Wanted: more women as peace brokers

Ambassador Swanee Hunt wants to turn on its head the notion that men wage war and make peace, while women stand by as hapless victims, contributing nothing to the peace process. Sustaining such stereotypes, she says, are history books and the media - including the seven-week coverage following Sept. 11. Women were veiled not only in Afghanistan, but in "the Sunday talk show lineup, where guest experts were a paltry 6.8 percent women," says Mrs. Hunt.

The former US Ambassador to Austria and current director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Hunt started a global initiative to address the problem in 1999. "Women Waging Peace" connects more than 200 women working in 21 conflict areas with each other and with policy shapers.

In a recent talk with the Monitor during a visit to Simmons College in Boston, Hunt drew on experiences from that effort to show why policymakers need to redesign the international-security paradigm toward greater inclusion of women.

On voices of moderation:

When I was an ambassador, Slobodan Milosevic was being called a peacemaker.... When we're trying to intervene in a war situation, we see very few options, so we often rely on people who have very much to lose from a successful peace agreement. We turn to men who plan wars and ask them to plan peace. It's poor casting. It's time to add to the talent pool.... Exceptions aside, women are often the most powerful voices for moderation in times of conflict.

On what women offer:

While most men come to the negotiating table directly from the war room and battlefield, women usually arrive straight out of civil activism and - take a deep breath - family care....

The prime minister of Bosnia said to me in 1996 that if we had women at the table, there would have been no war. Women think long and hard before they send their children out to kill other people's children.

On the reconciliation process:

Since people assume the men are firing the shells, the women are less branded after the conflict is quelled.

This was pointed out to me by a woman who runs a youth center in central Bosnia who said she could walk across the divided city for months before men dared to, and since women generally aren't behind the guns, they ... seem to have less psychological distance to go in the reconciliation process.

On ability to bridge divides:

Kept out of a formal policy structure, women are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the grassroots organizations. But their work at the community level is underfunded, overlooked, and often dismissed. These women may bring Hutu and Tutsi villagers together for traditional dance. Or they may host a radio program that counters the division along the tribal line.... It might not be a method the State Department would think up, but it works.

In Northern Ireland in 1996, Monica McWilliams and May Blood were told that only leaders of the top 10 political parties - all men - would be included in peace talks. With six weeks to organize, the women gathered 10,000 signatures to create a new political party, and then earned a place at the table.

When peace talks broke down, they were the ones who carried messages across the lines.... Their previous work with families and communities who had been affected by the trouble also enabled them to formulate salient contributions to peace agreements, such as getting former political prisoners to act as mediators in communities during "marching season."

On the future:

The European Union, G8, and the United Nations have all adopted language calling on the inclusion of women on the peace process. The bad news is, they are [all almost exclusively male], which is to say we have a long way to go.

• For more information, go to womenwagingpeace.net.

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