in operational guidance, program implementation, data monitoring and evaluation, knowledge and resources. There is also a huge gap in knowledge for most organizations on how to harness technology resources such as social media that have the influence to mobilize millions all over the world in minutes.

The Women’s Leadership Ambition Gap

A bigger part of the problem is not just allowing women to come to the table, it is that women often themselves de-value their role as peace builders. So many women, despite their amazing achievements, feel like impostors and do not necessarily recognize the important roles they can play in both building peace and as leaders.

Women need to recognize that within themselves they have attributes, valuable insights, and experiences, that NO ONE else has. Women embody the maternal gifts as caregivers, focus on the family, and resolving violence without conflict. Women of faith, in particular, are well suited for participation in peace efforts. They transmit peace values over generations and are already promoting critical values to the world.

Women  as Actor of Reconciliation

We are fully aware that the very heterogeneous Indonesian society has very complicated potential of conflict. Women are the greatest community which experience and feel the impact of humanitarian disaster caused by up to now occurring conflict. Whereas women are not inciter or provoker of the conflict itself.

Conflicts have sacrificed many women’s life, however, amidst incessant efforts of various parties to discuss and find solution to the conflicts, they barely pay attention to the voice and role of women. Women are not considered the right group to listen to, appreciate, and recognize in respect of opinion and role in settling conflicts.

Although women have done a lot in settling conflicts; helped injured victims, particularly in displaced person camps; and pioneered advocacy efforts for victims of violence in several regions, ironically they are never invited to negotiations. If there are few women participating, usually they are considered only as ornaments and accessories, not due to necessity to listen to women’s aspiration.

Actually, women as majority in this nation have sufficiently strategic role in settling conflict process. Woman religious leaders have actively acted as mediators, negotiators, motivators, and facilitators, but very difficult to become decision-makers.

The superiority of women in reconciliation process, are among others because behind their nature as women, they have comforting characteristics such as charitable, compassionate, and easily yielding, which can be utilized as kind of approach to parties involved in conflict.

Another advantage of woman religious leaders is that they are usually highly charismatic thereby respected, besides having care and empathy. In other words, women have strategic position to dampen conflicts.

Reconciliation is a holistic and dynamic concept. To reconcile has some meanings: cause people to become friends again, especially after quarrelling; cause (two things) to agree when they seem to be opposed to each other; and cause oneself to accept something unpleasant.

The willingness to be reconciled, especially when calls for circumscribing the interests and advantages of the self, can be obtained only if there is a  commitment to a larger interest: the interest of the whole. Reconciliation issues itself out of the eagerness of the parts to abide in the whole so as to yield the harmony  and wholeness  vital to the well-being of the parts and the whole.

Reconciliation is covenant to settle conflict peacefully. Prior to reaching peace agreement, facts shall be revealed first to open door to negotiation and to manage negotiation process. In this process, all parties shall be convinced of joint commitment for the future.

Clarity of understanding is of the essence of spirituality, and we should not mistake reconciliation for something else. We must insist, for instance, that reconciliation is not mere compromise. The goal of reconciliation should be much more than the mere preservation and propagation of the status quo, which is all that the spirit of compromise is interested in.

To see this clearly for what it is, all we have to do is to rub it against the touchstone of justice. No spiritual strategy that sacrifices justice is valid or worthwhile. Even peace is system and inhuman untouchability, so all kind of gender inequality are glaring examples of social injustice which need to be eradicated.

The role of women as reconciler or peace negotiator should be developed. What is called woman as reconciler is placing advantage of woman based on her socialization, which places woman as caretaker of the need of other people, so woman has more experience in understanding other people’s need, and when to place other people’s need above her own need.

Women’s experience in reconciliatory efforts shows how complicated their effort to be fully involved because of strong assumption that it is men that are responsible to settle conflicts and to control women. Because it is men that shall determine which issue is important and which is not.

Issue relating to self-respect of men, such as beating on a group of youths, is very easy in developing tension and panic, while women’s important issues such as wife beating by husband, or issue of rape and sexual harassment are not worth perceiving as part of community’s self-respect.

Likewise disclosure of data on victims of conflict, which hardly ever describes number of victims by sex. And there is practically no report on  number of women raped, harassed, or died due to torture. The weakness of this fact perpetuates assumption that conflict is indeed business of men only.

Therefore in reconciliatory efforts to solve conflict, it is very necessary to understand that as long as patriarchal society is still model of social relations, conflict will still be relevant to use. It means, every effort to settle conflict also becomes definite measure to eliminate patriarchal system.

To that end, there shall be willingness to bring down men’s arrogance and to use women’s method in settling conflicts and to figure it out how to make it alternative in conflict settlement.

Effort of woman religious leaders to dampen conflict in Ambon can be made example. They only carry out simple things, i.e. to prevent new conflict. They do not speak about reconciliation but carry out preventive measures directly. However, it is indeed their simple interpretation regarding concrete form of reconciliation and peace.

Finally, my recommendation is  woman religious leaders should be put in more fair position and involved fully in policy-making for reconciliation. Up to now, they are always in the foremost front in conflict victims handling, however, at the time of negotiation, they are forgotten. All parties should realize that their presence, particularly in peace negotiation process, will indeed facilitate conducive atmosphere for reconciliatory efforts.

What Would Big Change Look Like?

Big changes would happen if we first, could ensure that women play a key role in the design and implementation of peace building activities and give them a confidence to do so. Second, we need to support and strengthen the already established women’s organizations that are currently working in their peace building efforts. Finally, systems need to be established for enforcing and monitoring all efforts on a global scale. Women have such untapped potential to be effective participants, key-decision makers and beneficiaries of peace.

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