Best way to make peace out of war? Women.

Women are disproportionately affected by war as victims. Yet of the 24 major peace processes since 1992, fewer than 3 percent of signatories to agreements have been women. Including women in negotiations is not just fair; it's indispensable to durable peace.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day – a time to take stock of the global picture for women. While the last century has been marked by the remarkable progress of women in many fields of endeavor, when it comes to matters of war and peace – the picture is mixed. Women continue to be disproportionately victimized by war and marginalized in peacemaking.

In today’s dangerous and conflict-stricken world, more needs to be done so that women are protected in conflict, but also engaged and counted in post-conflict resolution, especially peace building. Including women in peace negotiations is not just an issue of fairness or equity, but also of effectiveness and efficacy. Excluding women from the rebuilding process jeopardizes a society’s post-conflict recovery.

Top 10 countries for women: Global Gender Gap Index 2010

Rape as a weapon of war

Take the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Colombia, where women civilians are no longer just collateral damage, but targets on the frontlines. Not only are women displaced by conflicts, they are subjected to rape as a weapon of war: an estimated 60,000 rapes in the Balkans in the 1990s, as many as half a million rapes during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) more than 200,000 cases of rape have been documented since 1996. These numbers represent just a fraction of all people who have been terrorized by sexual violence. The result is ravaged communities and shattered lives, proving the adage that the war might be over, but the violence continues.

Protection of women is a high priority for American foreign policy. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others have strongly condemned mass rape and raised awareness of the nefarious effects of sexual violence on societies. That said, much remains to be done, starting with eradicating the notion that sexual violence and rape are inevitable outcomes of war. What has to change are not just the behaviors but also the norms. This is simply not a tolerable form of normalizing violence, nor is it historically correct. International peacekeepers and police have been given explicit mandates to protect civilians; these must now be enforced and perpetrators must be arrested and vigorously prosecuted.

Beyond protection to participation

But protection is not enough. Women must also have a say in peace negotiations. Of the 24 major peace processes since 1992, fewer than 3 percent of signatories to peace agreements have been women. Women are also strikingly absent when it comes to chief mediating roles. The lack of women at the negotiating table means not only an unstable peace, but also a peace that does not address critical issues that contain the seeds of further violence, including sexual violence, abuses by government and rebel security forces, and demobilization programs for female combatants.

Engaging women in peace negotiations is thus critical, not just because it upholds women’s rights or promotes equality. Their involvement in peace building is vital to an entire society’s recovery. The opportunity cost for ignoring half the population in any fragile post-conflict society – obvious, though difficult to quantify – is reflected by the fact that over 40 percent of post-conflict countries have slid back into conflict within a decade. International actors must insist on opportunities for women to participate in the political processes, and if necessary, quotas should be instituted. Without quotas, very few, if any, women would have had a seat in the recent Afghan Peace Jirgas.

Data collection can't be gender blind

Finally, we need to begin counting women, both literally and figuratively. Wars and post-conflict reconstruction processes have very different impacts on the sexes, and therefore must be monitored separately. However, in many countries, data collection, including casualty and displacement numbers, is gender blind, which is to say that data doesn’t distinguish between men and women. We can even see this in the latest United States unemployment figures. Rarely do such figures describe whether lay-offs are affecting women differently than men, but instead we deduce the gender by the sector represented. This skews the way we look at the world, define problems, and generate solutions. In short, it often leads to ineffective policies.

IN PICTURES: Military women of the world

As we celebrate the rights that women have acquired over the last 100 years, let’s make sure that our policies reflect our aspirations in the decades that lie ahead. Women cannot remain disproportionately affected by war as victims, fight wars and protect nations as soldiers, and yet be denied their rightful place as peacemakers. Without the full participation of women, durable and lasting peace will not be attainable in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, or Europe. At home and abroad, we need to celebrate the advances of women today. But when we wake up tomorrow, it is time to transform the celebration into a firm commitment to bring half of the world’s population fully into participating in the decisions of the 21st century.

Tara Sonenshine is executive vice president of the US Institute of Peace. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat and Kathleen Kuehnast, together with Helga Hernes, are the editors of “Women and War: Power and Protection in the 21st Century."

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