An Introduction to Our Topic: Gender and Peacebuilding

But presently I would come to know you had arrived at some fresh decision more fatally foolish than ever. ‘Ah! My dear man,’ I would say, ‘what madness next!’ But he would only look at me askance and say: ‘Just weave your web, please; else your cheeks will smart for hours. War is men’s business!’

From the play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Athens, 411 BCE.

Men and war, women and peace – these gendered ideas have endured over the centuries, and continue to resonate in our world today. War frequently has been depicted as the quintessential male activity; one that offers confirmation of manhood and proof of first class citizenship. Human responses that have been viewed to be problematic for the warrior – fear, uncertainty, guilt, grief, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence have been feminized, and women linked to war’s opposite. In Aristophanes’ famous play, women actually prevail, exasperated by their men’s continuous warring, the women from all sides decide to take action by banning their men from the bedrooms; all it takes is one night for the men to lay down their arms. If only it were that easy!

But these ideas of warring men and peaceful women are far from accurate representations of the real world. In surveys of US riflemen immediately after close combat with German or Japanese troops during WW2, only 15 to 20% admitted to firing their rifle at the enemy (Grossman 1995, 3-4). The most decorated British soldier of the First World War was a stretcher bearer, a man who would rather die than kill (Elshtain 1987: 204). And, of course, the extent to which warring does not come naturally to men is demonstrated over and over through the significant number of veterans of modern war who return home physically intact, but psychologically broken. Similarly, women have diverse relationships to war; during wartime most have provided important support and they are in recent years increasingly crossing the ultimate barrier of combat.

However, the image of the peaceful woman, or the outsider to war when her essential support becomes visible, is deeply rooted. The traditional feminine counterpart to the warrior’s sacrifice is the mother’s sacrifice; a British bishop in WWI made it starkly clear what was expected: she was a woman who saw “neither sense nor reason in the slaying or maiming of those whom she has brought into the world”, but who gave her sons “without a word,” with “no reproach,” and with “noble endurance.” (Grayzel 1999: 227-228) And, still today, a military mother who has lost a child to war is asked to lay a wreath on Remembrance Day; no such gesture is offered to a father whose son or daughter has died in war.

During WWI, though, women were also demanding their right to express their views on war. As Cynthia Cockburn’s article, “Women’s Power to Stop War: Hubris or Hope,” notes, in the midst of WWI, more than a thousand women from 12 countries travelled to The Hague to talk peace, dispatching women envoys to speak to the heads of state in belligerent and neutral countries. These women later strongly opposed the Versailles Treaty, arguing that it was simply creating the foundations for more war.

Many women’s peace actions that followed have sought to transform the culturally-devalued symbols of the “feminine”. In the early 1980s, women from all over the United Kingdom came to Greenham Common to establish a permanent peace camp outside an American military base in Britain to protest the deploying of US nuclear weapons on British soil; in one action they stripped naked, covered themselves in ash to commemorate the victims of Nagasaki, and laid down on the main road, successfully blockaded the base, turning a symbol of physical vulnerability into strength (Jones 1987: 201). In 1988, Israeli women formed Women in Black, a group that uses the image of the silent, grieving woman to demonstrate their outrage over their country’s policies in the occupied territories; it has since become an international movement against war. More recently, Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee bridged religious and ethnic divides to unite women into becoming a powerful voice for peace, and in one key moment prevented the security forces from arresting the protesting women during a tense standoff outside ongoing peace talks by threatening to disrobe; in African culture, such an act by a married or elderly woman represented a powerful curse on the man.

In their diverse struggles, women have shaped a particular critique of war. They have illustrated that war is at the extreme end of a continuum of violence, pointing out that the struggle against war must involve efforts to end all violence. Over and over again, they have revealed the extent to which the violence of war results in an increase in other forms of societal violence, including the sexual abuse of women, that peace must mean more than the absence of war and that it will only endure if it focuses on meeting the basic needs of individuals and communities. They have also offered a powerful critique of militarized security, demonstrating how so-called protectors can all too easily become threats; the frequent sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeepers is a disheartening example (Wolfe).

In the official world of international and national peace negotiations, however, women’s voices are still silenced. Ironically, it tends to be those who did the fighting who are expected to become their country’s peacemakers. Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution, passed unanimously on October 31, 2000 after years of feminist campaigning, calls for the equal participation and full involvement of women in all initiatives to maintain and promote peace and security. The resolution was historic, seen by feminist activists as confirming recognition that leaving women on the sidelines leads to the failure of peace efforts.

