In 2012, Hend Nafea joined demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to oppose military rule. She was apprehended without cause, stripped, tortured by security forces and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. Ultimately she was tried and sentenced to life in prison in absentia. She now lives in exile, and continues to fight for democratic change in Egypt.
Salwa Bugaighis helped ignite a national movement from Benghazi that led to Qaddafi’s ouster. When militias armed with weapons from the dictator’s legendary stockpiles attacked the Libyan pro-democracy movement, Bugaighis stood firm in her demand for peace, bravely urging Libyans to use the power of the ballot to vote in a new democratic government. She was assassinated for her stand.
The targeting of women like Nafea and Bugaighis by repressive regimes and violent extremists must be seen for what it is: a deliberate act of political terror. Women are of strategic value as collateral among “networks of death,” as President Obama refers to violent extremist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram.
But women are also a potential threat to extremists. Globally, women remain under-recognized as front-line forces in the fight against the spread of local terrorist cells. To counter Pakistan’s dangerous radicalization, Mossarat Qadeem took matters into her own hands and founded PAIMAN Alumni Trust to foster progressive and equitable civil societies. One program helps mothers in high-conflict regions de-radicalize their sons. They’ve trained more than 655 mothers to rehabilitate and reintegrate 1024 radicalized boys and young men. In Western democracies where radicalization is a growing threat, women’s potential to serve as counterterrorist influences, while proven, is woefully under-tapped.
Researchers from the International Peace Institute (IPI) tracked 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011 to measure the participation of women as negotiators, mediators, witnesses and signatories. IPI’s findings revealed women’s inclusion in the peace process led to agreements that were 20 percent more likely to last more than two years. Long term, they found an even greater impact: peace agreements involving women were 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.
Given this research, it is irresponsible that the United Nations’ historic Resolution 1,325, calling for women’s meaningful participation in all aspects of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, has been largely ignored in the 15 years since its passage. In fact, instead of moving closer to full participation, the world has drifted away from that goal, with the number of women signatories to peace agreements dropping in that time, from four percent to two percent.
Excluding women endangers all of society, including children and men. When countries endure civil war, violence harms everyone. Businesses fold, families are fractured by murder, people starve, refugee populations grow and civil society activity screeches to a halt — an environment ripe for radicalization and recruitment. If warring factions finally sit at the peace table, they are likely to have dominance or vengeance on their minds, not reconciliation. It’s as if no one has asked, “How can we expect those who live by the sword to make peace with a pen?” Countries must involve women in the peace building process every step of the way.
Women have a history of brokering peace where men have failed — from “Lysistrata” to Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams who, in 1976, organized demonstrations calling for a non-violent resolution to ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland. More recently, when Liberia’s second Civil War returned the nation to violence in 1999, Leymah Gbowee gathered an interfaith coalition called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Thousands of women demanded high-level peace talks through non-violent protests, which led to the exile of a notorious war criminal, President Charles Taylor, and the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Our film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, followed Gbowee’s extraordinary leadership). Whether extremism is militaristic, fundamentalist or autocratic, women are among the first to be targeted and last to be consulted. But as heads of family, transmitters of values and caretakers of even their own oppressors, women are uniquely positioned to spot signs that a society may be descending into violence and repression — to recognize that religious ideology is pivoting toward extremism, to sense which community members are prone to violence, and to know where weapons are hidden.
In 2011, President Obama implemented the U.S. National Action Plan (U.S. NAP) on Women, Peace and Security with the goal of empowering women as equal partners in preventing conflict. In his speech last September, the president told the U.N. General Assembly, “… where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed. And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”
These heartening words rang hollow when the president convened last year’s summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Instead of honoring the U.S. NAP’s commitment to include women leaders from grassroots organizations, even women from these groups working in the regions most affected by violent extremism were excluded.
This September, when President Obama reconvenes the Countering Violent Extremism summit, he’ll have another opportunity to deliver on his word. Accountability and common sense demand that this summit host meetings between women peacebuilders and officials at the highest levels of national defense and security — women like Gbowee, Nafea and Bugaighis. It’s past time to bring women to the table and pay attention to their voices. The costs of war for all of us are too high not to wage peace.
Oscar-nominated Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney are the team behind the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and executive producers of the celebrated PBS special series Women, War & Peace. Their most recent project, The Trials of Spring, chronicles the stories of nine women who played central roles in the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermaths in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.
Watch a clip from The Trials of Spring: