Women in War and Peace

“For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

It is more dangerous in most conflict-stricken areas to be a woman than to be a soldier.  Yet, women’s experiences during times of war are often ignored or minimized.  Due to gender roles, norms, culture and customs that often contribute to the perception of women as second-class citizens in society, they are often used as weapons of war.  Women endure unimaginable pain at the hands of those seeking to demoralize, shame, and terrorize the opposing side.  Sexual violence, displacement and neglect are harsh realities in times of war that increase conflict, contribute to continued insecurity, and has devastating short-term and long-term (and often inter-generational) effects emotionally, economically, socially, culturally, and physically on the women who are directly harmed, as well as their families and communities at large.  I have long been interested in the complexity of women’s roles in war and peace, and with PBS’ upcoming series titled Women, War & Peace regarding the topic, I felt compelled to write about it and offer some suggestions regarding the breakdown of traditional gender norms and inclusion of women in negotiations to bring about sustainable peace.

Rape is so widely used and embraced during armed conflict that it has been deemed an intentional military strategy rather than a by-product.  In the current armed conflict occurring in Libya, for example, it has been speculated that Gadhafi’s troops are not only raping women, but using Viagra to aid in their militaristic tactic.  To give you an idea of the pervasive nature of sexual assaults on women during times of war, here are a few statistics:

  • 250,000-500,000 estimated rapes during Rwandan genocide (1994)
  • 20,000-50,000 estimated rapes during Bosnia- Herzegovina war (early 1990’s)
  • 50,000-64,000 estimated sexual assaults on displaced women in Sierra Leone
  • Over 400,000 estimated rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2006-2007
  • 60-90% of the female population was raped during the 14-year long civil war in Liberia, including children and babies (1989-2003)

Given these staggering statistics, what can be done?  There is no straightforward or universal answer.  However, since violence against women is often viewed as acceptable and rewarding in some circumstances as evidenced above, there needs to be a restructuring in the ways women are understood and valued while being respectful of cultural implications.  It is apparent that traditional gender roles get in the way of women’s advancement in society.  As feminists would describe, there is a system of patriarchy that exists, perpetuating institutionalized violence and the devaluation of women.  Not only do women need to be educated and empowered, but men do as well.  Women and men alike need to understand the value of each other, the value of humanity, and the joint contributions needed to create sustainable peace.

With the negative effects of war heavily falling on women’s shoulders, it boggles my mind why they are so underrepresented in peacemaking initiatives.  UN Women reports that less than 3% of peace agreement signatories are women, acting as mediators only on provisional bases.  While significant strides have been taken to include women at the negotiating table, the poor attitudes of women across the globe have impeded progress in not only obtaining equality, but in bringing about long-term, sustainable peace.  The majority of peace negotiators tend to be the same men that started armed conflict and war in the first place and fought on the battlefield—creating this self-interest based cycle of war and temporary resolution.  Women, on the other hand, are often life-affirmative individuals who value relationships and are more than likely to seek solutions that are mutually beneficial.  By seeking peace through a collaborative approach, sustainability is more likely to occur than by solely pushing for self-interest.  Further, women have first-hand experience of the multitude of issues affecting civilians due to being primary targets in most conflict-stricken zones; therefore, have knowledge beyond what is assumed to be true.  The UN, governmental and non-governmental agencies need to recognize the need for women representation in peacemaking initiatives and include them in discussions and negotiations at an equal rate to men.  Additionally, women should be included in post-conflict planning and rebuilding strategies.

To give an example of the need for and success of women peacemakers, we can look at women leadership in Liberia.  Liberia experienced two long civil wars equaling a total of 14 years between 1989 and 2003.  The women of Liberia played a key and central role in peace processes that ultimately ended the war with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2003.  A peace movement, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, was formed.  With this movement, women sang, prayed, staged nonviolent and silent protests, and forced a meeting with President Charles Taylor to obtain a promise from him to include them in peace talks in Ghana.  He agreed and the women mobilized in Ghana, staging a sit in outside the Presidential Palace and not letting anyone leave until a peaceful resolution was developed.  The movement brought together women of different backgrounds and faiths, demonstrating a sisterhood beyond social and religious divides.  Their courageous actions not only ended the civil war peacefully, but also assisted in bringing the country’s first female president into power—President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.  These women’s strategic peace participation and leadership are now being used in other conflict-torn areas to empower and mobilize women to non-violently fight for peace and security, as well as to encourage representation of women in peace talks from the grassroots to national levels.

These may seem like “easy” suggestions to a very complex issue, and I agree, but it is a start.  What do you think is missing when considering the roles of women in war and peace?

Also, check out PBS’ trailer for Women, War & Peace here.  Their opening question gives a different frame of reference when considering war, one that is important to begin discussions of peace: “What if you looked at war as though women mattered?”

Cynthia Castaldo-Walsh is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focused on gender-based conflict, non-violence and peacebuilding for conflict transformation, and sustainability for conflict resolution.

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