“The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. […]”
– old Bahá’ís saying
My name is Maja, and in the name of International Women’s Day, I want to recognise not only women around the world and women in my life who are doing remarkable work. I also want to shine a light on the invisible women in the conflicts of our contemporary world. No matter what statistics you look at – from the UN to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo – global conflict trends do not look promising. Works like Steven Pinker’s (2010) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined try to claim that humanity now lives in a more peaceful world. This is only true if violence is viewed through the traditional lens of war, and since violence and conflict do not correspond to our image of it, these assessments can potentially be highly misleading and dangerous. In Sex and World Peace, Valerie M. Hudson et al. (2012) note that more women died as a result of gender discrimination – whether from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, honour killings or other gendered causes – than lives lost in all the wars and civil struggles of the twentieth century. From this perspective, the greatest security threat is the systematic marginalisation of the second wing of humanity – us women. (Hudson et al., 2012, p 5)
At the same time, women’s roles and experiences in conflicts are heavily defined by their gender. In this article, I will emphasise the importance of considering women’s experience of conflict and their meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution, while arguing that there will be no peace without gender justice and that an effective peacebuilding process requires a gender mainstreaming approach. Humanity will not fly without healing its second wing.
Women and children suffer disproportionally in wars and during civil instabilities before and after conflicts. Reports by the UNODOC document mass kidnappings of girls from schools in Africa to be used as sex slaves and hostages by the Boko Haram terrorist group. We know of horror stories of mass rape during the former Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide, and the hands of Daesh in Iraq. The “forces of good” also have reason to hang their heads when we recall the well-known cases where UN and military forces as well as charitable aid organisations have exploited women and children for sexual purposes. (Brodtmann, 2018) In addition, the consequences of war are felt more harshly by women. War shatters a range of basic services that are often taken for granted. The entire population suffers from the disturbed food supplies and health and education facilities. However, due to infant and maternal health, childbearing women have particular medical and nutritional needs that are likely to be inadequately met in times of conflict. The socio-economic consequences of conflict also often force civilians into unconventional markets and marginal labour. The need to balance low household incomes means that prostitution increases rapidly, as does organised crime and human trafficking. 
However, current discourse on women in conflict widely talks about what we cannot do instead of raising awareness how gender-based marginalisation affects their experience. Women are largely portrayed as passive victims of conflict who, would not be able to change their situation on their own but would need the help of a man or a higher institution to do so. Women are not considered peacekeepers, but a group to be protected rather than listened to. Women’s gender positioning does not fit with the imagery of aggression, strategizing and leadership, but is closer to the ideas of care, protection, to be protected. Therefore, discussions on solving conflicts and strategies on fighting wars rarely include the female perspective. It is assumed that negative peace – the absence of war – is enough to “save the women”. (Hudson, V. M. et al., 2012) The experiences and the consequent actions of women, men, and children differ from one another in the context of violence and post-conflict reconstruction. Understanding and addressing the gendered implications and consequences of conflict requires overcoming the exclusive portrayal of girls and women as targets of traditional warfare and caregivers in society. Although some states adopted a feminist foreign policy, the analysis and assessment of conflict is largely gender blind or include women’s’ struggles only superficially or in a limited way. A simplistic view ignores the of strength of women and the resilience they show in times of crisis.
Women are invisible in traditional peacekeeping, claim Gina Heathcote and Diane Otto (2014) in their book Rethinking peacekeeping, gender equality and collective security. In the Pacific region and in the restorative justice tradition of Aboriginal cultures in Australia, women play an important role within their community to ensure peace and stability. They are trusted within their community and lead through peace circles and other restorative measures to a peaceful solution of conflict. In the aboriginal setting, the image of a vulnerable woman who needs to be protected does not seem to exist. Rather, this mindset is seen as undermining women’s abilitiesand as an obstacle to their empowerment. Just as men can be more than just fighters, women can be more than just victims.
It is often questioned that if women and men want the same thing – which is peace – why does it matter who is at the discussion table? According to UN Women statistics, women’s participation in peacebuilding leads to a 20% higher likelihood of a peace agreement lasting at least two years and a 35% more sustainable peace for up to 15 years. I am not supporting the claim that women are naturally more peaceful or better than men in peacekeeping as this assumption is simply reenforcing gender roles, including the militarized masculinity. Women can as much as men be the perpetrator and aggressor. However, the peace processes must be as diverse as the people affected by the desired change. The female perspective at the discussion table leads to a solution which benefits all. Therefore, we need women of all backgrounds and nationalities in the peace process to finally achieve a more peaceful world with systematic change that includes gender equity. As evidenced by women in Ukraine, women carry out a deeply meaningful role in sustaining their community during times of conflict and post conflict reconstruction. 48% of small businesses which emerged after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are women-led. Women have also taken the lead on providing humanitarian aid including, organising hubs to supply medical assistance to soldiers on battlefields and people who have been displaced by the conflict. Women have proven to be essential to the peace process as shows by the involvement of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) in securing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Thanks to the NIWC, the peace agreement ensured victims’ rights and the reintegration of political prisoners. Another example are Sudanese women who have made their mark in the 2020 Juba Peace Deal to ensure women participation and gender inclusion.
We have been taught about the democratic peace theory. Democratic states are unlikely to enter into a war or violent conflict with another democratic state. What is largely unknown, however, is the fact that neither democracy nor the absence of poverty or education nor dominant religion are reliable factors in how a country behaves in the global arena in terms of conflict and aggression. Studies have shown that the most reliable predictor of peace is the degree of gender equality in a society. The logic behind this phenomenon is simple. Violence breeds violence. When domestic violence is normalized in our social structure, we inherent and learn from a young age that humans are organised in hierarchies much rather than in a linked net. When we grow up in a home and environment, where physical strength, perceived superiority and dominance justify violence, we learn to use our own position of power and privilege to impose our will through violence. We learn to dominate instead of cooperate. As adults in positions of power, we transfer this to the national and international structures of governance. Thus, at the root of
a militarized society and oppression of minorities is the lack of awareness for gender injustices and the failure to incorporate gender equality into an effective policies and accountabilities – this is the wing that we need to start healing. (Hudson V. et al., 2012)
To conclude, I would like to emphasise that women are the most affected by war and its side effects but are therefore also the best suited to combat it. Women who are most affected by weapons often have the best ideas on how to remove them from the community. Thus, the exclusion of women, the female experience and the social gender discussion from peacebuilding means that conflicts are never really rooted out but postponed to another time of instability with exactly the same consequences. Policies and strategies that serve only a single wing get reproduced, which is therefore obligated to carry the weight of the whole bird. We act according to the already known norm with known strategies to solve problems that need innovative and more encompassing solutions. The root cause of conflict has always been embedded in the whole of society, yet we act as if one half of society exists. We act as if a bird can fly with the strength of only one wing. In the name of International Women’s Day, let us celebrate women in peacekeeping, learn more about their experiences and be the generation that challenges gender inequalities in diplomatic work. Let us be the second wing to rise.
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