2012-2013 National Peace Essay Contest winner.
by Molly Nemer
United States Institute of Peace
“Grounded in Peace: Why Gender Matters”
While discourse often presumes war is gendered, with men the violators and
women the violated,
the reality is far more nuanced. Peace, then, must be
gendered too. Women and men experience war differently; gendered thinking
considers the multiple experiences and perspectives of each. Gender
mainstreaming is a process of inclusion, enabling sustained peace that considers
the needs of all stakeholders, especially women who suffer disproportionately
during and after war.
Gender mainstreaming requires more than just talking about women’s
needs; it involves getting women talking. Not mere victims, women can be powerful
agents of peace, possessing the collaborative sensibilities needed to bridge social
and political divides. Wartime rhetoric too often essentializes women, lumping
“womenandchildren” into one vulnerable mass.
To be sure, women are
vulnerable to patriarchal rage but they have no one angle: they are victims, they
are combatants, they are sometimes both. Perhaps it is within the role of victim that
women, so often knocked to the ground, are better able to recognize the root
causes of violence,
addressing them to foster peace. Only when those voices on
the bottom rise to meet more powerful voices on top, can harmony prevail. The
women of Liberia have proven their voice; the women of Haiti are still struggling to
Both Liberia and Haiti are of unique origin, the world’s first independent
black republics. Liberia was borne of slaves freed by emancipation, Haiti by revolt.
But freedom did not ensure peace amid social inequity and exploitation. In Liberia,
America’s former slaves lorded over indigenous tribes for over a century. Several
coups later, in 1989 Liberia found itself at the start of 14 years of civil wars, wars in
which both government and rebel forces terrorized civilians with rape, mutilation,
and slaughter, decimating the country’s infrastructure. Unlike Liberia, Haiti
ostensibly fell victim to an external enemy, a natural disaster. In fact, the
earthquake of January 2010 exacerbated an unofficial civil war of sorts, one that
long pitted the corrupt elite against the 80 percent
impoverished already living
amid a background of extreme gender violence.
Liberian women’s peace initiatives began with the first atrocities and did not
let up even after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2003, an
agreement facilitated by the tireless determination of fed-up women who rejected
the gender paradigm of victim to become agents of social change.
mobilized through various groups across societal divides, transcending class,
ethnicity, and religion.
As important, they collaborated with women from Sierra
Leone and Guinea, understanding that peace in Liberia was dependent upon
regional trust and support. While grounding their initiatives in local culture and
needs, they built capacity and sought funding by transnational networking with
influential organizations, heads of state, and the United Nations.
goals of stopping wholesale abuse and providing basic humanitarian needs to their
shattered communities, these women had a long-term commitment to building
sustainable peace. Their fight was to bring warring leaders to the peace table, while
also demanding a seat for themselves.
Momentum drew women to the movement who might have ordinarily been
silenced by traditional gender norms and politics as usual.
In 2003, Women of
Liberia Mass Action for Peace rallied thousands of Muslim and Christian women,
many from displacement camps, to join a long-term sit-in, pledging to remain until
then-President Taylor agreed to their terms for peace. When he proved
unresponsive, they moved their protest to the Parliament at which time they
convinced him to meet with the rebel factions. The mass of everyday women who
gathered outside the doors at those critical peace talks proved as potent as the few
female representatives officially allowed inside. They lobbied organizers and wrote
position papers to guide the negotiations and, perceiving the men were not
engaged in serious discussion, they blocked the doors so no one could exit until the
agreement was signed.
Activist women then set their sights on voter education, leading to the
democratic election of President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Africa’s first female head of
state. Its infrastructure and psyche decimated by war, Liberia is slowly on the mend.
Despite improvements in women’s legal rights (along with an increased number of
women in the police force and deployment of the UN’s first all-female peacekeeping
unit) gender-based violence remains prevalent, though impunity is no longer
guaranteed. The continued ownership of women at a grassroots level combined
with top-down engagement will prove key to Liberia’s gradual restoration.
