What space for women in African peace agreements?

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How are women, their roles and functions imagined in future African post-conflict societies? What are the spaces and places that women occupy in African peace agreements? Africa has seen a disproportionate number of armed conflicts on the continent since the end of the Cold War, a large amount having ended with the signing of a peace agreement.

These peace agreements set out the overarching framework for the peacebuilding that is to take place in the aftermath of the armed conflict, and can be understood as blueprints of the post-conflict society. In particular, they reflect how signatories perceive different groups of individuals and the roles that they should play in the post-conflict society. Only 6% of signatories in all major peace processes between 1992 and 2019 worldwide were women. This is despite the adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 in 2000, which focused on the recognition, protection and participation of women in peace and security matters.

In my recent research I examined the space, wording, function and roles given to women in 130 peace agreements signed in Africa between 1990 – 2019 through a feminist lens and distinguished four categories reflecting how women are portrayed: vulnerable victims, moral peacebuilders, counting women and human rights (and women’s rights).

Vulnerable Victims

Women are predominantly mentioned in peace accords as part of “vulnerable” populations. Often, women are grouped in the now (in)famous “women and children” category. In many instances, this group of vulnerable is enlarged to include different groups of populations, such as traumatised children, the mentally disabled and the elderly. Such a grouping hides an assumption that women constitute a minority sociological category, rather than half the population. Drawing attention to the diverse experiences of different parts of the population is important, yet by putting women as a category alongside minority groups, they are seen as deviant to the norm, while men are being interpreted as the “default mode”. It is also problematic to group women as a category with delinquents, the mentally disabled and traumatised individuals, as these populations often have restricted capacities (or rights) to influence the post-conflict society. Associating women with these populations undermines their possibility to act as independent individuals with a right to shape and decide on the future of the post-conflict society.

Moral Peacebuilders

A recurrent trend in peace accords is that women are defined for what they are rather than what they do. This plays out in a paradoxical way: on the one hand, women are seen as inherently vulnerable and thus as passive victims in need of protection; on the other hand, understandings of women as innately peaceful and morally superior puts them in a position of moral responsibility for the country’s post-conflict rebuilding

The Sun City Agreement for example, urged parties to “restore the dignity of women so that they may fully assume their noble roles of wives, mothers, educators, custodians of social values and development agents” (pp. 47–54, 21, iv). This declaration manages to put the burden on women to be custodians of social values, and thereby regulates their behaviour, while at the same time firmly establishing women’s roles in the private sphere as wives and mothers – and thus outside of the public, political sphere where decisions about the peacebuilding process are taken. Women are hence seen as the moral vectors of the future post-conflict society, yet this responsibility rarely materialises in a seat at the table or actual influence on the peace negotiations and the subsequent accord.

Counting Women

Quotas in state institutions have become one of the methods aimed at giving women more political power and influence in the public sphere. As peace agreements design the framework which will regulate the post-conflict society, they often contain various power-sharing mechanisms, such as quotas. The Maputo Protocol, which came into force in 2005, builds upon UNSC 1325 and requires state parties to promote the equal participation of women in the political life of their countries through affirmative action. While many of the accords examined here do not contain explicit provisions regarding women’s participation, some give detailed guidelines.

Adding more women to ameliorate the gender balance has at times been criticised for reducing the question of gender equality to a numbers game, bypassing the structural inequality that women face. Some critics have also argued that women delegates at negotiations are not representative of women in society as a whole, and they often belong to the elite. These are both valid points. Numbers are not enough, yet in order to change the structure, there is a need for a larger participation of women in all institutions, bypassing the often cited critical number of 30%. If women are not integrated into the decision-making institutions, these institutions remain by and for men.

Human Rights (and Women’s Rights)

Finally, several of the peace agreements examined mention “human rights”, yet some also add a specific mention of “women’s rights”. The addition of “women’s rights” to “human rights” reflects long-standing feminist critique pointing to the fact that the main international organs, established for the promotion and protection of human rights, do not deal specifically with violations of the human rights of women, except in a marginal way. Feminist scholars have also demonstrated that until recently, human rights law privileged able-bodied adult men rather than women or children, as women’s concerns often are submerged in more global issues. It is thus likely that the peace agreements analysed here, which specify “women’s rights” in addition to human rights, have done so to make sure that women’s rights are not downplayed or neglected.

There is nevertheless a risk that this practice of adding “women’s rights” to references of “human rights” backfires. Using separate instruments or concepts to deal with specific “women’s rights” has, for example, resulted in a narrowing of the global human rights perspective and the relegation of questions relating to women to structures endowed with less power – in essence constructing a “women’s ghetto” with fewer resources and lower priority than the “general” human rights bodies. This can result in “human rights” being interpreted as synonymous only to “men’s rights”, and “women’s rights” being seen as an optional add-on.

From Gender Blindness to Gender Dilemmas

The 130 peace agreements analysed here cover almost 30 years and various types of conflicts from a whole continent. Yet the space and wording allocated to women and gender remain remarkably similar over time and between different countries and regions. There is, however, a clear increase of the references made to women, girls and gender before and after the adoption of UNSC 1325. Before 2000, only 17% of all peace agreements mentioned women, girls and gender, while after 2000, that number is 33%. However, these references draw strongly on essentialist understandings of women. We may thus have passed the stage of “gender blindness”, yet we are still in the phase of “gender dilemmas”. Moreover, men are still the default setting in peace agreements, while women are perceived as different, requiring special treatment or special protection.

Nina Wilén (@WilenNina) is Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Lund University as well as a Global Fellow at PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo).


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