More women to the peace table

Allowing men who plan wars to plan peace is a bad habit. But international negotiators and policymakers can break that habit by including peace promoters, not just warriors, at the negotiating table. More often than not, those peace promoters are women. While most men come to the negotiating table directly from the war room and the battlefield, women usually arrive straight out of civil activism and - take a deep breath - family care.

Yet, traditional thinking about war and peace either ignores women or regards them only as victims. This oversight costs the world dearly. The wars of the past decade have gripped the public conscience largely because civilians were not merely caught in the crossfire; they were targeted, deliberately and brutally, by military strategists. Just as warfare has become "inclusive" - with civilian deaths often more common than soldiers' - so too must our approach toward ending conflict. Today, the goal is not simply the absence of war, but the creation of sustainable peace by fostering fundamental societal changes. Women are crucial in fostering such changes, since they are often at the center of nongovernmental organizations, popular protests, electoral referendums, and other citizen-empowering movements whose influences have grown with the global spread of democracy.

Women have been able to bridge the divide even in situations where leaders have deemed conflict resolution futile in the face of so-called intractable ethnic hatreds. Striking examples of women making the impossible possible come from Sudan, a country splintered by decades of civil war. In the south, women working together in the New Sudan Council of Churches conducted their own version of shuttle diplomacy and organized the Wunlit tribal summit in February 1999 to bring an end to bloody hostilities between the Dinka and Nuer peoples. The platform of Jerusalem Link, a federation of Palestinian and Israeli women's groups, served as a blueprint for negotiations over the final status of Jerusalem during the Oslo process. Former President Clinton, the week of the failed Camp David talks in July 2000, remarked simply, "If we'd had women at Camp David, we'd have an agreement."

Women in Northern Ireland are showing how diligently they must still work, not only to ensure a place at the negotiating table, but also to sustain peace by reaching critical mass in political office. In 1996, peace activists Monica McWilliams and May Blood created a new political party (the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, or NIWC) so that they could participate in the peace talks. Their efforts paid off. The women drafted key clauses of the Good Friday Agreement regarding the importance of mixed (Catholic and Protestant) housing, the particular difficulties of young people, and the need for resources to address these problems. The NIWC also lobbied for the early release and reintegration of political prisoners in order to combat social exclusion, and pushed for a comprehensive review of the police service so that all members of society would accept it.

The idea of women as peacemakers is not political correctness run amok. Social science research supports the stereotype of women as generally more collaborative than men and thus more inclined toward consensus and compromise. Since they usually have not been behind a rifle, women have less psychological distance to reach across a conflict line. They are also more accepted on the "other side," because it is assumed that they did not do any of the actual killing. Women often choose an identity, notably that of mothers, that cuts across international borders and ethnic enclaves. Given their roles as family nurturers, women have a huge investment in the stability of their communities. Because women know their communities, they can predict the acceptance of peace initiatives, as well as broker agreements in their own neighborhoods.

Common sense dictates that women should be central to peacemaking, to which they can bring their experience in conflict resolution. Yet, despite all the instances in which women have been able to play a role in peace negotiations, women remain relegated to the sidelines.

The role of women as peacemakers can be expanded in many ways. Mediators can and should insist on gender balance among negotiators to ensure a peace plan that is workable at the community level. When drafting principles for negotiation, diplomats should determine whether women's groups have already agreed upon key conflict-bridging principles, and whether their approach can serve as a basis for general negotiations. Moreover, to foster a larger pool of potential peacemakers, embassies in conflict areas should broaden their regular contact with local women leaders and sponsor women in training programs, both at home and abroad.

Lasting peace must be homegrown. Inclusive security helps police forces, military leaders, and diplomats do their jobs more effectively by creating coalitions with the people most invested in stability and most adept at building peace. Women working on the ground are eager to join forces. Just let them in.

Swanee Hunt is former US ambassador to Austria and director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Cristina Posa is an attorney at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York. This essay is adapted from a longer article appearing in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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