The power of women peacebuilders

Women do groundbreaking work for justice, peace and security. Yet, they continue to be sidelined in formal peace processes. As conflict continues to affect every region of the world, urgent action is needed to ensure that women are part of peacebuilding, and their contributions are visible and valued.

Date: Monday, October 28, 2019

Originally published on Medium.com/@UN_Women

In observance of International Women's Day, participants march from the centre of Monrovia to the Temple of Justice, home of the Liberian Supreme Court, where they staged a peaceful sit-in protest against gender-based violence.    Photo: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein
In observance of International Women's Day, participants march from the centre of Monrovia to the Temple of Justice, home of the Liberian Supreme Court, where they staged a peaceful sit-in protest against gender-based violence. Photo: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

From rubble, they rebuild. With singed scraps, they weave together the new fabric of a community, a country, and set the wounds of conflict on the long journey towards healing. This is the transformational work of women peacebuilders, leaders who work tirelessly to broker and keep peace, and rebuild their societies.

Women’s inclusion in peacebuilding processes is essential for long-term success. This is proven. Gender-equal participation contributes to longer, and lasting peace after conflict.

Despite strong evidence in favour of their inclusion, women remain largely invisible in and sidelined from formal peace processes and negotiations.

Since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, one of the most comprehensive roadmap towards gender equality and women’s rights worldwide, including in the area of peace and security, there has been some progress, but inequality persists.

Between 1992 and 2018, women were only 13 per cent of negotiators, 3 per centof mediators and only 4 per cent of signatories in major peace processes.

Even when women play instrumental roles in forging and sustaining peace, when they are at the table, we don’t hear enough about their contributions. Too often, media narratives portray women as vulnerable victims, failing to acknowledge their crucial work to bridge deep divides and mend their communities.

From the frontlines of countries in conflict and those recovering from decades of violence, here are some stories of powerful women peacebuilders.

“Women are leading efforts…in Syria.”

Rajaa Altalli, member of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, speaks at the UN on women, peace and security issues. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Rajaa Altalli, member of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, speaks at the UN on women, peace and security issues. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Rajaa Altalli leads a life she never dreamed of as a girl. When she was 12 years old, her father was arrested by the Syrian government for being part of a political party. She thought she would never have a political career because, “It was too costly for one family to have more than one person arrested.”

Know your facts: The conflict in Syria

However, today she is an advocate for women’s inclusion in the formal peace process in Syria, her home country, and one of twelve members of the Women’s Advisory Board appointed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria.

When the Syrian revolution began in 2007, Atalli knew she could not stand by and watch the crisis unfold. She began to document human rights violations, and in 2011, she co-founded an NGO to strengthen community engagement and advocacy for peace in Syria.

As an advocate, Altalli fights for spaces in which Syrian women of diverse backgrounds can sit together and decide how to move forward with the peace agenda. “We have had to push for women’s participation at every step, from the start of peace process to the constitutional process,” she said at an event during the UN Security Council Debate on Women, Peace and Security in 2018.

“Women are leading efforts to push forward, but also asking for more stability. They are pushing for political transition towards democracy in Syria, which is very promising, but they are risking their lives to tell the truth,” she says.

Syrian women have called for at least 30 per cent women in the Constitution Commission, which will draft the new Constitution, and have played an essential role in creating safe spaces for women, girls, and civilians in general, notes Altalli.

“The determination of Syrian women always makes me hopeful for the future.”

For more on Altalli’s groundbreaking work to ensure that women’s perspectives and leadership is taken into account in the peace process, read her full interview.

“Young women's inclusion in peacebuilding will create sustainable peace.”

Susan Sebit poses for a photo. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann
Susan Sebit. Photo: UN Women/Jodie Mann

Susan Sebit, 32, is an accomplished lawyer and advocate for women’s participation in governance and leadership.

Know your facts: The conflict in South Sudan:

For decades, her home country of South Sudan has been overwhelmed by conflict. Because of the tireless advocacy of leaders like Sebit, South Sudan’s peace process engaged a coalition of 40 women’s organizations in peace talks, leading to the inclusion of gender-responsive provisions in the agreement.

Young women head the coalition, challenging the traditional structures and norms of peacebuilding processes.

Affirming the young women’s leadership, Sebit says, “They were the first to think and understand the context of the current conflict; they were innovative.”

