The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) annual In Pursuit of Peace award dinner broke with convention this year in big ways. Rather than patting the backs of politically powerful men like George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George Soros, as in years past, the Stephen J. Solarz prize went to four comparatively unsung women, who have advocated for rights in some of the most forbidding parts of the world, where women, in many cases, cannot even participate in political life, let alone shape it.
ICG’s President and CEO Louise Arbour, together with the evening’s keynote speaker, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – themselves models of what a feminine touch can bring to the male-dominated peacemaking table – used the occasion to honor their sisters-in-arms, dispel common myths about women in conflict, and announce a U.S.-U.N. policy to increase female participation in peacemaking processes.
“Very often women are depicted only as victims in times of war and conflict,” Ms. Arbour told the Diplomatic Courier as the honorees were arriving. “But I think what we can show tonight is also the rise of the power of women. Not because it’s handed to them, but because they’re willing to exercise it and take it themselves by taking a place in public life.”
Tunisian Sihem Bensedrine, Chief Editor of Radio Kalima and co-founder of several rights organizations in the North African country, had been beaten, jailed and stripped of property on numerous occasions, and was ultimately exiled in 2011 by the Tunisian government for her advocacy work. Following President Ben Ali’s ouster earlier in the year, Ms. Bensedrine returned to her country to become president of the Arab Working Group of Media Monitoring.
Shukri Ismail of Somaliland co-founded the non-governmental organization CandleLight to promote health, educational, and environmental initiatives in one of the most fickle environments in the world. She was also the only female national election commissioner with Somaliland’s first National Election Commission.
Thousands of miles from, but no more secure than Somaliland, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey recently became Guatemala’s first female Attorney General. She has spearheaded the prosecution of some of the most high-profile criminals in Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war just as the country is facing a resurgence of criminal violence from powerful drug cartels. After the torture and killing of one of her prosecutors and amidst threats to her own safety, Dr. Paz y Paz Bailey said her office apprehended their colleague’s perpetrators “without firing a single shot,” and have recently opened his court case.
Afghan Sima Samar founded the Shuhada organisation which operates 55 schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan and three schools for Afghan refugees in Quetta, Pakistan. A medical doctor by profession, she has become an important figure in Afghan politics, earning a cabinet post in Hamid Karzai’s 2002 Afghan Transitional Administration, where she established a host of women’s initiatives. She is currently Chair of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan.
Beyond the clear moral argument that women represent half of humanity, Secretary Clinton said, “there is a growing body of evidence” that women are part of “what’s missing from most peace talks and the agreements they produce.” Indeed, the track record of those agreements leave much to be desired. According to Clinton, more than 50 percent of most peace agreements fail within five years and the recidivism rate for civil war remains “particularly high.”
She suggested four complementary ways in which women contribute positively to peace processes. First, women often raise issues that would otherwise be ignored, like human rights, health care, and individual security. “Why?” she asked. Because women often “know what’s actually happening where people live and work, and understand what average citizens are concerned about.” She illustrated the point with one of her favorite stories from Darfur: “When male negotiators deadlocked over control of a particular river during the seventh round of the 2006 negotiations, local women pointed out that the river had already dried up.”
Second, according to Clinton, women tend to speak more on behalf of other marginalized groups and across cultural and sectarian divides. That can be an important asset in peace talks, considering evidence indicating that “a society that values all its members, including women, is also likely to put a higher premium on life, opportunity, and freedom,” she said.
Next, female facilitators have been proven to be honest and productive brokers throughout the peace process. Citing field research, she said “that when women participate in negotiations, especially in large numbers, men behave less aggressively and are more willing to compromise.” If that is true, bearing in mind that male negotiators are often the combatants themselves, having large groups of women present makes sense.
Fourth, women have proven adept at mobilizing outside pressure to move talks forward. Large turnout by women in protests across Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Columbia have helped achieve the critical mass necessary to tip the scales toward peace, for example. Granted, not all such rallies have been successful: The mobilization of Somalian women called “the Sixth Clan” in 2000 is a case in point. “Did they achieve lasting peace in Somalia?” she asked. “No, but they did help produce an agreement that at least on paper guaranteed political participation for women and protected the rights of others as well. They continue to work toward the day when those human rights become a human reality for everyone in Somalia.”
Backed by this research-based trove of data, Secretary Clinton turned to another paper that has fallen short of its stated goals for over a decade: United Nations Security Council resolution 1325. Titled “Women, Peace, and Security,” the 2000 resolution was the Security Council’s first to take a “gender perspective” on blue helmets’ peace operations and attempt to pink other areas of UN peace efforts.
Less than one week after the White House officially ended its nine year war in Iraq, and just as it embarks on a phased drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton will announce an ambitious road map to embolden “Women, Peace, and Security.” Indeed, with the two Middle Eastern wars limping into new and uncertain periods, it seems the appropriate time to seek help from the other half of humanity, whom, in peacemaking terms, Ms. Clinton sees as “the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”
Photo: (From left to right) Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, Sihem Bensedrine, Louise Arbour, Shukri Ismail, and Sima Sama; Courtesy of ICG 2011.