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Q&A: COVID-19 has Pushed Women Peacebuilders from Key Leadership Roles

Scenes from a rehearsal session with Colombia’s Cantadora Network, a network of singers using traditional Afro-Colombian music to preserve their culture and promote peace. According to the Global Network of Women Peacebuilder, funds are being diverted from women-led peacebuilding organisations, and from peacebuilding processes more broadly. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 30 2020 (IPS) - Women need to be given roles as negotiators, not just offered representation through advisory groups, Agnieszka Fal-Dutra Santos from the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) told IPS.

Santos spoke with IPS after the Wednesday, Oct. 28 webinar “Beyond the Pandemic: Opening the Doors to Women’s Meaningful Participation”. At the conference,  policymakers and analysts spoke about ways to ensure that women have more leadership roles in society.

Agnieszka Fal-Dutra Santos from the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP). Courtesy: GNWP

Santos was responding specifically to comments by Kavya Asoka, executive director of  the NGO Working Group (NGOWG) on Women, Peace and Security, who said that women should not be allotted to “any participation” but “meaningful participation” in peacemaking decisions. 

Yifat Susskind, executive director of Madre, a women’s rights organisation, told IPS, “women have been holding leadership positions at the grassroots level for a long time, and we need to see more women in influential positions in policymaking”.

During the webinar, Jeanine Antoinette Plasschaert, special representative of the secretary-general for Iraq and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, highlighted the importance of taking into account the social, economic, political and historical contexts when engaging women in leadership roles.

The current coronavirus pandemic adds to the challenges.

“Our partners report that funds are being diverted from women-led peacebuilding organisations, and from peacebuilding processes more broadly,” Santos told IPS. “For example, in Colombia, women peacebuilders report that COVID-19 has served as an excuse to divert funds away from the transitional justice mechanisms.”

She added that another  challenge is also the digital divide, which affects women disproportionately. This is exacerbated by the fact that not all peacebuilding work can be performed over the Internet – such as reconciliation work, dialogues between conflicting communities and support to trauma survivors – which can’t be easily moved to the virtual space owing to their “delicate and sensitive nature”.

“At the same time, the pandemic has also shown the incredible resilience of women peacebuilders and women’s movements,” she said. “Despite the digital barrier, women have continued to organise, and find innovative ways to use the internet and other communication means to continue their work.”

Excerpts of the interviews with Susskind and Santos follow:

Yifat Susskind, executive director of Madre. Courtesy: Madre

IPS: What entails meaningful participation of women in the peacebuilding processes?

Yifat Susskind (YS): Women must have more than a seat at the table in formal peace negotiations. They must also have the power and influence to set the agenda, ensuring that gender impacts are addressed as a priority and bringing community demands to the forefront. Crucially, this access must be available to grassroots women peacebuilders rooted in frontline communities, who have a deep well of knowledge about war’s impacts at home, who can help build community trust in the peace process, and who can ensure that any resulting peace agreement is implemented at the ground level.

Agnieszka Fal-Dutra Santos (AFS): The most common understanding of “meaningful participation” is that it’s the kind of participation that allows women to actually impact the outcomes of peace negotiations and other processes.

It also means participation of diverse women, and participation of women at all levels. Women need to be included in decision-making bodies and peacebuilding processes at the local, national, regional and international levels. Further, when we talk about women’s participation we have to think of women from all walks of life – refugee and internally displaced women, indigenous and ethnic minority women, young women, women with disabilities, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans women, etc.

IPS: Madre focuses especially on climate change and how rural women are most affected by this. How have they been affected during the coronavirus pandemic?

YS: Rural women worldwide on the frontlines of climate change are forced to confront daily its worst impacts, typically carrying the heaviest burden as those responsible for providing families with food, water, and household fuel. The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened this burden of care work on women and girls.

Lockdowns have shut down markets, limiting the availability of food and making it impossible for many rural women to sell livestock, crops, and wares. The lack of income, combined with the spike in food prices and the continued effects of the climate crisis, has made food scarce for many families.

IPS: GNWP involves women from countries around the world. How do you address the diverse set of challenges they face from different parts of the world?

AFS: A key aspect of our work is to elevate the voices, recommendations and practical solutions of women peacebuilders to global policy spaces. We do this through research, as well as by creating spaces and opportunities for women peacebuilders to share their perspectives and recommendations directly with global policy makers.

But equally, if not more, important is the other aspect of our work – global to local. Localisation of Women, Peace and Security is one of flagship programmes of GNWP. It brings together local women, youth and representatives of other historically marginalised groups, as well as religious and traditional leaders and local authorities — mayors, governors, councillors, etc. Together, they analyse their local context and the relevance of the global resolutions and national policies on WPS to it. They identify concrete measures to translate these global and national laws into tangible actions and impacts on the ground.

Localisation also leads to institutionalisation of the commitments to WPS, and to harmonisation of the existing laws and policies on gender equality, women’s rights and peace and security. We have seen it yield concrete impacts and results across the world – for example, inclusion of women in traditional conflict resolution councils in the Philippines, increased SGBV reporting in Uganda, etc.

IPS: What are some ways to ensure women are given leadership roles in addressing the pandemic?

YS: We must first recognise that at the community level, women are already vital leaders in pandemic response: caring for people who become sick, ensuring food for their families, organising their communities and more. Many are trusted, longtime activists who understand deeply and specifically the needs of their communities and who are known locally as reliable sources of support and information. We must ensure that these women — including those in hard-hit places like refugee camps and climate disaster zones — have the space to offer their expertise to shape policy responses.

What’s more, since long before the pandemic, grassroots feminists worldwide have grappled with the need to meet urgent needs while simultaneously working towards long-term, systemic solutions. Learning from these approaches, policymakers can implement emergency relief efforts, whether distributing food or providing health information, while setting the stage for long-term recovery. This means continually reasserting the need for a shift in the values driving our policies, amplifying feminist approaches of collective work and community care.

AFS: Women are already leading the responses to COVID-19. From mobilising and organising humanitarian responses in their communities, to drafting Feminist Recovery Plans (for example in Northern Ireland), to monitoring the ceasefires and the implementation of peace agreements.

What is sorely lacking is their inclusion in decision-making about the pandemic recovery. We spoke to women peacebuilders and civil society across the world, and we have consistently seen that women are being excluded from COVID-19 Task Forces and planning committees. Globally women make up less than a quarter of such committees (according to CARE). One way to ensure that women are given leadership roles is to guarantee that all COVID-19 Task Forces and Committees include at least 50 percent  of women. This must include women from the civil society, who are at the forefront of COVID-19 response; and women in all their diversity.


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