Nobel Peace Prize 2011: Groundbreaking recognition that women get the job done

When the The Nobel Peace Prize 2011 is awarded to three women tomorrow, the committee will recognize what policymakers have long ignored: the work of women in peace building. It's time to move beyond 'peace' that depends on warlords to engage all key stakeholders, especially women.

When the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 is awarded to three women on Dec. 10, the committee will be recognizing something policymakers have ignored for centuries: the work of women in peace building.

Female individuals (such as this year’s joint winners, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, an activist in Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, of Yemen) have been honored in the past. But now so will the concept of women’s “full participation in peace-building work,” as the Nobel Committee put it. And that recognition is new.

For nearly two decades, I and others in a global women’s peace network have been pressing for just such a shift in the international security paradigm.

The world needs to move beyond “peace” that depends on warlords toward peace built on the expertise of all key stakeholders, especially women. We need to move from unstable interventions to inclusive security. That requires a major shift in how policymakers think about achieving peace.

The concept of “inclusive security” was born in 1999 at Harvard University, when 100 women gathered from around the world to document how they were pursuing just and sustainable peace. Their voices needed to be heard in circles where policy is formed.

Defying headlines that call them only victims, these women leaders focused on their ability to create change – not on their vulnerability – and on the need for a representative, practical, and efficient approach to managing conflict.

They were the first of the Women Waging Peace Network, now 1,000 strong and a driving force around the world. They’re engaged in resolving conflicts, from mediating an end to resource disputes between communities to monitoring potential flashpoints within them.

One of our early network members was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was to become the first elected female president in Africa, followed by Leymah Gbowee, who had mobilized Liberian women across ethnic and religious divides to help end 14 years of civil war.

Through direct engagement with other members and through her example in Liberia, President Johnson Sirleaf has played a formative role in building the network. For example, her appointees in Monrovia helped us organize “Inspiration Days,” to encourage local women to stand as candidates – sometimes even as tribal chiefs – throughout Liberia.

The president, who ran in the first and recent election as “Ma Ellen,” is known worldwide for her focus on economic and social development. The image I hold is from early in her tenure. As we drove from church to her home, she got out of the car and pushed past her security detail to examine bricks being made in the street. “I wanted to be sure that the second lot of bricks matched the first,” she explained. Such attention to detail.

Ms. Gbowee brings to our network her experience organizing Liberia’s Muslim and Christian women. Together, they pressured warring parties into the 2002 negotiations that ultimately ended those years of horrific war.

The award-winning film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” documents that bold and instructive story. In the fragile peacetime, she worked with the network on police and military reform. At a workshop in Monrovia, she echoed the sentiment of women in dozens of conflict zones: “Liberians are used to running away from armed security personnel. We need to transform that impulse so that people run towards them.”

The key to success? Policymakers recognizing that women transform peace processes. From preventing war to stopping it to rebuilding, women are essential.

A growing body of research shows that they identify early warning signals that often are invisible to men. At negotiations, they bring a broader range of issues to the table, giving talks greater legitimacy in communities that must later accept the outcome.

Women’s approach to negotiation and mediation also makes a difference. They promote dialogue and can help men save face, lowering the temperature of a confrontation that otherwise would overheat – and stall.

But women don’t stop when the agreement is signed. Over years of implementation, they are apt to maintain their focus on a just and lasting peace, insisting that reconstruction address the needs of marginalized groups. With their perspectives accounted for, disaffected members of society have a greater incentive to see the negotiated agreement hold.

Taking this inclusive approach further, women have built partnerships between leaders in and outside of government, so as to bridge legislation and the people it serves. The Nobel Committee highlighted the value of this collaboration by pairing two Liberians: one the highest-level elected official, and the other a dynamic grassroots activist.

The story of Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee is extraordinary but not unique. Acknowledging that heartening fact, the Committee has exhorted the world to turn toward the field known as “women, peace, and security.” From our experience, we know this can work.

Swanee Hunt served as US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. She is founder and chair of the Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security. Her third book, “Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security,” was published this fall by Duke University Press.

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