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Explainer: Why women’s role in sustaining peace is more critical than ever

On 25 October, the United Nations will mark the adoption in 2000 of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) to improve the protection of women and girls during conflicts, and recognize their leadership and unique roles in peace processes. 

Today, more than 600 million women and girls live in conflict-affected countries. In 2022, the United Nations verified nearly 2,500 cases of sexual violence mostly against women in conflict zones. 

That same year, over 30 women human rights defenders were killed in those zones. Many more such crimes against women and girls go unreported and continue with impunity.

Despite such worrying trends, many peace processes and negotiations take place without female mediators and/or signatories, with significant impact on gender-sensitive provisions designed to protect and include women and girls. 

Last year, globally only six out of 18 peace agreements included gender-sensitive provisions, and just one was signed or witnessed by a representative of a women’s organization, according to UN Women.

As we face unprecedented levels of human suffering due to conflicts and crises across the world, undoubtedly with devastating impact on women, we look at why their role in preventing conflicts and sustaining peace has never been more critical. 

Mouna Awata (left) is the president of the Women’s Peace Hut (Case de la Paix) in Gao, Mali, and mediates with armed groups to resolve conflicts.
Kani Sissoko

Mouna Awata (left) is the president of the Women’s Peace Hut (Case de la Paix) in Gao, Mali, and mediates with armed groups to resolve conflicts.

Active agents of peace

In 2015, an analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War showed that where women were able to have a strong influence on the peace negotiations, there was a much higher chance of an agreement. Where women had significant influence, an agreement was almost always reached. 

In 2015, an analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War showed that where women were able to have a strong influence on the peace negotiations, there was a much higher chance of an agreement. Where women had significant influence, an agreement was almost always reached. 

“In the first twenty years since the Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, we witnessed some historic firsts for gender equality,” said Sima Bahous, the Executive Director of UN Women, when she addressed the Security Council on WPS earlier this year. 

“While we must pause to appreciate these firsts, we must recall that we have neither significantly changed the composition of peace tables, nor the impunity enjoyed by those who commit atrocities against women and girls.”

More recent data shows that women represented only 16 per cent of conflict party delegations in UN-led or co-led peace processes – which was down from 19 per cent in 2021, and 23 per cent in 2020. 

“We need a paradigm shift that brings true equality. Full democracy needs the equal participation of women in all its processes,” said Bahous who served in two ministerial positions in the Jordanian government prior to joining UN Women. 

The representation of women in government leadership roles has improved in recent years compared to a decade ago, says UN Women. But the numbers are still too low to reach parity. 

Changing mindsets and dismantling age-old gender stereotypes remain key to ensuring progress. For example, a recent UN Women–supported survey showed that 58 per cent of young men aged 16–19 believed that men are better political leaders than women.

“How then will we achieve equality of women’s leadership? Nearly one in four young men believe that there are acceptable instances to hit a partner or spouse. How then will we end the scourge of violence against women?” Bahous said when the survey was launched.

Lt Baah: One Woman’s Journey to a Peacekeeping Mission

Protectors and role models

“Women are more easy to approach because it’s mostly the women and the youth that have a lot of challenges. So, I believe me being a woman, it’s easier for other women to open up,” says Lieutenant Esinam Baah, a peacekeeper who led a platoon at the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. 

Today, more than 12,000 women serve in 12 peacekeeping missions around the world, as military and police officers, and civilians, performing an array of duties including as heads of missions, force commanders, gender advisors, protection officers, engineers, disarmament experts and more. 

Although they only make up nearly 9 per cent of all uniformed peacekeepers (military and police), their engagement is vital to building trust with local communities, addressing women’s specific needs and protecting civilians. They also serve as role models for women and girls who want to help rebuild their communities and countries, and advocate for their rights. 

In fact, following the deployment of an all-female police unit to the then UN Mission in Liberia in 2007, the country saw a dramatic increase in local women joining the police force. Inspired by them, former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, said “these women want to emulate you in the way you’ve served this country.” 

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (left) with members of the all-female Indian Formed Police Unit serving with the UN Mission in Liberia in February 2016.
UNMIL/Emmanuel Tobey

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (left) with members of the all-female Indian Formed Police Unit serving with the UN Mission in Liberia in February 2016.

Champions of human rights 

Standing on the frontlines of today’s multiple converging crises, women human rights defenders bravely and tirelessly make essential contributions to local, regional and global peace and security initiatives. 

“They do this loudly and quietly, on the streets and in their homes, pushing against the weight of centuries of discrimination, disrespect and violence,” says a new report on the indispensable yet sometimes invisible role of women human rights defenders. 

“Women human rights defenders provide support to civilian populations, document human rights violations, gather evidence to secure future accountability and work to maintain or create space for the active participation of women in public life. In doing so they bring peace and justice closer,” says Mary Lawlor, an independent Special Rapporteur appointed by the United Nations to monitor the safety of human rights defenders around the world who authored the report. 

Elected women representatives from across India gather at a leadership event supported by UN Women.
© UN Women/Gangajit Singh Chandok

Elected women representatives from across India gather at a leadership event supported by UN Women.

Although some advances have been made since the adoption of resolution 1325 in improving women’s role in peace efforts, progress on protecting women human rights defenders has been lacking, consequently putting their safety and lives at risk. 

These defenders face physical and sexual attacks, stigmatization, criminal charges, smear campaigns, threats, harassment and ill-treatment in an environment where women’s right or ability to do this work is frequently questioned, including by their colleagues working alongside them, according to the report. 

The UN Human Rights Office says that between May 2021 and April 2022, there were incidents of reprisals and intimidation against 172 women human rights defenders and civil society organizations for their cooperation with the United Nations. 

“Women human rights defenders who work in conflict, post-conflict and crisis-affected settings do so in the often hyper-masculinized context of war. It is in that context that their work is even more necessary,” she says in the report. 

Learn more about the Women, Peace and Security agenda here. 

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