Women, Power and Peacebuilding: Assessing the Women Peace and Security Agenda

“From Nepal and Yemen to Northern Ireland or Israel, Palestine, we have seen the political and military elite, at war with each other, unable to agree to anything—yet they stand united when it comes to excluding women peacebuilders from the processes. I think it’s because they are afraid of the women. They are afraid of being held accountable.”

—Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics

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“When COVID happened, we were immediately, as a global community, talking about the gender dimensions of the COVID response. This discourse didn’t exist 21 years ago,” said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini (Wikimedia Commons)

Last year marked 20 years since the passage of the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325, which first acknowledged the disproportionate and unique impact of conflict on women and girls and initiated what has become known as the Women Peace and Security Agenda. With conflict continuing to rage in many countries throughout the world, the issue of women affected by conflict retains its resonance and relevance.

Yet, women are not just victims in conflict situations. While they are often targeted by state and armed actors for sexual violence, they also serve crucial roles as peacebuilders.

The She Builds Peace Frameworks for Action provide analyses of who women peacebuilders are, what they do, and why their meaningful participation in peace and security processes is imperative to create lasting peace. The three frameworks—covering participation, protection and funding—outline the threats women peacebuilders face, why increased funding for women peacebuilders is necessary, and concrete recommendations to improve the safety, sustainability, and success of women peacebuilders and their work.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics, is a globally recognized advocate in the field of women, peace and security and spearheaded the development of these frameworks. She joined Ms. contributor Michelle Onello for a frank and far-reaching interview to discuss what has been accomplished by the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda thus far and what more needs to be done.


Michelle Onello: Security Council Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000 to acknowledge the disproportionate and unique impact of conflict on women and girls and initiated what became known as the Women Peace and Security Agenda.

What is your assessment of the worldwide impact of the agenda over the past two decades? What do you think have been its greatest successes and how has it fallen short? What would be your two-decades-in report card?

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini: Overall, the report card is very mixed.

On the one hand, it’s been profoundly effective, because there is no conflict, no situation of insecurity that arises today without an immediate focus on the role of women in mitigating the violence or its impact on women, and on the humanity that is affected.

When COVID happened, we were immediately, as a global community, talking about the gender dimensions of the COVID response. This discourse didn’t exist 21 years ago. When we talked about conflicts in the past, the old-school approach of using the state, or armed actors, as the unit of analysis prevailed. This focus on the ‘political elite’ still exists, but the WPS agenda has brought the unit of analysis down to the affected people, men, women, boys, girls, providing a human lens on conflict.

Another aspect is that we have, thanks to supportive governments and civil society activism, a globally-connected community of NGOs, activists and practitioners who are present in every conflict zone. The Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) that my organization, ICAN, has spearheaded has partners in 40 countries from about 90 organizations. There are other networks too. So, we are working at a very local, grassroots level, enabling them to be globally connected. 

In terms of the prevention of conflict aspect of the agenda, collectively, the world gets a D-. A few months after Resolution 1325 was passed in October 2000 was September 11, 2001, which moved us into the era of the War on Terror and hyper-militarization, with no real effort to prevent, transform and resolve conflict. That aspect of it has been a real challenge, and devastating in places like Yemen, Libya and Syria.

The participation of women in peace processes, a key part of the agenda, has been very mixed. We have had some progress, such as in Syria where they created a women’s advisory board to advise mediators, but it didn’t go far enough. In Yemen, the first iteration of the national dialogue had a minimum 30-percent requirement of women. That was an important achievement and they had real impact.

But then the U.N. Security Council voted to allow Saudi Arabia to initiate a war on Yemen in 2015. It was meant to last two weeks. It’s still ongoing and we’re back to talking about women in Track 2 processes. So, the advances are not systematized at all to build on prior good practices.

With respect to the refugee and broader protection of women’s physical and legal well-being in conflict contexts, which is another critical pillar of the agenda, there has been a lot of talk and important resolutions dealing with sexual violence and women refugees in IDP settings, but much less has been done in terms of actually making it safer for women in these kinds of spaces.

Finally, there is peacekeeping, which is an often-forgotten part of the agenda, but very important as it was within the purview of the Security Council in 2000. We’re seeing an increase in women in U.N. peacekeeping missions in the police sector and efforts to bring women into the military. There’s recognition about why it matters to have women on the ground, not only to reduce sexual exploitation by peacekeepers towards local populations, but also in interactions with local populations. When we have women on the ground, it makes a huge difference, as I wrote in Ms. magazine.

So, a very mixed report card overall.


“It matters to have women on the ground, not only to reduce sexual exploitation by peacekeepers towards local populations, but also in interactions with local populations.”


Onello: Can you explain a little bit about what is meant by the term “women peacebuilders,” and why is it critical now to protect and empower them worldwide?

