What ends a war is not the piece of paper eventually signed by armed groups. That’s just the part that gets caught on camera. The true path to peace often lies far beyond the negotiating table and is charted by grassroots activists, particularly women, who lay the groundwork in local communities.
2015 has already provided ample reminders of this. At the start of the year, I found myself engaged in deep dialogue with Syrian women peace activists at a conference in Istanbul. Not long afterwards, I was getting updates from our partners in Colombia, grassroots organizers who have sustained their communities through decades of war. Women in these two places are separated by distance, language and much more, but they are united by the peace that they are molding into reality, every day and too often beyond the recognition of official negotiations.
Nearly 15 years after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and 20 years after world leaders negotiated the Beijing Platform for Action, we shouldn’t have to remind the gatekeepers of official negotiations that you cannot reach a peace agreement without women’s voices. If you do, you have significantly increased the chances that the peace agreement will soon fail, as more than half do.
Those reminders are clearly still necessary. From Liberia to Afghanistan to South Sudan, women have had to practically push and shove their way to the peace negotiating table. Where women succeed, peace has been lasting. For example, in Northern Ireland, a coalition of Protestant and Catholic women played a central role in uniting opposing parties, widening the agenda of negotiations and laying the groundwork for a peace that has held since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Yet, while the gravitation of the world’s attention towards the optics of peace agreement signings is understandable, too often, it renders invisible other forms of peacemaking, far more durable than paper, that are carried out by women at the local level, before, during and after peace accords are signed.
Right now, hopes for a negotiated end to Colombia’s 50 years of war are running high. But this round of formal talks is relatively new. Begun in 2012, it brings together representatives of government and of the rebel group known as the FARC to debate key issues of rural development, political participation, drug trafficking, the rights of victims and the end of the armed conflict. In keeping with the global trend, women have again been sidelined.
But even as women’s rights activists have fought for recognition in the official process, they have continued a decades-long tradition of community-based peacebuilding, whether or not they may assign that label to their work.
For instance, the grassroots organization called Taller de Vida (or “Workshop of Life”) has provided years of outreach and support to former child soldiers, to children at risk of recruitment by armed groups and to women and families displaced by armed violence. Their programming centres on healing through art, drama, theatre and other forms of creative expression. At first glance, this might appear as a purely personal intervention, helping individuals to rebuild their lives after trauma.
A deeper look reveals how this work is laying the groundwork for lasting peace. Teenagers who have already spent long years as combatants are challenged to reinvent themselves as constructive citizens, exploring questions such as “who do I want to be?” and “what kind of society do I want to live in?” Taller de Vida enables women and youth to see beyond the violent circumstances that have shaped their lives so far and do the hard work of imagining peace. This is what it takes to shift an entire society away from a long-established war footing.
Colombian women have also organized to create enclaves of non-violence in their communities. As women embody the role of caretakers, especially where men have taken up arms and left, they model small-scale and local peace initiatives to ensure community survival. In some places, this has meant simply putting up signs to designate an area as prohibited to combatants. In others, it has meant direct negotiations with armed groups.
Despite their systematic exclusion from power, women’s daily, ongoing work of grassroots organizing eventually created some narrow inroads to the official peace talks. For example, women demanded and won a Sub-Commission on Gender, to guarantee that gender remains on the agenda. And women have played a key role in consolidating the advocacy of other Colombians historically excluded from the halls of power where peace talks are held. Years of women’s organizing helped to better connect groups advocating for Afro-Colombians, Indigenous Peoples, LGBT people and labor unions, among others. These networks were better coordinated to mobilize together when the opportunity for peace talks materialized. As a result, they could seize the space to present their shared and unique perspectives, submitting a joint communique to the peace negotiations.
Even in times when no peace agreement was on the horizon, grassroots organizing by Colombian women embedded peace-sustaining practices in communities. Syrian women are doing the same today.
In Syria, women are bringing urgent aid to areas beyond the reach of international agencies who have long since evacuated their staff. In so doing, they offer a vital, peaceful alternative to extremist groups like ISIS, who have won acquiescence from some hungry, war-weary communities by providing food and other basics to families made desperate by years of war. When women are able to meet crucial needs for food, water and health care, they bolster their leadership in the eyes of local communities, lending legitimacy to the alternative they represent.
In addition, Syrian women are reaching out to each other to share their experiences and solutions. In January, activists from Syria, Iraq and across the global women’s movement convened in Istanbul to co-create solutions to confront ISIS, at a gathering called “Strategies for Change.” As governments grapple with how to defeat ISIS, Syrian women have articulated a vital truth: the solution to that question is to end the war. As one participant stated, “The first challenge we face is the war. This war has brought us the terrorist entity called ISIS. We also face other challenges, like a lack of protection in our Constitution and the masculine mind-set that creates war and political suffering.”
Furthermore, another Syrian activist at the “Strategies for Change” gathering emphasized, “The only way to defeat ISIS is to end the civil war. And the only way to really end the war is to make sure that women’s demands, which reflect the needs of the families and communities we are responsible for, are included in peace accords. Anything less is merely a division of spoils between combatants.”
As in Colombia, such activist networks are essential in the here and now to help women meet communities’ immediate needs and build local resilience to violent threats. The shared power of these activist relationships are also necessary to both build the pressure to re-initiate the peace process and to insert women’s voices into decision-making.
Women’s activism, caretaking and community-building is often relegated to the category of service provision. Policymakers and official peace negotiators too often fail to perceive that these purportedly humanitarian concerns – fortifying the resilience and relationships between people and communities – are the basis upon which peace is won or lost.
Women in Syria, Colombia and beyond are uniquely positioned to understand and convey these realities, at peace talks and in communities. Their work may be situated far from Geneva, Havana or any other site of official peace negotiations – but sustainable peace depends upon it.