It's September, Peace Month is here!
Isis International supports women's participation in peacebuilding from the grassroots. We amplify women's voices through feminist communications and through our Activist School build the capacity of women working for peace. 
Peace requires all our efforts. Isis belongs to international, regional and national networks working together for peace.
Check out Women Engaged in Action on 1325, and the Global Network for Women Peacebuilder's global campaign 'Women Speak Out for Peace'.
Continuing our efforts to advocate to engender peace follow our articles this month and take a look at our guide on Engendering Peace Journalism.

By Marilee Karl, Isis International

Greater recognition needs to be given to the unique contributions women can make to peace processes and to food security during times of conflict and as countries emerge from conflict.

Conflicts result in major upheaval, massive numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, destruction of agriculture and livelihoods, a breakdown of food security and even starvation. In times of conflict, aid agencies have long since recognized the importance of ensuring that women are direct recipients of emergency food aid. Women have been found to be key to ensuring that food reaches the most vulnerable members of their communities. This recognition has become enshrined in the policies of many relief agencies.

Less well recognized is the importance of involving women in peace processes. Women have been largely left out of international negotiations. Women’s rights groups have organized from the ground up in many countries and are demanding a part in peace negotiations. It remains to be seen if they will be invited to sit around the table and make their voice heard. But women’s communications networks are amplifying the voices and demands of these groups; and women’s peace organizations and women human rights defenders are supporting their efforts.

“But women’s communications networks are amplifying the voices and demands of these groups; and women’s peace organizations and women human rights defenders are supporting their efforts.”

Smaller intra-country conflicts tend to get overlooked in mass media. Around the world there are dozens of conflicts within countries, some dating back decades: conflicts over land and natural resources; between indigenous peoples and those who are displacing them from their ancestral lands; ethnic, religious and political rivalries, some of which are inflamed by outsiders. Here too, women are largely absent from peace processes and post-conflict negotiations.

Not Just victims

Women are often seen only as victims, to be protected from violence. Violence against women is indeed widespread and prevention and care for survivors are vital. But women should be seen not only as victims. They must be protagonists in conflict resolution and peace processes, in rebuilding and in ensuring food security in post-conflict situations.

I would like to share with you some of the findings of an Asia Pacific regional enquiry on women living in situations of conflict. Entitled “Joining the Dots”, it was conducted collaboratively between Justice Equality Rights Access (JERA) International, an Australian based women’s NGO; Asia Pacific Women’s Watch (APWW) a regional network of women’s organizations and groups in the Asia Pacific Region; and Women and Media Collective (WMC), a Sri Lankan based NGO.

The research was carried out in six countries in the Asia Pacific Region; Aceh, Fiji, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka: all countries that have been affected by conflict in one form or another. The study found four key realities in the lives of women who are living in/have lived in situations of conflict:

  • Displacement;
  • Insecurity and Violence;
  • Economic insecurity; and
  • Lack of representation of women in decision making structures, within the household and in the community.

These are key barriers to women’s economic development, empowerment and food security across all states of conflict and types of conflict.

The study concluded that: “in conflict and conflict affected societies, there is a need to move from a framework which focuses solely on violence and on the ‘protection’ of women to a framework that is centered on ‘protection of women’s rights’ in all shapes and forms.”

Strengthening Women’s Participation in Peace Building

peace cpcpBut how? There are many ways to go about transforming patriarchal decision-making structures, working at all levels to ensure that women sit at the Peace Table and contribute to decisions on post-conflict reconstruction, including resource allocation and food security. Isis International has chosen to strengthen women’s participation in peace building from the ground up through training women peace activists at the grassroots.

The first groups Isis International worked with were in Sulawesi, Indonesia and in Pikit in Mindanao, Philippines where multiple conflicts have lasted for decades, including pitting Christians and Muslims, indigenous peoples and settlers, and family clans against each other.

In telling their stories, women recounted how clan conflicts divide families and communities, disrupt livelihoods, and affect food production, pushing communities further into poverty. Conflict also pushes people to migrate as a way of seeking more stable economic opportunities.

Indigenous women talked about “development aggression” (i.e. development via extraction industries) resulting in environmental degradation and destruction of their ancestral lands. They attribute conflict and violence particularly to the fight for ancestral domain; to historical injustice and a lack of recognition of cultural identity expressed in the struggle for self-determination. Armed conflict has limited their access to basic social services and has caused massive displacement, trauma, disruption of schooling and economic activities, including farming.

The women said that women’s issues were seldom taken into consideration in peace work, whether carried out by the local government or by civil society groups; and that women are seldom allowed to participate in decision-making processes. Media has not reflected women’s participation in peace building, but sees women only as victims of conflict.

Capacity building in communications and media

whrd pakistanAs a step towards helping women express their concerns and experiences, Isis International conducts capacity building workshops with women in using media and communication. Women have used the skills they learned to creatively present their concerns in a multi-stakeholder dialogue with government, civil society and media representatives. Hearing and understanding these women and their issues for the first time, civil society groups have acknowledged that they lacked a gender perspective in their work and local government recognized the value of including women representatives in the peace negotiations.

This capacity building has opened up the women’s dreams for community media that would help sustain their peace and development work. They gained confidence in producing media that speak of their needs and situation. In Indonesia, it inspired women to think of their own stories as newsworthy and to share these through community radio. Women in the Philippines liked the use of theatre and radio and are now developing community media. Despite encountering male dominance in leadership in local and community organizations, the women are claiming spaces in farmers’ organizations in Pikit, Philippines and taking advantage of the marketplace in Sulawesi, Indonesia, as spaces to share values for peace. They have affirmed the value of organizing as well as of communicating effectively in numbers.

After these pilot experiences, Isis International realized the need to expand its capacity building work among the grassroots women; to empower them by equipping them with the tools to voice their experiences and issues and ways they can contribute to civil society, local government and media.

Enabling grassroots women to use UN Security Council Resolution 1325

Isis International is also strengthening women’s use of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 that affirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, and in post-conflict reconstruction. This was the first time the grassroots groups and women community leaders in Pikit had learned about it, despite the ten years since its approval.

The wwhrd burmaomen were interested in giving their input into the National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security, and they crafted recommendations of particular concern to them:

  • Instituting early warning and reporting systems to inform ordinary people when conflict escalates or when there are ceasefires. Civilians should be part of this mechanism so they can be informed of when to leave and return to their homes and land.
  • Engendering Peace Journalism so that it recognizes the role of women media practitioners as partners in peacebuilding.
  • Giving attention to environmental degradation and the economic marginalization of women as manifested in the lack of economic opportunities and access to basic services. Indigenous women mentioned, in particular, the loss of access to land and disruption of economic activities such as cooperatives during conflict. During emergency relief efforts and post-conflict reconstruction, governments can help by buying food from cooperatives and women farmers.

Building on this experience, Isis International has been training hundreds of grassroots activists from across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, in the use of media and communications in their work, including community radio and the use of mobile phones for citizen journalism. Because the grassroots women cannot leave their families, farms and other economic activities for more than a few days, the trainings are carried out either on-site or in short intensive workshops at the Isis International House in Manila for small groups.

A recent Isis International Activist School training brought together peace activists from Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It proved so popular that for our next Activist School for those working in conflict and politically dangerous situations we received over 300 applications for 12 places. Clearly there is a demand from women grassroots activists to become more deeply involved in peace building and post-conflict processes.

Marilee Karl is the co-founder of Isis International and honorary member of the Board of Trustees. This is a shorter version of a paper presented at an NGO panel at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2014.

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