Because of the Coalition’s engagement in the formal process, the final peace agreement includes provisions such as a 35 per cent quota for women’s representation in the transitional government and funding to support rehabilitation of women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

“I believe young women's inclusion in peacebuilding will create sustainable peace.”

Read Sebit’s full interview.

“I gave everything to get justice.”

Maria Ba Caal sits with her family standing behind her. Photo:  UN Women/Ryan Brown
Maria Ba Caal with members of her family. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

In the Polochic Valley of north-easten Guatemala, amidst cornfields and homes made of brick and tin, lives a group of women who changed history.

Know your facts: The conflict in Guatemala
  • In 1960, armed conflict broke out between left-wing guerilla groups and the military forces, characterized by abductions, sexual violence, killing and dumping of bodies in mass graves. Access to land is a vital factor at the heart of the conflict.
  • An estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared in the conflict, 83 per cent of the victims were indigenous, leaving some 50,000 widows and 500,000 orphans.
  • UN-mediated peace talks began in 1994 and a peace agreement was signed in 1996. The Guatemalan peace accords contain 28 commitments to advance women’s rights, particularly those of indigenous women.

The abuelas (grandmothers) of Sepur Zarco, as they are respectfully referred to, are survivors of untold horror and loss during the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war.

The Guatemalan military set up a rest outpost in Sepur Zarco in 982, and, in retaliation for the Maya Q’eqchi leaders of the area seeking legal rights to their land, the military disappeared, tortured and killed the indigenous men, and raped and enslaved the women.

“When my husband and my 15-year-old son were taken away, they were working men. The army came in the afternoon and took them away… I don’t remember the date, but that

was the last time I saw my husband and son,” shared Maria Ba Caal, one of the fifteen abuelas, now 77 years old.

In 2011, the abuelas took their case to the highest court of Guatemala. After 22 hearings over the course of five years, the court convicted two former military officers of crimes against humanity on counts of rape, murder and slavery, and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and their communities.

“To me it’s very important that our voice and our history is known to our country so that what we lived through never happens to anyone else,” says Ba Caal of the groundbreaking case—the first time in history that a national court prosecuted sexual slavery during conflict using national legislation and international criminal law.

The women fought for justice and post-conflict reparations not only for themselves, but for future generations. The reparations they pushed for are long-lasting, peacebuilding measures: the reopening of files on land claims, creation of a health centre, improvement and construction of schools, and scholarships for women and children.

Although the Sepur Zarco outpost was formally closed in 1988 and the national peace agreement signed in 1996, the abuelas are still waiting for some of the reparation measures to be implemented.

“I gave everything to get justice,” said Ba Caal. “I want to see the results before I die.”

Read more about the Guatemalan conflict, the abuelas, and their fight to bring peacebuilding reparations to Sepur Zarco.

“Impunity is not acceptable.”

Drita Hajdari. Photo: UN Women
Drita Hajdari Photo: UN Women

To date, no one has been successfully charged with conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo*. Drita Haidari is working to change that.

Know your facts: the conflict in Kosovo

Haidari is a prosecutor for the Special Prosecution Office of Kosovo. She investigates and prosecutes war crimes.

“Among other war crimes, sexual assault is one of the most serious and traumatic crimes a human being can experience,” says Haidari.

Sexual violence had been strategically used in the Kosovo conflict to humiliate and degrade women, but there are no accurate statistics on the number of victims. While some survivors have come forward with their stories, many are not yet ready to do so, as they fear stigmatization from their society and families.

Haidari emphasizes that when encouraging survivors to report cases of sexual violence, it is crucial that they know they would not face consequences or retaliation in their day-to-day lives.

“By prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence crimes, which is the victim’s right, we are first recognizing these acts as crimes and [giving the message that] impunity is not acceptable. This gives a confirmation to the victims that what they have been through constitutes an injustice and a crime committed against them,” Haidari explains.

Although there is no statute of limitations for war crimes, Haidari shares that the greatest challenge to prosecuting cases today is the passage of time. Conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo dates back two decades.

“As the State Prosecutor in the Special Prosecution of Kosovo dealing with cases of war crimes, Haidari affirms that, “It is never too late to report a case…. I see it as a human responsibility, as well as a legal obligation to deal with these cases until they are fully resolved.”

Read Haidari’s full interview on her work to prosecute war crimes against women in Kosovo.

* All references to Kosovo are made in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)