Women play vital roles in conflict resolution, conflict prevention and peacebuilding. They mediate conflicts at the local level, advocate for the needs and priorities of women to be addressed in official peace processes, and work tirelessly to build peace in their communities. Research shows that women’s direct participation in peace negotiations increases the durability and quality of peace. They can serve as brokers who connect women civil society networks at the local level to the official peace process, which helps broaden societal support for the process.
In April earlier this year, I had the privilege to travel to Kathmandu, Nepal, to join a group of inspiring women peace leaders from Colombia, Afghanistan and Liberia who met for the third time. As participants in the FBA’s dialogue and mediation programme (DMP), they got together to strengthen their dialogue and mediation skills and share their experiences. In an exchange with Anna-Karin Johansson, member of the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network, they also reflected on their roles as leaders within their communities. The programme is part of the FBA’s work to promote women’s role in peace processes, which has a specific focus on strengthening women peacebuilders’ capacity to engage more effectively in dialogue and mediation.
The participants also learned about the use of community mediation and how it serves as an effective peacebuilding tool in Nepal. It was initially used as a way to address the lack of access to justice, but has evolved into a legitimate and accessible mechanism of dispute resolution. The commitment to community mediation in Nepal is strong. In 2014, the Nepal Mediation Act was brought into force, and The Asia Foundation and its partners has trained more than 8,000 local mediators to date. The practice has also helped promote the role of women who participate actively as mediators and as members of local peace committees.
We visited local dialogue forums and community centers in remote villages outside Kathmandu and met with a number of mediators to learn from their experiences. What I found most inspiring was a meeting with two women. They told us how their work as mediators has helped them earn trust and recognition from their communities, and given them increased self-confidence. It has also helped challenge existing gender norms. The pushback that they received from their families in the beginning has transformed into support and changed perceptions of their role in society over time. However, they are still expected to have the main responsibility for the household while also contributing to the family farm, which means tiresome and long days. The story about how women’s multiple roles and responsibilities serve as a barrier to their involvement in peacemaking is a common one, and shows that we have a long way ahead before the barriers to women’s equal participation are removed.
The participants in FBA’s dialogue and mediation programme were inspired by the use of community mediation as a peacebuilding tool as well as a tool for women’s empowerment, and reflected on how it could be incorporated into existing structures in their countries. However, they recognized that it would require substantial efforts given existing challenges. In Afghanistan, the traditional dispute resolution mechanism jirga is dominated by male elders with women being largely excluded from such decision-making. And in Colombia, there is a need to strengthen alternative conflict resolution mechanisms overall. One a more positive note, the use of peace huts in Liberia helps put women in charge of mediating local disputes.
Since the programme’s start in 2016, many of these prominent women leaders have moved up through the ranks and gained more influence in their countries. Hasina Safi from Afghanistan was recently appointed Acting Minister of Information and Culture, having served as Adviser to the High Peace Council and as Executive Director for Afghan Women’s Network. Alejandra Miller Restrepo has been elected as member of Colombia’s truth commission, and in 2017, Gwendolyn Myers was elected to represent Liberia in the Global Shapers Community Advisory Council of the World Economic Forum.
After having listened to these women’s stories over the course of the week that we spent together, I remain amazed by their strength and courage to continue to work for peace despite the many challenges and barriers they face. In Afghanistan, they continue to work for women to have influence and a voice in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban in the midst of a deteriorating security situation. In Liberia, they mediate disputes despite the fact that they live in country where traditional structures for justice and decision-making are run primarily by men. And the Colombian participants continue engage in peacebuilding, truth and reconciliation despite challenges such as continuous conflict and violence in many parts of the country.
These women – just like all of the women working for peace worldwide – need continued support and solidarity in their struggle for peace.
It was therefore encouraging to hear from the participants how the FBA’s dialogue and mediation programme has provided them with support and skills development. They described how they now communicate with conflict parties in a much more conscious manner in order to gain their trust, and how the conflict analysis tools have helped them in their roles as peace leaders. One Afghan participant emphasized that she has become a more inclusive leader who makes sure to stay connected with local women in Afghanistan, and take their perspectives into account. The fact that these increasingly powerful and influential participants remain committed to staying connected to women at the grassroots level is welcome, as it can help bridge existing gaps between local and national-level structures and processes.
Most importantly, the programme has provided a space for the women to reflect and gain confidence and energy through the support from the other participants. They have created a close-knit group of ‘DMP sisters’, and continue to share experiences and ask for advice through WhatsApp. This is a good way to help women build bridges across national borders to strengthen their peace efforts.
Going forward, we at the FBA will continue to look at entry points for continuing to engage with the DMP sisters. I look forward to following their journey as peace leaders.