Introduction: Still too few women mediators
Now 20 years since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), the benefits of meaningful participation of women at all levels of peace processes have been well evidenced. We know that when women directly participate in peace negotiations, the outcomes are more sustainable, inclusive and have a higher rate of success, yet women are still being excluded and side-lined from the negotiating table. According to one study, in fact, between 1998 and 2018 only 3% of mediators in ongoing peace negotiations were women.
To date, 84 states have shown their support for the Women Peace and Security agenda through the adoption of National Action Plans (NAPs). Despite the legal and normative framework, however, implementation has been slow. In particular, a lack of progress in the appointment of women mediators was highlighted by the UN Secretary General in his latest report on Women Peace and Security.
“We know that when women directly participate in peace negotiations, the outcomes are more sustainable, inclusive and have a higher rate of success, yet women are still being excluded and side-lined from the negotiating table.”
The added value of women mediator networks
In response to this challenge a growing number of women mediator networks (WMNs) have been set up, reflecting women’s commitment to a more active role in peace processes. For example, the Global Alliance of Regional WMNs was launched on the September 26, 2019, bringing together five regional networks: the Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation (FemWise-Africa); the Arab Women Mediators Network; the Mediterranean Women Mediators Network; the Nordic Women Mediators; and the Women Mediators across the Commonwealth. Whilst maintaining their independence and characteristics, the Global Alliance provides a platform for collective advocacy and collaboration to tackle persistent challenges such as discrimination stemming from gendered stereotypes, personal security concerns and the lack of transparency in the processes for appointing high-level mediators.
The establishment of WMNs should in itself be recognised as a success, as increased visibility strengthens women’s role as mediators. A paper published by UN Women found that being part of such a network improved female mediators’ credibility and legitimacy amongst the communities in which they worked. Participating in training, discussions and sharing best practices also helped to improve their skills and confidence. Many WMNs have also conducted outreach activities to empower young women and engage grassroots organisations.
However, it is vital that capacity building activities do not detract resources from the more pressing need, that is to provide women with access to opportunities to participate in formal mediation activities in the national and international arena. WMNs establish links with key decision-makers, international organisations and political leaders to whom they can provide a pool of well qualified and competent women mediators, thus invalidating the claim that lack of capacity is the reason for the poor representation of women at the negotiating table.
Moreover, networks amplify women’s voices and help to raise awareness of issues such as the high prevalence of violence against women that often occurs in situations of conflict. For example, in a campaign called ‘You are missing the full picture’, Libyan women activists raised awareness of how the exclusion of women in peace talks has led to the neglect of women’s needs and an incomplete conflict analysis. Peace talks initiated and mediated by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the international community have also failed to properly represent women, further contributing to the problematic perception that women are not important or required in the process. On the contrary, diversity should be embraced to make use of the wide range of skills and characteristics required for mediation. Care-focussed feminism theorists celebrate the caring nature of women and their natural tendency to foster empathy and compassion in their interactions. A gender balance in mediation teams can help to create a more open dialogue and lead to more creative solutions. It is therefore vital that practical arrangements and considerations are made at all stages of the peace process to allow women’s full participation.
The platform offered by WMNs can also be instrumental in advocating for structural and policy changes, such as introducing quotas for gender parity in the appointment of mediators at the highest level. Although, we must bear in mind the risk that representation of women could result in the misled but common perception that “women are there to take care of women’s needs”. This line of thinking undermines the diverse abilities of women and detracts from the fact that gender sensitivity is the responsibility of all those involved in decision-making and should be routine practice.
“A gender balance in mediation teams can help to create a more open dialogue and lead to more creative solutions. It is therefore vital that practical arrangements and considerations are made at all stages of the peace process to allow women’s full participation.”
Conclusion: The need for external support and internal balance
In a collaborative study carried out by Uppsala University, PRIO and the FBA, coordinators and colleagues of various WMNs reflected on a number of common challenges associated with managing this type of network. The most limiting factor appeared to be the lack of financial support to sustain their activities. Many women participate on a voluntary basis and a heavy time commitment is required to make significant progress towards their goals.
In the early stages of setting up the networks, important yet difficult decisions had to be made regarding the working procedures, level of formality and membership criteria. These choices should be determined by the specific objectives and, in fact, each of the regional WMNs has different structures appropriate to their contexts. The common challenge faced was balancing the inevitable trade-off between inclusivity and accountability. On the one hand, less restrictive membership criteria encourage participation of a more diverse group of people, consequently empowering and embracing the capacity of the entire community, rather than creating an elite group. On the other hand, a minimum requirement of qualifications and experience promotes the professionalism of the network. The strategic position and ability of WMNs to form connections both horizontally and vertically is central to their added value for promoting the WPS agenda.
The formation of the Global Alliance of WMNs offers a particularly promising opportunity to unlock the potential of women’s direct participation in the peace process. However, this will only be possible with the long-term support of governments and key international organisations such as the UN, European Union and African Union. Political support and financial assistance to provide resources and training opportunities are vital to sustaining the positive efforts of WMNs. Amongst the recommendations resulting from a policy symposium at Durham University are: explicit commitments to equal nominations of men and women for mediation roles; public statements supporting WMNs; and taking steps to make high level appointment processes more transparent.
This landmark year celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Women Peace and Security agenda has also been one of unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, suffering from a rise in poverty, unpaid care, gender-based violence and closures of women’s health and support services. At the same time women peacemakers have been amongst the first to respond. It is now more important than ever that the role of women is recognised and championed as a key driver of resilience and sustainable recovery.
A coordinated, well connected and united movement such as the Global Alliance is a powerful tool to overcome gender-based discrimination. It would significantly contribute to building a sustainable capacity of women mediators, increasing their visibility and legitimising their roles. For these reasons, supporting and engaging in women mediator networks should be seen as a strategic investment to achieve sustainable peace outcomes.
Mary McEvoy is a Masters student of Human Rights and Conflict Management at the Scuola Superiore di Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy.
This article was published under the aegis of the Enhancing Women’s Participation in Peace and Security (WEPPS) project, whose goal is to strengthen the effectiveness and impact of the WPS Agenda in Italy, North Africa and the Western Balkans. The WEPPS project is being implemented by the ERIS group (Emerging Research in International Security) of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, in partnership with the Agency for Peacebuilding. It is funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.