Prevention Instead of Escalation

Peace policy means to cultivate the prevention of violence in all crisis and conflict regions, and to strengthen the role of local peace activists. Traditional mechanisms of conflict management, such as reconciliation based on public negotiation and apology, or material compensation, play an important role here, but, explicitly or implicitly, often exclude women. Therefore traditional forms of preventing violence between populations or states are not sufficient. All social and government institutions, as well as families and schools, must be included in the process.

The large gap between early warning and early action is a major problem in prevention. In all conflicts there are early warning signs – reports by journalists, human rights organizations or politicians. But often there is insufficient political will to heed the warnings, or there are no efficient strategies for resolving conflicts. It is also difficult for conflicts that have not (yet) escalated to attract the necessary political and media attention. This is a fundamental dilemma of conflict prevention, since the sign of its success, after all, is precisely that it results in a “non-event.” Existing early warning systems are often ignored. Also, there are many different early warning systems, each with its own indicators. What these systems have in common is the lack of an integrated, or systematically integrated, gender perspective. The international community could step in to standardize existing approaches based on transparent criteria, analyze the specific situation in each region, and incorporate the gender dimension. Instead of investing in modern weapon systems, states should fund UN efforts to create an internationally uniform, but region-specific, early warning system.

The term “civil conflict management” encompasses a broad spectrum of civil groups, measures, and actions. These include the non-violent work of grassroots groups, work with local governments, trade unions, and churches, as well as diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and efforts at crisis prevention in the context of development cooperation or as an intervention by foreign civil groups. For a long time women’s role in civil conflict management has received little notice. This is due in part to the fact that women work primarily on a grassroots level: in self-help groups that deal with food supply, health, trauma care, and similar matters, but do not appear to contribute directly to conflict management. Such peacekeeping work by women, the establishment of communal social infrastructure included, is often viewed as exclusively humanitarian, and thus its true political significance is denied.

Frequently, however, it is precisely by meeting daily needs that women reach an understanding over and above the lines of conflict. Women tend to provide scarcely visible “routine peacekeeping services,” by providing mutual support and maintaining social relations. In this way they build bridges for reconciliation, which also can point the way for negotiations at the political level and in turn be affected by them.

On a national level, women’s groups attract attention through acts of civil disobedience, demonstrations, and lobbying. In doing so, they frequently make use of stereotypical images of mothers or “peace-loving women.” From time to time, “Women in Black”, widows’ and mothers’ groups in various parts of the world elicit great international attention, while other protest movements face stronger repression. Use of gender stereotypes as such can be strategically clever and subversive when women use traditional gender roles for their resistance work. This strategy, however, can be self-defeating if the outcome is that women remain imprisoned in these gender roles and no new, forward-looking role models for women are developed.

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Women often work alongside men to establish peace zones, as in the Philippines. In the Balkans, the Caucasus, Israel and Guatemala, they lead movements against conscription, or organize marches for disarmament and against violence. Countless examples show women’s potential in conflict management. Liberian women have collected small arms; Cambodian women have worked for non-violent elections. There is a long list of courageous women and their non-violent actions.

Many female peace activists come from self-help organizations and religious communities, but also from women’s rights movements. Their contribution to peace within grassroots organizations is just a small step away from active conflict intervention, namely from declared commitment to the fight against ethnic segregation, for human rights, and for peaceful coexistence. Women constructively prevent conflicts from escalating into violence. It is also important to keep in mind that these women engage in peacebuilding not because of their gender, i.e. because it is in their “nature” to do so, but as a result of the roles they have been assigned or have assumed, as well as traditional gender roles.

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Women contribute substantially to non-violent third-party civil interventions, namely by non-governmental actors and international organizations. They facilitate the work of reconciliation, perform monitoring services, and support education for peace and human rights. For example, the unarmed members of Peace Brigades International have escorted human rights advocates in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia, and other countries. The work of these mostly female peace brigaders demonstrates the effectiveness and great potential of civil interventions.

For many women, peace activism involves considerable risks, yet it does not ensure their participation in official peace processes. Also, if international organizations intervene in conflicts, women and their organizations are often passed over. Diplomatic personnel seldom pay attention to women’s groups and consequently they are neither included in decision-making processes nor recognized in their role as mediators.

An understanding of civil conflict management and peacebuilding that aims to achieve a culture of peace raises the value ascribed to women’s work on the local level. At a UN conference in New York in July 2005, the international network of non-governmental organizations known as the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) acknowledged the role of civil society in the prevention and resolution of armed conflicts. A number of gender roles are explicitly listed in the GPPAC’s “Global Action Agenda.” It identifies women as the main guarantors of “structural prevention.” In its “People Building Peace” program, the GPPAC calls on governments, regional organizations, and the UN to devote more attention to women’s peacebuilding efforts. In so doing, it takes up the worldwide demands of women’s organizations and takes UN proclamations on women’s rights at their word.

Peace negotiations, of course, are extremely important, but they are only the first step in a long process of establishing peace; without the participation of the population at large, it is nearly impossible for this process to succeed. Only if women participate equally in the peace process is it possible to ensure that they will not be thrown back onto their pre-conflict roles – roles that often were one of the causes of conflict.