The Elders– In a report to mark the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, The Elders have looked in particular at how to promote women’s involvement in mediation in the Arab world.
The Elders have a longstanding interest in promoting dialogue and peacemaking in the Middle East. In October 2020, they convened a three day virtual meeting in collaboration with Wilton Park, supported by UN Women and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which brought together 60 female mediators, government officials and peacebuilding experts from different countries and generations to assess the obstacles and opportunities. Participants identified calls to action which are reflected in the recommendations made below; a fuller report of the recommendations will be published in due course.
The Arab region faces a particularly complex mix of conflicts, many of which conflicts are civil wars, although they are further complicated by international involvement. They are not just driven by divisions between male political elites, but more fundamentally by the lack of inclusion, representation and the fracturing of social contracts. A more inclusive approach to peacemaking and peacebuilding is needed to address the root causes of conflict. Women are already active in peacemaking at the community level. They need now to be better represented in formal political processes convened by regional governments and by the UN.
The Elders would like to encourage and challenge the leaders of Arab states to take up the cause of involving women in peacemaking. This is not being asked as a favour to women. This is for the benefit of their countries, and for their own benefit; involving women is a matter of enlightened self-interest.
Peace processes need to be stronger and deeper
- Structural change is needed in mediation processes. Many of the women we talked to aspire to more than simply getting themselves a seat alongside elite men on a traditional negotiating table. They seek peace processes that are more deeply connected to the societies concerned, and better able to help societies overcome their fragmentation and divisions.
- Women should be recognized as strategic partners, without whom the success of negotiations will not be realized. They are essential voices who must be part and parcel of the negotiation process.
- Women are extremely active in mediating in their societies in the Arab world. This is primarily at the grassroots or “track three” level. But these extensive activities and achievements are suddenly, glaringly absent when we turn to the Track One – the formal talks between warring parties and mediators. What the people in power need to realise is that this is a problem not only for women, but for the effectiveness of the mediation processes themselves.
- Involving women in mediation is good for everyone. The Elders have seen for themselves the valuable role that women play at all stages of a peace process. In Northern Ireland they played a vital role in creating the conditions for peace and changing the minds of the male parties to the conflict. In Liberia too, women from across Christian and Muslim communities argued with the warlords, negotiated with them and were eventually able to bring them to the table. In Burundi, our founder Nelson Mandela convened an all-party women’s peace conference which came up with clear, agreed proposals ahead of the male-dominated political parties, who then adopted many of the women’s recommendations. The list goes on.
- We know from experiences around the world – across cultures and countries – that involving women in peace agreements makes those peace agreements more effective and sustainable. It helps to ensure that the root causes of conflict are addressed, not only the issue of political power-sharing between the warring parties. Women’s involvement in peacemaking also helps secure wide societal buy-in, making peace agreements more sustainable.
A moment for change
- The absence of women from the negotiating table in most of the Middle East conflicts is not just an isolated phenomenon. It reflects a broader tendency for women to be absent from senior government positions, especially related to defence and security, and from the leadership of armed groups.
- But this is changing, albeit unevenly. The gender gap in education has narrowed, and in some areas women have overtaken men; the range of professions opening to women is expanding; and women are making gains in terms of their representation in government. By 2018 (the latest year for which data is available) women’s share of seats in national parliaments had risen to 19%1, below the global average of 24.3%2 but a marked improvement on the 3.8% share recorded in 20003. Social attitudes are changing: a 2018 survey of seven countries by the Arab Barometer4 found that a majority of men surveyed in most of these countries said that it was acceptable for a woman to serve as head of state in a Muslim-majority country. In some countries, women have started to take on ministries traditionally blocked to them, including portfolios of foreign affairs, finance and the interior ministry.
- The Elders urge Arab leaders – in national governments and regional organisations such as the League of Arab States and the Gulf Co-operation Council – to invest more resources in mediation and peace-making, and to place more priority on dialogue and diplomacy to find local solutions to local problems. The region has a number of longstanding conflicts in which there is currently no formal or “track one” mediation at all, and there are too many examples of male leaders portraying dialogue as if it signified weakness instead of wisdom. Investing in women and youth peacemakers is vital. But this need must not be an excuse for delays: there are already skilled, experienced women who can be involved now.
- We welcome the creation of the new Arab Women Mediators Network by the League of Arab States. We would also encourage the network to expand beyond its existing group of female diplomats to include women from civil society with experience of peace-making at the track two and track three level. Experience from elsewhere suggests this broader reach into society would make it more effective.
- We would also encourage Arab governments to take further step to develop women’s political leadership, including in political parties, the judiciary, interior ministries and foreign ministries. It has been good to see more female ambassadors appointed in recent years, and more of them should be appointed to regional capitals rather than Western ones. They should consider legislation for temporary special measures (such as quotas or party list system) to promote women’s participation in political parties.
- To the UN and regional multilateral organisations, we emphasise that those who are facilitating mediations should insist on women being involved in the negotiations, and back this up by funding the participation of women.
- Context matters. Every mediator and every mediation process needs to be designed to suit the specific situation and societies they are dealing with. But we note that female mediators and activists from the Arab world have told us that at times UN officials have been too prone to jump to conclusions that Arab countries are patriarchal and conservative, without recognising the political roles women already play, and that “national patriarchy is massaged by patriarchy on the part of the UN”.
- The UN should start at home, and lead by example. Some progress has been made globally in hiring more female envoys; when hiring envoys for this region, gender sensitivity and a willingness to work with the country’s women and youth, as well as men, must be key parts of the skillset. Women should be at the main table, in their capacities as experts, civil society leaders, scholars, lawyers, human rights advocates, not only generically as women. Women’s participation needs to be mainstreamed into all areas and not confined simply to so-called “women’s issues”. Similarly, male mediators need to talk about gender and the experiences of women and girls.
- In conflict zones there is a great need for physical protection of female peacemakers, mediators and negotiators, who face particular threats.
- A shift towards digital diplomacy and virtual peace talks has been rapidly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This may present an opportunity for more inclusive peace talks bringing in women, youth, people from remote areas without the costs or risks that travel can involve. But inclusivity is hampered by the digital divide in conflict-affected countries where many have no access to internet or mobile phones. The pandemic should galvanise the UN to work with international and regional donors, philanthropists and the tech sector to invest in bridging the digital divide.
- To the women mediators in the region, The Elders salute your vital work. We encourage you to build further links across borders, share experiences and establish mentorship, networks, and intergenerational dialogue. The struggle for equality is one that echoes down the generations.
Sources: (World Bank, Indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals) & (Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women In Parliament in 2018) & (Arab Development Portal)
*جميع الآراء الواردة في هذا المقال تعبّر فقط عن رأي كاتبها/كاتبتها، ولا تعبّر بالضرورة عن رأي “تجمّع سوريات من أجل الديمقراطية”.