Coauthored with Erin Sielaff, intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The United Nations is attempting to restart yet another set of peace talks in Syria and Yemen, two deeply conflicted states. After years of struggling to foster a negotiated peace, hopes are high that these latest rounds will be successful. The more likely scenario is that they end like their numerous predecessors—in failure.
The track record of UN-mediated peace negotiations is not good. Many talks collapse without producing a substantive agreement. And even when adversaries reach a deal, more than 50 percent of these settlements break down within five years, plunging states back into violence and societies into suffering. To be sure, making and sustaining peace is difficult, and negotiations can fail for diverse reasons. But the negative effects of aborted peace processes are felt most acutely by those who have typically been ignored in the negotiations themselves: women.
Consider the impact of the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Though the vast majority of casualties have been men, women have borne the brunt of the conflict in many instances: they face alarming rates of sexual violence, are targeted for kidnappings and arbitrary detentions, and are disproportionately affected by shelling, chemical weapons, and air bombardments.
At the same time, the social fabric in Syria has been torn asunder, upending gender roles. Women are suddenly participating in new sectors of society. They have acted as peacebuilders, pushing for peace through local ceasefires, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged regions. Women have also taken on new family responsibilities: in more than 145,000 Syrian families, they are now the sole breadwinners. To house and feed their children, they have developed new income-generating skills, such as embroidery or agricultural production, and engaged in markets from which they were previously excluded. And in some instances, Syrian women have even taken up arms on behalf of the Assad government or rebel groups.
Similarly, in Yemen women have been especially vulnerable, facing rampant sexual- and gender-based violence, having minimal access to healthcare, and suffering food insecurity. As in Syria, some Yemeni women have pushed for peace, while still others have joined local militias to defend tribal territory.
Despite their active roles in both war-fighting and peace-building, women are regularly excluded from formal, high-level peace negotiations. Not a single woman was represented in either delegation during the January 2014 peace talks in Syria, for example.
This is not simply a problem of gender equity. It is a problem of effectiveness. With rates of conflict recidivism so alarmingly high, it’s obvious that the current approach to UN-led peace negotiations is inadequate. Yet, international actors continue to rely on a faulty formula.
Here’s a radical idea: why not make peace talks actually representative of the societies that negotiations are trying to stitch back together? With few exceptions, women today are almost always excluded from formal peace negotiations. But in those rare instances where they do have a seat at the table, a host of qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests that they make tangible contributions to the creation and maintenance of sustainable peace. Consider these data points:
First, including women in formal peace negotiations significantly increases the probability of reaching a deal. Second, it increases the chance that the agreement will be properly implemented. Overall, including women makes it 35 percent more likely that the peace deal will last fifteen years. What explains this “gender peace dividend”? To begin with, women bring unique perspectives to peace discussions, including a focus on gender issues and other social concerns. In addition, women frequently play important societal roles in fostering consensus, an essential ingredient to ensure the successful completion and implementation of peace accords.
We know from recent history that women can have a productive impact on the peace process. In 1997 in Northern Ireland, women insisted on being included in peace talks. They mobilized a Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) and used their two seats at the negotiating table to advocate for a more inclusive agreement and to reconcile divides between various parties. They also contributed substantively to the final agreement, which included a recognition of the rights of victims, the rights of women, and several social provisions.
A similar dynamic unfolded in the Philippines. Women played an active role in protracted negotiations, pushing for representative and inclusive talks that began in the early 2000s and culminated in a 2014 agreement. Outside the formal negotiations, female civil society groups worked to prevent spoilers from undermining the talks.
None of this is news to the UN, which already has a framework to facilitate the inclusion of women in peacebuilding. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which celebrated its fifteenth birthday in October 2015, formally recognized the link between gender and security, and called on member states to enable the participation of women in post-conflict peace negotiations, governance, and peacekeeping initiatives. The resolution also outlined reforms within the UN system to foster the inclusion of women in the peace and security realm. Unfortunately, implementation of 1325 has been slow going, hindered by inadequate financing and political will.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon should use this month’s high-profile peace negotiations in Syria and Yemen to revitalize Resolution 1325, by insisting that women are active participants in both rounds of peace talks.
Beyond that symbolic step, the UN should adopt a standardized process for automatically including women in peace negotiations that it (or a regional organization) is brokering. Women should be included in every phase—from prenegotiations through implementation. Simultaneously, the UN needs to get its own house in order, by including more women in senior UN positions. There is clearly room for improvement. In 2015, 92 percent of Ban’s senior staff appointments were male.
Though some activists have called for at least 25–30 percent of peace negotiators to be women, the quality of participation is just as important as the quantity of women included. Too often, when women are included, they are assigned to limited portfolios, such as committees on “gender issues,” while the substance of the peace talks is left to the men. This is a real possibility in the ongoing Syrian talks, given the creation of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Council. On one level, the council is a positive step—a group of twelve female civil society representatives will advise UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura throughout the peace talks. The problem is that the council is divorced from the actual talks, suggesting it will be devoid of real influence over the negotiations. Women must be included as formal delegates, and (as in Northern Ireland), they must enjoy the same status as their male counterparts.
Finally, the UN must ensure that all negotiated settlements are gender-sensitive, by incorporating provisions related to women’s rights and inclusion. The 2014 agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is one example: sustained female participation throughout the negotiations helped to create a peace deal with specific provisions to include women in post-conflict governance, address the needs of female ex-combatants, and launch gender-conscious economic and social initiatives. When peace deals fail to include such concerns, they are not only unrepresentative of their societies, they also fail to address root causes of conflict, which can contribute to recidivism.
The UN and its member states must do more to implement the mandates of Resolution 1325. The challenges are immense, but so are the opportunities—the UN should capitalize on the momentum from these renewed talks to overhaul its entire approach to peace negotiations, in a way that has been proven to work for all.