Women are at the front line of peace work – but why are all peace negotiators men?

You cannot build lasting peace without women. Many have probably heard this claim before, but why does gender matter?

Conflicts and crises affect entire societies, and we also know that women and men are affected differently. Even so, we rarely see women at the tables where decisions regarding our shared future are made. The Syrian peace talks started in 2012 without a single female participant, and on average, only 13 per cent of the world’s peace negotiators were women between 1992 and 2019.

A high-level peace negotiation around a luxurious mahogany table is perhaps the best-known setting associated with peace work, but it is not the only one. Less attention is paid to women’s grassroots-level accomplishments to prevent and solve conflicts in their communities.

In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, millions of people have been displaced by conflict, food crises and a collapsed economy. In addition to political disputes, conflicts are sparked on the community level by violent cattle raids, committed not only in hopes of livelihood but also as part of a coming-of-age rite for boys. The raids lead to violent cycles of revenge between and within communities.

Finn Church Aid has supported setting up peace committees for women and youth in the states of Boma and Jonglei, and the persistent effort of the women’s committees has led to a clear decrease in violence. It has also changed views on community leadership. The leaders have traditionally been men, but now, women are the first to be called to negotiate peace and prevent the escalation of conflicts.

The persistent effort of the women’s committees has led to a clear decrease in violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought changes to peacebuilding. Discussions at high-end conference rooms or in a tree’s shade are on hold as face-to-face meetings are no longer an option. The pandemic is also feared to make the root causes of conflicts worse and deepen the inequity faced by women.

In Kenya, cases of female genital mutilation have increased. Covid-19 has weakened the financial situation of families and forced schools to close, and as a result, parents are anxious to marry their daughters off earlier than usual. But the women in Kenya have not been idle. The women’s peace committees FCA supports have mobilised influencers and decision-makers to join the fight against genital mutilation and continue their work of settling conflicts between and within communities via radio. At the same time, the women provide support and information regarding Covid-19.

Imagine again the luxurious conference hall where a peace treaty is being signed. That treaty is bound to be built on a shaky foundation if those around the mahogany table are just representatives of armed actors and the political elite (out of whom, of course, a good number ought to be women as well).

The Covid-19 crisis is a reminder of the role and influence of female actors: these women’s peace movements in the midst of and as parts of communities are on the front line responding to any type of crisis – whether an armed conflict or a global pandemic.

Paula Tarvainen
Senior Advisor, Right to Peace


Paula Tarvainen

Vanhempi rauhantyön neuvonantaja/Senior Advisor, Right to Peace