This article originally appeared in Prospect Magazine.
Earlier this week, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) held an event at which speakers debated the motion: “Women’s empowerment and sustainable development—have we failed?”
Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel peace prize co-laureate and Liberian peace activist, spoke illuminatingly about the crucial role women play in times of conflict. She highlighted the unique ways in which women facilitate peace in times of war.
Firstly it is women who provide basic services, in the form of food and shelter, to those internally displaced by civil war. It is also women who negotiate and secure safe passage through checkpoints set up by rival factions. And, thirdly, women negotiate peace on behalf of their communities by identifying and validating those that are members of the community. Women carry out these roles in the face of the constant threats of kidnapping, rape and murder.
The paradox of war is that women find themselves empowered during times of conflict to the same degree that they are disempowered in times of peace. When conflicts end, Gbowee explained, women are dismissed as underqualified and so excluded from formal peace negotiations. She has called for recognition of the valuable experience of women during times of conflict. Her efforts as an activist involve encouraging female participation in elections.
The fact that conflict affects men and women differently has only recently begun to influence the peacekeeping and development efforts of foreign governments and NGOs. The constant threat of rape directly inhibits the ability of women to carry out their peace-facilitating roles. Gry Larsen, the Norwegian state secretary for Foreign Affairs, spoke at the debate of the importance of gender-appropriate post-conflict strategies.
Making development and aid projects gender-appropriate often involve simple considerations of logistics, management and communication. Placing food stores, medical tents and toilets, for example, closer to communities, along well-travelled routes or in open spaces significantly reduces the risk of rape. And information relating to when and where fresh aid supplies will be delivered allow women, who most often collect the aid, to arrange safe travel.