Supporting gender-inclusive conflict resolution

Participation of women in the arena of conflict and its resolution  is crucial for achieving just and sustainable peace, writes Isadora Vadasz.

Isadora Vadasz holds a Master of Law and Development from the University of Melbourne and currently works in criminal law policy  at the Department of Justice and Community Safety, Victoria.

In 1991, the Paris Peace Accords in Cambodia were made possible by Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, the only woman even remotely involved in the Cambodian peace process. Though she was not invited to the negotiations, she and her husband orchestrated meetings between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Sihanouk, and resulting peace talks led to end decades of civil war.

Whilst a staff member at an NGO chaired by Dr Kek, I had the honour of meeting her on several occasions. Though I was awed by her intelligence and experience then, her feats are even more remarkable in light of what I now know about the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda.

Women’s voices have long been excluded from the arena of conflict and its resolution, but their participation is crucial for achieving just and sustainable peace. Since its inception in 2000 with UNSCR 1325, the WPS agenda has sought recognition of the diverse roles that women play as agents of change in preventing and resolving conflicts and building post-conflict peace and stability.

It’s now well established that a peace agreement is likely to last longer if women participate meaningfully in its development, and that gender equality is a strong predictor of peacefulness in a society. Women’s meaningful participation in peace processes can also lead to a more inclusive post-conflict society.

On top of a lack of women present during negotiations, there were very few references to gender balance and none to gender mainstreaming in the Peace Accords in Cambodia. Despite Dr. Kek’s work and the active role of women’s civil society organisations (CSOs) in Cambodia at the time, the incorrect stereotype persisted that women and war don’t mix. Cambodian women would likely experience less of the discrimination, violence and state oppression plaguing the country today had the Paris Peace Accords harnessed the opportunity to pursue a transformative social agenda.

More recently the Indo-Pacific has seen encouraging adoption of WPS principles in conflict resolution and security issues. For instance, in the Philippines’ Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro (2014) almost a third of negotiators were women. The agreement is a model for women’s meaningful participation and an agenda of transforming gender relations in ethnic, religious, and culturally diverse settings.

Though each conflict presents unique complexities, lessons from Cambodia and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific should guide Australia to support gender-inclusive peace in other conflict-affected contexts, such as in Myanmar.

The unrest resulting from the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar has pervasive gendered underpinnings and implications in a country already battling stubborn traditional gender roles.

2021 has seen significant public resistance to Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, which has no women in its senior ranks, and only 0.2 percent in its rank and file. The Women’s League of Burma estimate that women have made up approximately 60 percent of protesters. This is a significant symbolic rejection of the removal of Myanmar’s female leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was replaced by the resolutely patriarchal Tatmadaw. The military also has a long track record of targeting women and children, including using sexual and gender-based violence against ethnic minorities.

It’s been reported that approximately 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since the coup, and a large proportion are women and children. The negative economic effects of the conflict are also gendered, for instance in the contraction of the country’s $6bn garment and footwear industry, which employs mostly women. In a welcome development, women and people from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities form a significant part of the opposing National Unity Government, a coalition of democratic forces in Myanmar.

Considering this context, steps towards peace must account for and address the gendered nature of the issue, or risk setting the objectives of gender equality and democracy back decades.

By supporting gender equality both before and during peacebuilding processes, Australia can encourage countries in the Indo-Pacific region to not only achieve peace, but ensure that peace includes and empowers women in all their diversities. Women’s CSOs are potent agents of change across the region, and should be supported according to their needs. As the WPS agenda shows, gender equality is a strong precursor to stability, and therefore an important building block for countries to be able to achieve and sustain inclusive peace. By supporting women’s CSOs Australia can invest in regional women’s social, political and economic empowerment during ongoing conflicts, thereby reducing unequal gender norms which underpin conflicts. Support should also enable women and CSOs to gain a seat and a voice during future peace negotiations.

For many countries, there is no clear path out of conflict. What is clear, however, is that gender and ethnic diversity needs to be a key factor in the road to peace. Without this representation and inclusion, regional states risk repeating Dr Kek’s lament all this time after the Cambodian conflict: ‘I want to see my nation enjoy long, true peace.’