Naraghi-Anderlini: When a conflict happens, most people run away from the problem. What I’ve seen across my 25 years of experience is that certain women rise to the challenge of resolving and addressing the problem. They do so through the lens of rights and justice, and yet by engaging with armed actors and the state, trying to reach out to dialogue with those who are the “problem-makers,” but who also need to be part of the solution. It takes a lot of courage, because you put yourself at risk when your society is split. It’s very hard to step out from your own community to reach out to the other side. You risk vilification from both sides.

Women peacebuilders often become engaged in peacemaking and the prevention of violence because they’ve experienced it themselves. I was a child during the Iranian Revolution, and my motivation is that I don’t want others to go through what I went through.

My colleagues in Uganda were refugees, and they said, how do I stop this from happening to others? I have colleagues whose children were killed, and they wanted to prevent others from experiencing that loss and to give meaning to their own loss.

When faced with such loss, some people get angry, some get depressed, and others seek revenge. But I’ve also seen repeatedly from Colombia to Cameroon to Yemen, that some women, those who are or become peacebuilders, have an extraordinary capacity and willingness to seek meaning and strive for a better future. They do so by trying to find the humanity of the other, to understand that there are multiple truths, and unless we can hear and talk to each other, and find out what we have in common, it’s very hard to get past the conflict and the hate.


“[Women peacebuilders try] to find the humanity of the other, to understand that there are multiple truths, and unless we can hear and talk to each other, and find out what we have in common, it’s very hard to get past the conflict and the hate.”


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“When faced with loss, some people get angry, some get depressed, others seek revenge. But I’ve also seen repeatedly from Colombia to Cameroon to Yemen, that some women, those who are or become peacebuilders, have an extraordinary capacity and willingness to seek meaning and strive for a better future,” said Naraghi Anderlini. Pictured: Sergeant Farida Yasmin of Dhaka Metropolitan Police of Bangladesh. (U.N. Women / Fahad Abdullah Kaizer)

Onello: Often, women peacebuilders are excluded from peace negotiations. Why are they sidestepped? Is it because they’re women—or is something else going on? How can we work with stakeholders to include women peacebuilders, not down the line, but at the first stage of negotiations?

Naraghi Anderlini: The answer is slightly complicated.

On the one hand, they’re excluded because our paradigm for peace negotiations is 2,500 years old. It’s basically that the military and political leaders, the war-makers, are at the peace negotiating table. Historically they have been representatives of different states. In the post-Cold War era since the 1990s, wars are internal. They are not just political wars; they are societal. They’re not fought in battlefields far away; they are fought in villages and towns. You have interethnic, inter-religious, even political wars. So, we need a different form of peacemaking.

Certainly we need the war-makers present to agree to end to the violence, but to make peace, you must bring the peacemakers. You need solutions that enable people to understand that they are interdependent, and their fates are tied to each other. There will always be differences and conflicts, but there is also much commonality. The key is to transform relations and institutions so that we can mitigate and resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.

We need a means of bridging our divisions and valuing each other’s humanity. Even in the U.S., within families there were divisions between Trump supporters and Democrats, right?

Onello: My own included.

Naraghi Anderlini: It’s not enough just to be at the political level, it has to be brought down into society. That’s number one.

Number two, for that to happen effectively, you need to include the people who were talking and trying to find common solutions during the conflict. So that’s where peacebuilders come in.

Thirdly, the assumption often is that military and political leaders have the interests of their constituency in mind. But if your government and your opposition are oppressing, or killing, their own civilians, they no longer have the legitimacy or the credibility to say they represent the people; because if they cared and were responsible for their citizenry, they wouldn’t be bombing them.

There is also implicit sexism, but also a form of elitism, that takes place. When we came up with this agenda 21 years ago, we said women should be at the table in an inclusive process. There has been much more openness to the idea of bringing in tribal leaders, religious leaders, and young people.

When it comes to women, there’s a tendency among the international actors and bureaucrats, to say, who do they represent? They’re too elite, they’re too grassroots. So, with women, the bar keeps changing, and that’s where the sexism comes in, and that’s from the international community, largely.

There’s a tendency among our diplomatic community or media to blame the local “culture” for excluding women—but women are dealing with men quite effectively on the ground, even in Afghanistan. These are false assumptions that “over there” women are excluded.

In reality, if the exclusion of women from peacemaking was cultural, it would look different across different cultural contexts—say Colombia to Yemen.  But the exclusion is uniform, because the peace table is framed as a place for the division of power and interests. It is almost absurd to see how this plays out across the board. From Nepal and Yemen to Northern Ireland or Israel, Palestine, we have seen the political and military elite, at war with each other, unable to agree to anything, yet they stand united when it comes to excluding women peacebuilders from the processes. I think it’s because they are afraid of the women. They are afraid of being held accountable.

This is why we talk about women peacebuilders as independent delegations in peace processes. It’s not about putting four women into the government’s delegation because those women have to toe the party line. Women peacebuilders delegations represent people’s voices on the ground. They take on the responsibility to protect communities without having political power. This gives them legitimacy. Meanwhile the powerful have abrogated their responsibility to protect people.


“If you’re de-radicalizing boys to prevent terrorism in Pakistan, you’re a peacebuilder. If you’re helping with security sector reform in post-war Colombia, you’re a peacebuilder.”


Onello: Your organization, ICAN, has undertaken a number of initiatives to support women peacebuilders. Can you tell us about the She Builds Peace campaign, and the three Frameworks for Action that were just released as part of this campaign? Why are they needed? What were some of the key takeaways?

Naraghi Anderlini: For 20 years in the run-up to and since the adoption of Resolution 1325, I have been talking with women peace activists in war zones regarding their issues and trying to understand commonalities. If you’re de-radicalizing boys to prevent terrorism in Pakistan, you’re a peacebuilder. If you’re helping with security sector reform in post-war Colombia, you’re a peacebuilder. So, the campaign is first to get recognition.

In the past, we took it for granted that women were doing peacebuilding work; we didn’t give them that label. Over time, the distinction between a human rights activist, a mediator, a politician and a peacebuilder has become clear.

A rights activist says: These people committed crimes and we have to bring them to justice; a peacebuilder says, they committed crimes, we need justice AND reconciliation.

A mediator will mediate between parties, but in principle, will not have a stake in the outcomes.  

But a peacebuilder will use mediation to bring a different perspective and voice of the constituencies. Peacebuilders embrace the complexity of all of these areas of work. They need to be recognized for their incredible ability to be so strategic, while so humane and working with integrity.

Since 2015, we have seen a spike in state and non-state actors targeting women peacebuilders. From that emerged the second pillar of protecting women peacebuilders. Warring parties, armed groups are given security guarantees but peacebuilders are not. They and their families are under attack just because they want to end violence, extremism, and corruption. 

The third element, which has always been part of ICAN’s philosophy, is to provide financing so that they can do their work. Peacebuilders, especially women, are very poorly resourced. This helps strengthen their local, on-the-ground impact and gives them credibility and legitimacy. These three pillars were developed in consultation with our partners over three years.

This became the She Builds Peace campaign which launched in 2020, just as the COVID pandemic hit. We launched campaigns in over 30 countries, and our partners helped women in local contexts understand that a lot of what they do is peacebuilding. Being the mediators, reaching out to resolve disputes, is peacebuilding work, and that’s very validating.


“ICAN’s philosophy is to provide financing so that they can do their work. Peacebuilders, especially women, are very poorly resourced. This helps strengthen their local, on-the-ground impact and gives them credibility and legitimacy.”


Onello: It is, because recognition ascribes value.

Naraghi Anderlini: Exactly. Internationally we’ve been advocating for recognizing women peacebuilders as a delegation, as experienced, legitimate actors in the arena of conflict, except they are peace actors and thus should be in the peace process. If we limit to women in existing political delegations, we end up with political leaders putting their sister or cousin in the delegation. I saw this in the Somali process, for example.

Recognition is critical because international actors say we have women human rights defenders and mediators, why are you bringing this new term? Our point is that peacebuilders sit in this critical nexus of spaces; they have a political agenda, vision, constituency, expertise and knowledge. If you’re on the ground dealing with provision of humanitarian aid, you should be at humanitarian aid talks. The Association of Mothers of Abductees in Yemen has secured the release of over 900 abductees. If that’s a key element of the security dialogue in Yemen, they should be at the table.

Onello: Can you speak a little bit about some of the hotspots in the world where ICAN is working with women peacebuilders, and give some examples about how these very inspiring women are making a difference?

Naraghi Anderlini: We have partners in 40 conflict-affected countries. In the last few months, we have been working with Afghan partners, because the political design for the negotiations is so flawed.

As the Taliban have pursued their goals at the negotiation table, they are still killing women on the ground. We’ve been advocating for including women peacebuilders and young people so that the Taliban are forced to face and negotiate directly with them about the reality of their communities. But international actors, especially the U.S., has pretty much blocked access by virtue of setting up yet another ‘two party’ process focused on a political, power sharing deal. It’s failed terribly already.

In Yemen, one of our partners launched a detailed Feminist Road Map to Peace and we have funded various groups advocating internationally for a more inclusive peace process, if and when it starts again.

In Syria, even with a dictatorial government and war at the community level, we support community-based peace-building work to help people, young people especially, foster social cohesion and understand that it doesn’t matter if you have different political opinions, or different ethnic or sectarian backgrounds. What do we have in common as Syrians? 

In Nigeria, our partner has been helping girls abducted and released by Boko Haram who have been radicalized, brainwashed and raped. Recently she spoke to the military academy, and she took some of the abductees. She said it was extraordinary, because after two years of working with these young women, the abductees admitted that after being released from Boko Haram and brought to a military encampment, they had all been raped by the Nigerian army. They talked about this with senior leaders in the Nigerian military academy. That takes a lot of courage.

Sometimes progress seems slow, but it’s so important to persist towards systemic and significant change. We can’t afford not to.

Onello: What is so striking, hearing about your work, is the universality of experiences, and how your organization is able to help women from different areas contact, support and learn from each other.

Naraghi Anderlini: Thank you.

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About

Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a non-profit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.