Let Us Start by Listening Seriously

by Rita Manchanda and Antonia Potter Prentice

It’s hard to write a rebuttal when one gets the strong sense that even those, like Chuck Sudetic, who claims to be so disappointed by the ideas we shared (or the way we shared them?), actually subscribe very much to the main points we were making.

Elisabeth Rehn has dedicated her professional life to this work, and a key lesson her response to our piece, and her work in general, teaches conflict mediators, and peace process support actors is to listen, listen, and then listen some more to a broad representation of people on the ground, including of course women. Listening, and acting on what is heard, and reporting back on those actions are highly validating for the person being heard, especially when their experience is normally one of disempowerment and marginalization.

Unwittingly but helpfully answering Chuck’s vociferous call for ‘more practicality’ she describes the effective and pragmatic mechanism of the Senegal Women’s Situation Room. She trenchantly reminds statisticians, policy analysts and the writers of glib op eds that each individual experience of conflict related sexual violence is a shock to the world’s conscience, and a wound to its victim’s very soul that can never be forgotten. So whether there are in reality handfuls, hundreds or thousands of such cases, each individual one stands as a horror on its own. She reminds us that for victims of these kinds of crimes of conflict, peace and justice aren’t a ‘choice’ or a ‘tension’; they are quite simply the same thing. Impunity means for them that the conflict is not over. There’s no rebutting that from our side, and we’re pretty sure that Sarah Cliffe and Chuck Sudetic feel the same way.

What she does not perhaps spell out is an insight that comes out more in Sarah Cliffe’s piece and is an important finding of the 2011 World Bank Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development to which she referred: that investing in citizen security, justice, and jobs is essential to reducing violence in societies, especially post-conflict ones, a finding which relates quite as much to women as to men. The effects of sexual violence in conflict, especially when not dealt with, lead to extreme social distortions and specific, negative socio-economic consequences for the survivor and her or his family. It’s not hard to agree that sexual violence is bad for people, bad for communities, bad for societies; but recognizing that preventing it by empowering women across the board, alongside changing attitudes, seems to be a tougher sell. We would maintain that socio-economic empowerment as is as important for women as political empowerment: with resources, comes status and choices; with status and choices come voice and power.

Chuck Sudetic is right: violence is everywhere, the cultures that make this ok have got to change, and clumsy international attempts to support local efforts to do this have got to get more nuanced. Chuck wants us to fix this now; Sarah reminds us that cultural change, attitudinal change take years to take root. We agree with him: we wish it had been fixed yesterday; but Sarah’s right, mind-set changes are incremental, and if each society is to find its way from the ‘inside out’, as it were, it must set its own pace for change – taking into account women’s views alongside men’s about the pace that fits.

Sarah also asserts that we have oversimplified our case on women’s coalition building across divides. She argues that men done this, but – frustratingly – does not give us examples which compare to those we cited for women, as this is a gap in our knowledge we are keen to address. We would love to see how such peacebuilding coalitions might (or have already?) connect and work with women’s ones. She is clearly worried about the marginalizing effect of ‘single identity’ organising implied by women’s organizing for peace, and thinks that we were ignoring the vital need for such groups to collaborate, cooperate with and even co-opt men. We agree that political parties, trades unions and the like are all vital organs in society which can be used in re-building societies post conflict, and should all have a prominent place for women; but we think she underplays the fact that women, as an enormously marginalized group in public life across the globe, identify themselves that they need ‘private’ or ‘safe’ spaces to gear themselves up, build tactics and strategies before, or alongside the work they do with or to men to build peace. We need shared, inclusive spaces to work things out, for sure; but if we’re not coming into that room as equals in terms of our access to power and resources, we might need some time to prep ourselves, if that’s ok with you.

This brings us to Sarah’s emphasis on the appealingly pragmatic concept of the ‘inclusive enough’ peace process, which sounds a warning bell for us. Who defines what’s inclusive enough? We maintain that the marginalisation of women has a special quality precisely because women represent such a vast ‘minority’ group – more than three and a half billion people spread across every society in the world. It would be impractical indeed for an inclusive approach to dogmatically require a mathematical proportion of representation of each defined grouping involved in any given conflict, but the sheer numbers tell us just how disproportionate the exclusion of women continues to be and why Chuck is right to call for an urgent response to that.

Finally, we’d like to address Chuck’s point that to talk of labels is to put at a theoretical level an issue of lived urgency, which must be dealt with in the immediate reality. Writing in 16th November 2012 International Herald Tribune, Chrystia Freeland examines the attribution of Obama’s recent presidential win to the ‘rainbow coalition’ of minorities, which included, significantly, a large proportion of women. She discusses research on creative performance and identity integration carried out by the Singapore Management University and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan which shows, say its authors “that ethnic minorities and women in male dominated professions are most creative when they have found a way to believe that their ‘multiple and conflicting social identities are compatible… those who see their identities as compatible they are better at combining ideas from the two identities to come up with something new… People who have high identity integration, it is not that they are more easy-going. It is that they find peace between the two different worlds’.

This useful and practical piece of research shows how valuable women’s skills in multiple identity handling is; and hence it demonstrates how Chuck has misunderstood a fundamental point which Sarah and Elisabeth grasp: when we talk about women’s labels and identities we are talking about the different ways in which they are agents and actors – movers and shakers in their own lives – as well as the roles which cultures and histories have boxed them into. We weren’t reducing them to theory; we were insisting on their agency. He’s right, cultures need to change which currently treat the violence and the discrimination if not as OK, then certainly as non urgent and ignorable. But what he actually does is to pose a series of questions, referring himself in a loose and anecdotal way to a series of briefly sketched cases, which still don’t give us the solution that he clearly has in mind, apart from the fact that this violence must in the end be met with violence. What was the answer he was offering to the nightmare story of the twisting of good intentions from the Congo?

What we suggested, and continue to suggest, is that we start by listening seriously, urgently indeed, to the voices of women affected by this violence at all levels and in all ways, wherever they may be; let them tell us all what they think, want and need. And let’s act on that, men and women, together.

Rita Manchanda: Research Director of South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) and has written extensively on security and human rights issues in the region. In particular she has intellectually shaped the discourse on feminizing security. Among her many publications is the volume Women War and Peace in South Asia: beyond Victimhood to Agency which has been a pioneering study on feminist theorizing and praxis on conflict and peace building.

Antonia Potter Prentice: Prior to her current work on gender, peace and security as Senior Associate to the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office, Senior Advisor to the Dialogue Advisory Group and consultant for organizations including the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the Global Network of Women Peacemakers and Terre des Hommes, she was Country Director for Oxfam GB in Indonesia, its largest programme in the SE Asia region. She initiated the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue’s work on women, gender and peacemaking and has worked for a number of NGOs, mostly in Asia, having lived in Afghanistan, America (New York), Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Switzerland (Geneva), Timor Leste, and currently Belgium (Brussels). Antonia is a Board Member of the Democratic Progress Institute and is married with three small children. She is starting out on Twitter at Antonia_pp.

To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.