For real global security, put women in their place -- at the negotiating table

The usual approach to terror prevention and conflict resolution hasn't gotten results. It's time we start using our most underutilized, valuable security asset – women. From Northern Ireland to Liberia, women have helped broker peace where military efforts and traditional negotiations failed.

While the current global financial and economic crisis brings many nations to their public-spending knees, military spending continues to increase: 6 percent last year and 49 percent since 2000. In the United States military, expenditures now account for just under half the world total (46.5 percent). It seems fair to ask: What is our goal, and are we getting our money’s worth?

Approaching terror prevention, conflict resolution, and peacekeeping in the usual way hasn’t yielded much progress. If our objective is creating durable, livable security for citizens here and abroad, we need to start paying attention to our most valuable and underutilized asset: women.

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This fall at the United Nations, governments commemorated the 10th anniversary of the first UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 1325) that called for the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict decisionmaking. Yet few who supported the resolution are calling for celebration. Women comprise over 50 percent of the population worldwide and often more than 75 percent of victims of insecurity. But they have made up only 2.5 percent of those signing peace agreements and 7 percent of those engaged in negotiations over the last 20 years.

Women working across boundaries

Wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan exposed the fact that women are targets, and violence against them is a primary weapon in many conflicts. But those situations also revealed, that in the midst of conflicts, women were quietly working across boundaries to protect communities and overcome hostilities. Unfortunately, the four UN resolutions on women, peace, and security in the last 10 years have had little success in getting these women an official place at security decision-making tables.

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Critics against UNSCR 1325’s full implementation cite local resistance to include women at decision-making tables in deeply patriarchal societies. Even the United Nations was cowed into excluding women from negotiations in Afghanistan under pressure that women would jeopardize a potential peace agreement with the Taliban. But excluding the skills and voices of women under-represents their needs and the interests they represent, in itself jeopardizing a lasting peace.

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Important stakeholders

Furthermore, investment in peace processes is undermined if the peace is not sustained. History has shown that the most sustainable peace is built with the widest stakeholder and community buy-in. In addition to making up 50 percent of the population, women frequently bring firsthand experience of exclusion and offer the perspective of caregivers of their communities. In peace negotiations leading to Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement, women prioritized the constitutional inclusion of social services crucial to addressing the root causes of social inequality and discontent.

Even in the most patriarchal societies, women are working behind the scenes to protect their families and secure basic human rights amidst conflict. Their exclusion neglects the need for their vital perspectives and skills in the peacebuilding and reconciliation process. Rather than leaving security negotiations only in the hands of those with a limited view of security – arsenal-based and often self-serving – bringing those who have found ways to survive and overcome histories of abuse and exclusion without weapons is a more cost-effective approach.

A better arsenal

Women peacebuilders’ inexpensive arsenal of dialogue and non-violent protest, and breaking down animosities toward ‘the other’ has proven effective in conflicts across the globe. In Northern Ireland women crossed sectarian lines and began the dialogues that supported a peace process. Women stood up – Christians and Muslims together – to confront warlords and government forces terrorizing Liberians, and as a result they brought down a dictator. And women forced and continue to enforce ceasefires between the government and rebel groups, on behalf of Muslim, indigenous, and Christian civil society in Mindanao in the Philippines.

Women are also effective in providing traditional security. The United Nations has increased efforts to get more female police officers in peacekeeping missions around the world, after finding their work in Liberia and Sudan, for example, uniquely effective. Lt. Col. Asmahan Alawaisheh, the first Jordanian woman to join a UN police mission, recently spoke about her work in Sudan. She spoke to a gathering of policy makers, UN peacekeepers, international nongovermental organizations, and grassroots women peacebuilders from 47 countries at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice in San Diego, California.

The traditional security she provides is rewarding, but, she notes, the longer-lasting benefit may come from her skills as a civil engineer, helping to construct schools and community centers, along with her modeling that Muslim women can be engaged in security and reconstruction efforts. Rakhi Sahi, former commander of the Indian all-women UN policing unit in Liberia, reported societal changes in attitudes and openness, not just momentary protection, encouraged by her unit as they engaged the citizens of Monrovia.

In today’s security dialogue the search for clear objectives and funding efficiency for security efforts must be broadened to include the voices of those who have addressed historic hatred on the ground without resorting to confrontation and violence. Peacebuilding women of Israel and Palestine who have been meeting and talking for years need a place at the table. Women of Southern and Northern Sudan, where war looms large, now need a place at the table.

In these insecure times, thinking about the bang for our security buck should include using all of our assets, especially women peacebuilders.

Dee Aker is the deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) at the University of San Diego. Jennifer Freeman is the program officer for the Women PeaceMakers Program at the IPJ, which documents the work of women advancing peace and security in conflict and post-conflict situations.

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