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September 20, 2012, Thursday

From the ground up

How do you celebrate World Peace Day, marked around the globe on Sept. 21, when tragic accounts of attacks, deaths and casualties dominate the domestic news agenda on a daily basis?

With the light at the end of Turkey’s dark tunnel currently very dim and tension growing in society, it seemed appropriate to take a step back to look at peace building from a grassroots perspective in the light of a report titled “From the Ground Up,” a recent joint publication from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies, ActionAid and Womankind Worldwide, focusing on the role played by women in conflict resolution.

The study covers conflict and post-conflict situations in Afghanistan, Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, examining the positive role played by women and women’s organizations in maintaining peace in the fragile communities. The report deplores that “the skills of women as mediators, decision makers within the home and their experiences building trust and dialogue in their families and communities are frequently dismissed as irrelevant or are not sufficiently valued by national governments, the international community or by women themselves.”

While acknowledging significant contextual differences between the situations in these five countries, the researchers found enough commonalities to support renewed calls for a more gender-balanced approach to peace that begins at grassroots level. For a start, they found that women and men have different definitions of peace. While men tend to see peace as the absence of armed conflict and the presence of stable governmental structures, women take a more holistic view which includes basic rights like food on the table, access to health care and education as well as the absence of abuse in the home.

Men interviewed in the course of the research acknowledged that women often tried to dissuade their male relatives from taking part in violent action or provocative activities. “Women’s role in conflict mediation, building trust and dialogue, educating children and counseling family members not to engage in violence are common themes across communities,” the report states. It also points out that “women and girls organize themselves collectively to achieve change,” but while the role they play maintaining peace at community level is widely recognized, there remains a disconnect between the local level and peace-making processes at the national level, where too few women are involved or even consulted. Women themselves often fail to make the link between what they achieve locally and what they could contribute on a broader scale.

In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which recognized the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding. But more than a decade later, women are still largely absent from formal peace negotiations. In 2010, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), now part of UN Women, pointed out that while several women have played lead mediation roles in recent years, the UN had never formally appointed a female chief negotiator. In 24 major peace processes since 1992 “only 2.5 per cent of signatories, 3.2 per cent of mediators, 5.5 per cent of witnesses and 7.6 per cent of negotiators” were women. Yet the UN agency cited several conflicts in which women’s groups had brought a new approach, such as in Ireland where the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition built bridges between Catholics and Protestants and promoted the reintegration of political prisoners.

Civil society organizations are seen as the crucial link in the bottom-up approach to peace advocated by the IDS/ActionAid/Womankind report, which weaves a thread between peacebuilding activities at home and at community level often conducted by women’s groups and the contribution they could and should make in broader processes.

Peace settlements are not just achieved at the negotiation table: a suitable ground has to be prepared and sustained among the population. As we see in Turkey, armed conflict and militarization contribute to sustain a climate of violence that permeates the entire society, whether it is in the form of domestic violence, road rage or street brawls or indeed a growing intolerance to other people’s views. Violence is an obstacle to peace not just in its physical, lethal form -- the violence of the language used in the press, in the political discourse and in social media also undermines attempts to secure lasting peace.

The grassroots, gender-balanced approach to peace that is the focus of this report may not offer immediate solutions to Turkey’s current emergency, but it contains important and very relevant recommendations on how to build a more inclusive and equal society, which will be more receptive to peace, by allowing more women to contribute their experience at all levels, not just in the home and the community.

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