War Belongs To Women, Too

Women can — and should — play an equal role in resolving deadly conflicts

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Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

Nobel Peace Prize 2011 laureates Leymah Gbowee, left, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, meet on October 9, 2011 in Monrovia, Liberia.

War has been much on the American mind lately. In just the last month we have seen an assassination short-circuit an already dubious peace process in Afghanistan, a promise from our president to pull most of our forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and the conviction in an American court of the notorious arms dealer Victor Bout, the “merchant of death” who supplied weapons to the Taliban and fueled civil wars in Africa. A hopeful outcome in Libya has overlapped with a new involvement in Uganda, while the saber rattling about Iran and Syria has intensified in some quarters.

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War is one of the most regular and ancient of mankind’s preoccupations, but the nature of war has changed dramatically. Today’s wars are more likely to be waged not between states but within them. In the late 1940s intrastate wars accounted for half of all conflicts. By 1990 that number had soared to nearly 90%. In these wars, then, civilians don’t see soldiers in uniforms with flags leading campaigns but groups of armed countrymen battling for power against other groups of armed countrymen with whole cities, towns and villages as their battlefield and few laws of war governing their conduct. And in the crossfire: women.

But war stories are changing as war does. And women are at the center of that evolution. Having fought to get rape recognized as a war crime in the aftermath of the Bosnian war and to pass a U.N. resolution that urged the world to make women a central part of peace talks, women and women’s advocates want to change the way history sees women in conflict.

Their message is that war can no longer belong only to men. And increasingly women are fighting their way into history, speaking up and vying for a voice in ending the battle and negotiating a settlement. In Liberia, women activists banded together to force men to break a negotiations stalemate that had made peace look impossible. And in Colombia, women are fighting to hold on to land under increasing pressure from multi-national companies seeking access to the country’s natural resource wealth, along with its wildly lucrative drug trade.

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Wherever they are in the world, women face a long road in elbowing their way in to the peace process. Negotiation halls are filled with men in suits and men with guns, and women pay a penalty for being peaceful. They get no say in ending a war they had no say in starting. At these negotiations men have the power to forgive other men for crimes committed against women.

U.N. Resolution 1325 aimed to change that and to secure for women an equal and full role in “the prevention and resolution of conflict.” But progress translating those lofty words into on-the-ground reality has been halting at best. Today, fewer than 3% of signatories to peace deals are women and women have taken part in just eight percent of peace talks tracked.

Despite those dismal figures women continue their fight — and have started to get recognition. In Afghanistan, a budding civil society led in part by women is advocating loudly for a seat at the table and a role in shaping the future of their country. And in just a few weeks, the leader of the push for peace in Liberia, Leymah Gbowee, will join President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen’s Tawakul Karman to accept a Nobel Peace Prize.

Women have long been seen as collateral damage in stories of war, not contributors. But today they are fighting to change this narrative. And they are determined to have a say. Whether the world supports them in their fight to make the world safer is the question the coming decades will answer.