One of the most vexing problems of global security is the recurring nature of conflict: Old wars rarely die. More often, they peter out in ceasefires of exhaustion. Fragile truces bring an end to hostilities but do not address the underlying grievances that led to the wars in the first place.
And then they reignite.
Of the 39 conflicts that have erupted in the past 10 years, only eight are entirely new. Thirty-one are recurrences of conflicts that were never fully resolved.
It is no coincidence that most of these conflicts occur in societies where women have little power and are excluded from the process of negotiating and implementing the peace.
Peace agreements typically fall apart when they fail to resolve the issues that caused the conflict in the first place—including ethnic tensions, inequality, and injustice. But women are the ones who face these problems every day, and so they’re the ones who will bring the issues to the negotiating table and make sure they have practical solutions.
Ten years ago this week, the United Nations took a historic step in this direction by recognizing that women are not merely victims of war, they are also indispensible agents of peace. Yet progress in including women in the peacemaking process has lagged. On this anniversary of the unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that women are at last seated at the negotiating table – and in meaningful roles.
It is indisputable that women and children suffer disproportionately from war, including as targets of rape. We must do more to protect them. But relegating them to the role of passive victims keeps them powerless. When the “victims” organize, they are potent advocates for change, as they were in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Liberia.
Women can be effective peacemakers because they have a broad view of security. To them, it is more than the absence of armed fighters. It means their sons and daughters can go to school safely. It means they can get medical attention when they give birth, and have their children vaccinated. It means returning refugees can find land, water and jobs. Broadening our definition of security in this way helps prevent simmering grievances from recurring and escalating.
Of course, including women does not guarantee that peace talks will succeed. But recent history shows that agreements that exclude women and ignore their concerns usually fail.
In Northern Ireland, women were locked out of the political process during three decades of conflict and several attempts to develop peace agreements quickly collapsed. Then, in the mid-90s, women from both sides of the divide formed a political party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and earned two seats at the negotiating table.
They insisted that the talks include the needs of victims, integrated education, a forum for civil society, women's participation, equality and human rights. Their involvement in the peace process made a crucial contribution to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That peace still stands.
In country after country, we have seen women help push peace agreements to the finish line. Where women are excluded, too often the agreements that result are disconnected from ground-truth and less likely to be successful and enjoy popular support. Yet almost no women served in recent peace talks in Indonesia, Nepal, Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Central African Republic.
And still, we hear the question: Why should women be a part of peace negotiations if they were neither combatants nor government officials?
But women are increasingly party to conflict. More and more, they are being recruited into regular armed forces and terrorist groups. In Sudan, for example, women and girls played an active role on the front lines of the two north-south civil wars – as both combatants and peace activists. Yet they have been largely absent from formal peace negotiations.
Whether they are combatants or survivors, peace-builders or bystanders, women must play a role in the transition from war to peaceful development. And we must urge men and women to focus on changing the conditions that produced the violence in the first place.
In the coming weeks and months, our governments will be pressing to ramp up meaningful implementation of Resolution 1325. As just one part of that effort, our governments are among those participating in an important international conference in Copenhagen this week, where the focus will be on the role of women in a broad range of global security issues. If we want to make progress towards settling the world’s most intractable conflicts, let’s enlist women.