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How women leaders stop war

By Dr Scilla Elworthy
Dr Scilla Elworthy

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 March 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Most of humanity now stands with its mouth open, aghast at the endless repetition of terrifying violence we are witnessing.

Some people assume that new and better methods of killing will render ‘victory’ and that will solve the problem. It won’t.

Why? Because the cycle of violence will not have been interrupted.

The cycle begins with an atrocity. The result is shock, followed by fear, followed by grief. Then comes anger; if nothing is done, anger becomes bitterness, demanding revenge and retaliation, resulting – of course – in another atrocity.

With this article I would like to show you how this cycle of violence can be broken, why women must be included, how more women can be leading peace processes and what we can do now to support them.

Peaceful negotiation

Breaking the cycle of violence demands a different mentality and different skills. It requires courage and understanding; representatives of opposing sides who refuse to talk must be approached separately by intermediaries they trust, and who are able to liaise with each other.

This is an extremely challenging process that requires deep courage, patience and profound understanding.

An initial first meeting should be secret, and often with only one or two representatives of either side, who will usually state their demands and bottom lines.

This is likely to be contentious and fractious, but if this process can be handled with care, it may begin to suggest some possible advantages for either side – and they may agree to send more senior people to a further meeting.

The next round of talks must be guided by listening. Skilled mediators will insist that includes listening not only to the demands of each side, but also to their deeper needs.

Tensions will arise; compassionate communication must be used to defuse tension fast.

Gradually, after many meetings, it becomes possible to share accounts of what has been experienced by either side, and for these accounts to be heard compassionately so powerful feelings are less likely to feed the vicious cycle.

These short examples do not begin to describe the immensely complex and demanding process of negotiation, but they suggest the advantages of female skills in conflict prevention and resolution.

Why include women?

Since women are not usually instigators of cycles of violence, they start from a different place, bringing less charged emotional baggage with them. They can be freer to empathise with others whom men may see only as enemies.

Women tend to use intuition to enable parties to understand what’s needed in the moment. The male need for revenge is often triggered by shame and feelings of humiliation, including a failure to protect women whom they love.

Revenge seems like the only way to alleviate these feelings and restore their sense of pride.

Women can take a more long-term view and think more creatively about what might support a long-term peace.

A balance of women in negotiating teams has been shown to help reach a peace deal that lasts longer.

A statistical analysis of 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011 revealed that peace agreements where women are involved are 35% more likely to last for 15 years.

The ‘secret back channels’ – crucial in resolving conflicts – can most effectively be carried out by women; the ability to speak truth to power, without provoking hostility or violence, is invaluable.

Women in peace processes

So in practice, how could more women be leading peace processes? First, we need to make known women’s track records in preventing or resolving armed conflicts and the principles they used.

Enabling people on the ground from dissonant communities to meet, talk and march together shows their leaders that they unite for and insist on a peaceful future.

In Northern Ireland, where sectarian killings had escalated to crisis levels, Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire co-founded the Community for Peace People and mobilised over 10,000 Catholic and Protestant women to march and advocate for peace from 1974 to1980, risking their lives to do so.

They received the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about an end to hostilities.

Interfaith action

Another effective principle is to unite in an interfaith movement and prevent male negotiators from leaving talks until agreement is reached.

In Liberia, after a 14-year civil war, Leymah Gbowee united Christian and Muslim women in an interfaith movement, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.

The women acted as intermediaries between Charles Taylor and rebel leaders and even carried out sex strikes to stop the men from fighting.

Their efforts laid the foundations for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the first female African head of state.

In 2011, both Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Using networks

Using female networks alongside the latest tech to map the spread of violence enables strategies to bring violence under control to prepare for a planned peace.

In Kenya, when violence erupted after disputed elections in 2007, Dekha Ibrahim Abdi asked the 60,000 members of a women’s organisation to report what they saw on cell phones.

The information pouring in enabled them to plot not only the ‘hot spots’ of violence but also the ‘cold spots’ – where people were running for protection.

They then developed strategies for each spot, with the help of trusted local leaders. In less than three weeks these strategies brought the violence under control.

Embracing the base

Combining women’s courage with their determination to end the use of cruise missiles may have taken 10 years, but it worked in the end.