The disregard of women’s ownership and voice was evident in the
immediate aftermath of Haiti’s quake, providing a cautionary tale about gender
consideration gone awry. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP), ascribing
to a widely accepted theory that women would more reliably distribute food fairly
among their children and families, enacted a “women-only” food distribution
program in Port-au-Prince. Josette Sheeran of WFP explains that given “desperate
poverty, access to food is power;”
distributing the vouchers to women would shift
the power dynamic, protecting them from violence. What was meant to be
empowering, instead signaled gender exclusion,
enraging men outside the
distribution perimeter who then assaulted the women as they left the guarded area
for their long walk home.
Theory did not mesh with reality. Had local nongovernmental and grassroots
agencies been consulted, international organizations might have made a different
choice. The local women might have relayed what happened when the Haitian city
of Gonaives was devastated by a hurricane in 2004. Initially, young men looted the
food trucks destined for distribution points. The humanitarians thus decided to
distribute the food primarily to women, presumed more passive, at secured
In a prequel to 2010, men attacked the women once they left the
guarded distribution perimeter but because these incidents were generally not well
documented, the lesson was lost on the international community.
A decision meant to benefit women, in fact, worked against them. The
international actors were more concerned about food security than the human
security of women returning to their camps,
camps in which gender did not
appear to have been considered at all. Overcrowding, poor lighting and sanitation,
flimsy tents or tarps, and utter lack of privacy made conditions ripe for rampant
gender-based violence. Local women should have been consulted about their own
survival and security needs, rather than enduring top-down decisions that proved
ineffective. The mantra must be “Nothing about us without us.”
Without gender consideration, there can be no security, no sustainable
peace. Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee notes that lasting peace requires
“healing those victimized by war, making them strong again… It’s helping victims
rediscover their humanity so they can once again become productive members of
communities… It’s not only making [society] whole, but better.”
Though of clear
benefit to women, gender mainstreaming is not just about women. It is also about
understanding men and what sustains violence. During ill-attempted food
distribution, already alienated men become even more enraged when denied equal
access to food; then the women suffer. Lacking adequate psychosocial support,
male ex-combatants feel emasculated upon returning to a home in which the
women have taken lead roles; then the women suffer. Reintegration programs
largely designed for men do not take into account the needs of stigmatized women
and girl ex-combatants; then the women suffer.
Addressing the root causes of
sustained conflict through a gendered lens is essential for sustained peace.
Involving women in the peacebuilding process is more likely to change the status
quo that contributed to the conflict in the first place.
To find the will to speak, women need to know their voices will be heard,
bottom to top, without recrimination. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 supports
this empowerment, recognizing that participation of women is integral to building
sustainable peace. Follow-up Resolution 1820 takes further aim at gender-based
violence, recognizing that “widespread rape of women in war effectively prevents
the very participation in public life that Resolution 1325 identifies as essential to
devising durable peace.”
All barriers to inclusivity from concerns for safety to
the stigma of victimization must be removed. Meetings must be accessible and
welcoming. In Haiti, meetings were often held on military bases that locals could not
enter. Had they been able to enter, a Creole translation would not have guaranteed
understanding. UN-speak can be cumbersome even to skilled practitioners, gender
terminology confusing. One UN staff member recalls a Cambodian workshop in
which “gender mainstreaming,” translated into Khmer as “men and women jumping
into the stream together.”
In a sense, that is an apt description. Men and
women, from all levels of society, must jump into this new paradigm together. All
for one, even if it is as difficult as swimming upstream.
Haitians have a tradition of “one helping the other.”
This came into play
after the quake as women mobilized not for their own rights, but to begin repairing
their communities. Imagine if international donors had supported their needs and
capacities how different their aftershocks might have been. Who better to break
new ground than those who have nearly been broken?