Women as Actors Rather than Victims of War

by Sarah Cliffe

This essay raises a series of fascinating questions about identity and women's participation in peace-making. The focus is—rightly, I believe—on women as actors rather than victims of war.

This is not to say that we should ignore the particular impact of conflict and violence on women: in the last two decades, for example, women and children have made up close to 80 percent of refugees and those internally displaced. Women generally bear the greatest burden of coping with the effects of conflict, whether in trying to feed and care for families that have lost all their income and assets, rebuilding homes that have been destroyed, or dealing with being chased from their neighborhoods and starting a new life elsewhere. And whatever the final statistical wisdom proves to be on the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and intimidation, there is no doubt that rape and sexual humiliation of women have been used to to inflict suffering and create a climate of fear, from the conflicts in west and central africa, to authoritarian regimes in Chile and Argentina, to the Balkans, to the violence fuelled by drug monies in central America.

Activists—male and female—have done much to publicize these effects and to help women to organize to claim recognition and reparations for the harm suffered. The essay highlights however an element which is equally and perhaps even more important in considering the links between women's identity and violence—women's role as actors in peace-making and in rebuilding societies that have been torn apart by violence. It outlines clearly the “fact of life” that women do not have unique identities—they may be involved in efforts to resolve conflict as much through their political, ethnic or religious identity as through their sense of solidarity as women.

This raises an interesting question of the trade-offs between promoting participation of women in peace-making processes as a separate “women's representation”, versus promoting their participation as part of the other groupings (whether governmental, political and resistance organisations, social movements, or community representation) in which they take part, and from which part of their identity is drawn. In the end I believe—as do the authors of the essay—that this is a choice for the women in the societies concerned: they will have a stronger sense of whether they have shared interests as women which would benefit from being separately represented, or whether they feel energies should be devoted to making sure that their political, social and community groups are adequately representative of, and accountable to, the perspectives of the women that they should represent. Another way of thinking about this is through the lens of “inclusive enough” agreements, suggested by the 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development. What does “inclusive enough” mean in terms of women's representation in the political settlements that aim to end violence. On the one hand having no women engaged is clearly a red flag, as it would be for other major identity groups in the societies concerned. But HOW women are represented is probably best left to be thrashed out by the societies concerned.

A second issue implicitly raised by the essay is the divergence between Western pressure – real or perceived – for the inclusion of women and women's issues in peace processes, versus local perspectives. This can sometimes be overblown, and manipulated as an attack on local women's activists. But it is a real concern. Most studies of programs to change women's political, economic and social status show that this is a long struggle, and that it needs to be undertaken within local realities. The national solidarity program in Afghanistan, for example, was shown to have a statistically significant improvement on perceptions (amongst both men and women) of women's ability to lead. But the change was relatively small, persuading less than 10 percent of the concerned communities of this change in mindset over three years. This often contrasts with donor perceptions of change, and with a technocratic approach that argues that well-written top down “gender action plans” can solve gender equity problems in a short space of time. There is a need to ensure that support and funding to women's movements (which can provide crucial space for thinking and action) is delivered sensitively, and is not perceived as imposing external models.

All of the above essentially agrees with what I understand to be the perspectives of the authors. Where I would take issue is on two points – one an omission, and one a simplification.

The omission is simple but perhaps important. The angle of the essay is primarily on women's agency in political talks, with the examples of Northern Ireland, the Philippines and so on. But there is another element of peace-building where women's agency is crucial, and this is in the reform of state institutions to have them serve all citizens. Often less visible than political negotiations, there may actually be a crucial peace-building gain to having women involved in decision-making on reform in public finances, or in the security forces. Indeed, the World Development Report points to examples—Nicaragua's security and justice reforms versus those of neighboring countries, for instance—where the involvement of women plausibly appears to have been one of the most significant factors in the success of reforms. This point, on women's involvement in the “hard” sectors rather than only in more socially-oriented discussions, is often under-attended in the debate on gender and violence.

The simplification is the argument that women are better at cross-sectarian organizing, with the examples of Northern Ireland, Somalia and Sudan. Perhaps this is so—certainly women have played this role courageously in some cases, and in the face of rough criticism from their own communities. But so have men. So two points on this. First, it may make sense in each society to identify where the strengths lie in cross-sectarian communication: are these in women's groups, in trade unions, in business associations, in political parties, or in organizations dealing with social issues, for example? Second, while this can be an important strength for women and an activity women's groups may want to consider, let's not push the idea that “reaching across divides” is women's unique purview. Because we want all actors, men included, to feel responsible for this. And importantly, because while cross-sectarian organizing and awareness-raising can be incredibly valuable, it has some risk of boxing women in to a “soft” area of conflict resolution. We do indeed need women who can play this role, but we also want empowered women who feel that they can contribute in many ways to peace-building—starting political parties, reforming their security forces and governments, starting businesses that provide a sense of hope for communities, as just a few examples.

Sarah Cliffe: Special Adviser and Assistant Secretary-General for Civilian Capacities at the United Nations. Before joining the United Nations, she worked at the World Bank, covering post-conflict reconstruction, community driven development and civil service reform. She was chief of mission for the Bank’s program in Timor-Leste from 1999 to 2002; led the Bank’s Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries Group from 2002-2007 and was Director of Operations for East Asia and the Pacific from 2007 – 2009. She was Special Representative and Director for the World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development. She holds degrees in History and Economic Development from Cambridge and Columbia Universities.

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