In the UK in 1981 the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was set up to protest against nuclear cruise missiles at the RAF camp there. A year later, 30,000 women joined hands around the base to Embrace the Base with their children.

The courage of the Greenham women hit the headlines again when a small group climbed the fence to dance on missile silos on New Year’s Day, 1983.

The media attention surrounding the camp inspired people across Europe to create other peace camps. The last missiles left the base in 1991.

Peace agreements that last

There is evidence to demonstrate that when women lead and make up more than one-third of those negotiating a peace treaty, the process will produce agreements that last.

In the Philippines in 2014, when Miriam Coronel-Ferrer led the government’s negotiating team, she was the first woman to sign a major peace deal.

This treaty provided a framework for ending the 40-year conflict between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rebel group that hoped to create an independent Muslim majority state.

Women made up 33% of that negotiating team and 25% of the signatories.

Gender sub-commissions

A gender sub-commission should be included in every peace negotiation, for future women’s rights and protection from violence.

In Colombia a peace treaty was signed in 2016 to bring an end to the 50-year conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

The conflict had claimed over 200,000 lives and had displaced about 7 million people.

Finally, women made up 20% of the government team and 43% of the FARC negotiating team. It was the first time a gender sub-commission had been included in a peace negotiation. The final treaty included a range of provisions for women.

Search for common ground

Individual courage can enable women to become leaders even under the most oppressive regimes.

After the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan became perhaps one of the last places you might expect a young woman, aged 14, to attend international peace talks.

Zuhra’s dedication to peace and to her country enabled her to become a powerful programme director – currently the only woman leading a network of civil society organisations in Afghanistan.

Through her leadership and bravery, Search for Common Ground is now the backbone of the largest network of civil society activists in the country, involving over 100 organisations.

Female negotiators

Next, in conflicts we know of, we need to put forward names of skilled female negotiators to lead the peace process.

Catherine Ashton, a British Labour politician who had worked at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), served as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and First Vice President of the European Commission from 2009 to 2014. She negotiated truce in Serbia/Kosovo.

Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997), former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and chair of The Elders, is a passionate advocate for gender equality and women’s participation in peace-building.

Lehmah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf helped end the Liberian civil war by organising hundreds of women to stop male negotiators leaving peace talks. In 2011 they were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize ‘for their non-violent struggle for women’s right to full participation in peace-building work.’

Margot Wallstrom, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2014 to 2019, was Minister for Nordic Cooperation from 2016 to 2019.

Christiana Figueres, appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in July 2010, steadily rebuilt the global climate change negotiating process that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is widely recognised as a historic achievement.

By recounting the atrocities perpetrated against her, Nadia Murad, member of the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq, helped ensure that future generations of young women do not become victims of sexual violence in war. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

Jacinda Ardern became the youngest prime minister of New Zealand in 2017. When she defused racism in Christchurch after a terror attack, the Guardian wrote that she ‘moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it.’

What can we do now?

It may be that reading this, you feel inspired to research any conflicts you care about and perhaps put forward names of skilled female negotiators to lead the peace process.

You may like to wake colleagues to notice the gender of leaders in armed conflicts. Count how many women you can see. Do the same for those around peace tables. Make these numbers known. The more we wake up to the absence of women in negotiating on war and violence, the more likely we are to have conflicts resolved.

If you prefer to work at a more local level, have a look at conflicts in your area, in your workplace, in your kids’ schools. Get advice and begin to read up on similar disputes.

Take your courage and your phone in your hands, talk to a few competent, imaginative women who you feel would be able to put forward proposals for talks. Gather them round a kitchen table somewhere. Listen. Make notes. Form a plan.

Soon you’ll have a team of competent practical women to suggest what could be done, and how. Set it out in a good presentation. See what happens. If you get stuck, tell your local media.

This is how we learn. It’s how most of those women in the stories above got going – and it’s much better for our health than wringing hands.

About Dr Scilla Elworthy

Dr Scilla Elworthy is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee for her work with Oxford Research Group to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics.

Scilla founded Peace Direct in 2002 to fund, promote and learn from local peace-builders in conflict areas, was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in 2003 and advised Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson in setting up The Elders. Her TED Talk on nonviolence has been viewed by over 1,500,000 people.

In 2017 Scilla founded The Business Plan for Peace to help prevent destructive conflict and build sustainable peace throughout the world, because it is possible.

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