Women, War, & Peace

I'm not a gender essentialist. I don't believe that women are from Venus and men are from Mars. I suspect strongly, in fact, that women and men are the same species and might even be able to reproduce. 

At the same time, it's true that women and men—on average, in general—tend to behave differently. You can't predict any individual woman's or man's behavior based on sex; as we've discussed here before, some boys want to be princesses, and some girls are hard-core jocks with a fabulous swagger.

Yet at the same time, the international policy community knows that, on average, women tend to invest in their families while men spend their money on themselves. And that if women are involved in peacemaking and national rebuilding, that peace is more stable than if it were all organized by men. 

Last month, Hillary Clinton gave an extraordinary speech that got little attention, buried as it was during the holidays. In it, she discussed: 

... the growing body of evidence that shows how women around the world contribute to making and keeping peace, and that these contributions lead to better outcomes for entire societies.  From Northern Ireland to Liberia to Nepal and many places in between, we have seen that when women participate in peace processes, they focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace but often are overlooked in formal negotiations.  They build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines, and they speak up for other marginalized groups.  They act as mediators and help to foster compromise.  And when women organize in large numbers, they galvanize opinion and help change the course of history.

Think of those remarkable women in Liberia who marched and sang and prayed until their country’s warring factions finally agreed to end their conflict and move toward democracy.  If you have seen the movie—and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it; it’s called Pray the Devil Back to Hell—you know that these brave women laid siege to the negotiations until the men inside the rooms signed a deal.

Now I know some of you may be thinking, “Well, there she goes again. Hillary Clinton always talks about women, and why should I or anyone else really care?” Well, you should care because this is not just a women’s issue. It cannot be relegated to the margins of international affairs. It truly does cut to the heart of our national security and the security of people everywhere, because the sad fact is that the way the international community tries to build peace and security today just isn’t getting the job done. Dozens of active conflicts are raging around the world, undermining regional and global stability, and ravaging entire populations. And more than half of all peace agreements fail within five years.

At the same time, women are too often excluded from both the negotiations that make peace and the institutions that maintain it. Now of course, some women wield weapons of war—that’s true—and many more are victims of it. But too few are empowered to be instruments of peace and security. That is an unacceptable waste of talent and of opportunity for the rest of us as well.  

Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network first brought this speech to my attention. I was reminded of it last night at a forum at Harvard's Kennedy School, organized and chaired by former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, who quoted the speech before introducing some remarkable female peacemakers from Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, and Palestine. For instance, Mossarat Qadeem told about the painstaking process of winning the trust of poor rural families whose boys had joined the extremists, talking with those boys about a more peaceful interpretation of Islam, and reclaiming them for a normal life of soccer and work. But I was most struck by Rebecca Joshua Okwaci, now a deputy minister for the brand-new Republic of South Sudan. She talked about being a "freedom fighter" during the civil war, fighting while living in the bush. They lived on what they could find, she said, and sometimes villagers gave them eggs and chicken. Now, she explained, it was their responsibility to give back peace and stability. 

Christian Science Monitor reporter Jina Moore stood up and said that her journalistic cynicism had just been knocked on its head. She explained that she had been in many post-conflict zones and had interviewed many former fighters who said that they had earned power by fighting—and now they were going to enjoy it. Instead, she said to Okwaci, you said that they gave us the eggs and the chickens, and now we have a responsibility to give back. 

Yes, said Okwaci. We must pay it forward. (Yup. She actually said that.)

Now, Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary fighter turned peacemaker. Martin Luther King Jr. took injustice and rage and transformed them into reconciliation and peace. I don't think women have a lock on the topic, by any means. But if women aren't involved in making peace—if the interests of half the population are left out of reclaiming a country from conflict—that peace won't be as deep and wide as it should be.

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