By Kamaya Jayatissa –
“Peace begins with a smile.” -Mother Teresa
An assessment of women’s contribution and influence in post-war situations is essential in providing a new perspective; one could even say a new direction for peace.
Emphasizing the importance of women’s participation in peace-building processes was not a priority for most States for decades. It was only in October 2000 that the first resolution on women, peace and security, was unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR 1325). Resolution 1325 marked the first time the Security Council specifically addressed the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women. Not only does it recognize the under-utilized contributions women make to conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace-building but it also encourages States to consider women’s inclusion in post-war reforms (reforms pertaining to security, judicial, constitutional and electoral processes). Mostly, rather than considering them simply as war-victims, the resolution stresses the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in peace and security.
Many studies revealed the significant contribution that can be made by women in regard to peace and national reconciliation. However, such contribution can be possible only if they are empowered to participate in post-war decision making processes and other settlements that are made to bring about peace. This concerns especially women who have lost their sons, their husbands, their lands and are now rebuilding their lives. In fact, these same researches also point out the existence of gendered perceptions which lower the capacity and general potential of women in society.
In Sri Lanka, nearly 80% of the refugees and IDPs were women and children. Among the most vulnerable groups during times of conflict, women are often considered to be more susceptible to marginalization and poverty. Whether they are war widows, former combatants, victims or survivors of war, their understanding of war becomes multifaceted. Due to this complexity, their vision as peace-makers will vary depending on their respective experiences, responsibilities and needs. Therefore, rather than restricting themselves or been restricted to the roles of wife and mother, women should be empowered to build their own perspective in order to develop it for larger achievements such as restoring peace and the process of social transition.
Despite the numerous grass root level initiatives such as ‘Women for Peace’, ‘The (Northern) Mothers’ Front’ or ‘Women’s Rural Development Societies’ which focused on women’s concerns and advocacy for peace, no recognition was clearly given to women in formal processes. Representing different communities, these peace activists have sometimes even come together to promote causes and interests that were common to them by developing links and solidarity across ethnic barriers.
However, their work in rebuilding trust and understanding was often been ignored or invisible during war time. Yet, today, as stakeholders for peace, the recognition of their role becomes fundamental. Indeed, for a broader peace to exist, Sri Lanka, like many other post-war countries, needs the inclusiveness of women into its national reconciliation process. In this regard, more efforts need to be made in order to address the issue of women’s empowerment by strengthening existing institutions, ensuring equal opportunities for their participation in decision-making and mainstreaming gender concerns in processes of development as underlined in UNSC Resolution 1325.
Often described as the backbone of the household, women also have a leadership role to play in the economic landscape. Whether it is during war time or during peace, they often become the main support of their family and ultimately carry most of the social and economic burdens. In this context, initiatives such as micro financing appear as an effective tool to empower women especially in war affected areas.
This perspective was further emphasized by Ela Bhatt –lawyer and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India- who argues that “equity, local economies and the empowerment of women through work are central to supporting economic freedoms and eventually peace”. Delivering her speech upon accepting the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in February 2013, Bhatt shared her own vision of peace, a peace that can only be achieved through socio-economic development and eradication of poverty:
“Certainly, absence of war is not peace. Peace is what keeps war away, but it is more than that; peace disarms and renders war useless. Peace is a condition enjoyed by a fair and fertile society. Peace is about restoring balance in society; only then is it lasting peace. In my view, restoration and reconstruction of a society are essential and key components of the peace process worldwide. […] Poverty is lack of peace and freedom. In fact, removing poverty is essentially building peace. […] Focus on women and you will find an ally who wants a stable community. She wants roots for her family.”
According to Bhatt, by putting the focus on women’s participation we won’t only find a worker and provider but we will also find a caretaker and educator; components that make women a unique factor or combination of factors in rebuilding communities and bringing constructive and sustainable solutions to the table.
In Sri Lanka, since the war ended, steps have been taken to increase women’s participation in policy making and development; such an illustration is the Giritale Consultation held in 2010 to strengthen livelihood possibilities for women. But, as we know, a lot more remains to be done in order to foster this type of initiatives. It is indeed necessary for politics – or a politics –to further support women focused activities that address socio-economic realities by ensuring that women have sufficient resources to accomplish their goals through new forms of entrepreneurship. Investing in the empowerment of women will not only strengthen the economy required for societal stability in the island but it will also benefit the peace-building agenda as a whole.