March 28, 2017, by Njahira Gitahi
Women in the Peace Process: Towards Global Inclusion
In paying homage to Women’s History Month, this post briefly discusses how women can be included in peace processes, specifically those conducted outside of the Westernised model of dispute settlement. This conversation remains especially important because, while the Western world is yet to fully include women into peace processes, there has been a great deal of improvement, and discourse on the matter has greatly encouraged the inclusion of women. By contrast, indigenous peace processes are based on traditional, often patriarchal systems. As a consequence, while women constitute an important part of traditional society, their voice is often silenced when it comes to restoring peace and order in indigenous societies.
It is most helpful to start by offering a background understanding to why this post focuses on indigenous societies and indigenous conflict resolution. Internationally, the western systems of conflict resolution, namely the resort to courts and tribunals or alternative dispute resolution – in the form of arbitration, mediation, negotiation and other similar processes – take precedence when individuals and communities find themselves in disagreement. However, for many societies outside the Western model – which are often composed of ethnic groups and communities indigenous to the region – various other models are often employed. For instance, in certain African states and those that are part of the Pacific Islands, communities are led by chiefs and elders who, in addition to running the community and making decisions regarding community life, also have the responsibility of adjudicating over community disputes. Adjudication itself may take the internationally recognised forms of mediation, arbitration and negotiation, but may also present themselves through community rituals at one end of the spectrum, to the practice of speaking to spirits on the other.
Some scholars argue that the indigenous conflict resolution systems, which work from the grassroots level, and therefore ensure a longer lasting peace by including the affected citizens themselves in the peace process, are more beneficial to the communities concerned, not only because of the promise of sustainable peace, but also because such systems ensure a form of ownership of the peace process. However, even in instances where some of these indigenous communities may be matrilineal in structure and give importance to the voices of the women in society, it is often the case that conflict resolution processes are patriarchal across the board. Chiefs and elders are often elderly men, as men are often viewed as having the wisdom and leadership qualities necessary to guide the community. This outlook continues to present itself not only in the traditional form of conflict resolution, but also in modernised conflict resolution processes that bridge the gap between Western approaches and indigenous approaches. In Papua New Guinea, for example, during the Bougainville conflict that ran from 1988 to 1998, even though the community itself was matrilineal and the women of Bougainville were called upon to make important decisions in peacetime, they were sidelined in the peace process. In order to push back against this lack of inclusion, these women came together in women’s groups and organisations to conduct prayers and marches, which ultimately resulted in their voices being heard in the subsequent peacemaking process. From an objective perspective, while these activities did in fact increase international pressure and raise awareness of the conflict, they did not put women at the centre of this particular peace process. Similar circumstances can be found among other communities that have faced conflict in, for example, Somalia and Sierra Leone.
Women need to be included at the table of peacemaking. Especially as they constitute a major part of all societies. In addition, women also bring unique perspectives into the peace building process, thereby ensuring that conversations on peace are sustained and returning to a state of conflict does not take place. What then can be done to activate a shift in the treatment of women in indigenous conflict resolution? A first step would be to look to the Western approach regarding the inclusion of women. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1325, which advocates for the inclusion of women in all stages of the peace process. The UNSC holds the view that including women in these types of procedures is integral to the maintenance of international peace and security. This resolution provides a potential starting point for what constitutes ‘best practices’ in gender sensitivity in the context of peace building. In order to fully realise the value of such an understanding, a paradigm shift is also needed toward how we consider and recognise the role of women in modern-day society, with women being valued as more than just home makers, but also as key decision makers.