Unfortunately, too little has changed. Bringing a gender perspective into UN peace and security efforts has kept attention on the widespread sexual abuse that is so often a part of war, but it has continued to keep women in the primary role of victims. Women were signatories in only two out of 61 peace agreements between August 2008 and March 2012 and represented less than 3% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011. Moreover, the issue of women’s lack of security in post-conflict situations – and relatedly the needs of civilians and communities – continue to be ignored: in a review of 585 peace agreements signed between 1990 and 2010 only 92 contained references to women (O’Gorman).

Our latest collection of articles draws attention to the need to listen to women’s voices on war and peace, but also on the extent to which women themselves refuse to be pushed to the sidelines. While the violence against women both during war and so-called times of peace remains at epidemic levels, many women’s responses are inspiring, and point to the extent to which the traditional gendered ideas of rational male agency and women’s passivity, or naiveté about the serious issues facing our world, are not only inherently flawed, but fundamentally damaging to our construction of a more peaceful world.

In addition to Cynthia Cockburn’s questioning of whether women really have the power to end war, we invite you to read her account of an important meeting that brought Bosnian and Syrian women together to confer about what happens when women are excluded from peace negotiations. We offer, however, an important reminder that women’s peacemaking role should not be taken for granted by examining the diverse motives that have led women to leave their homes to offer their support to the Islamic State. Women, though, are also asserting their agency in trying to protect the women suffering under the violence of ISIS, as illustrated in an interview with Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed. Finally, this collection includes two articles addressing women’s efforts to respond to the worldwide problem of rape, including one by Dawson student Catherine Duret on the value of a transformative justice approach for many victims of sexual assault, and then ends with a passionate call by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, given on the launching of a major women’s international peace initiative, to focus attention on the need for a peace treaty to finally bring the Korean War, the longest unresolved war in modern history, to an end.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

For an award-winning film on the women of Liberia’s struggle for peace,
watch the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, from the wonderful PBS series Women, War and Peace.


For a picture of women’s varied peace efforts over the years, have a look at the following:

A Partial Chronology of Women’s Peace Activism

Works Cited
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Grayzel, Susan A. Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.

Jones, Lynne. “Perceptions of ‘Peace Women’ at Greenham Common 1981-85: A Participant’s View.” Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Eds. Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener. London, Macmillan, 1987. 179-204

O’Gorman, Eleanor. “On the Frontline: Women Building Peace. OpenDemcracy 50/50. 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Wolfe, Lauren. “The UN Is Not Serious About Its Peacekeeper Rape Problem.” Foreign Policy. 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

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13 Responses to An Introduction to Our Topic: Gender and Peacebuilding

  1. Angelo November 24, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    It was very interesting to read about what women have done to change the world’s devaluation of the “feminine traits” such as putting ashes on their bodies and lying down on the road as a form of protest. It was clearly established that war increases violence in society and that we must limit/end this violence in war to make society a safer place for everyone. I was saddened to read that despite having a more gendered perspective into UN peace and security efforts there has been little improvement. I was left with a feeling that a lot more needs to be done in order to construct a more peaceful world.

  2. Sabrina Romanelli November 30, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    Although women may be seen as weak and to have mother-like qualities, it should not define them. Women are strong and should be seen equal to a man. Women have done a lot to restore peace and it should not be overlooked; like the restoration of peace in the “United Kingdom came to establish a permanent peace camp outside an American military base in Britain to protest the deploying of US nuclear weapons on British soil; in one action they stripped naked, covered themselves in ash to commemorate the victims of Nagasaki, and laid down on the main road, successfully blockaded the base, turning a symbol of physical vulnerability into strength” (Jones 1987: 201). Women have accomplished so much; therefore, society should not overlook them as weak.

  3. Yolanda Gualdieri December 6, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

    This article was very interesting to read and what many women around the world did to try to prove that they can fight for what they believe in. People always say that women only have feminine and mother like qualities and should not be able to fight for what they believe in, but over the years women from all over the world have proved them wrong. For example, when they covered their body with ash and lay on the floor to protest. It made me really mad when I read that women were apart of only 2 out of the 61 peace agreements between 1992 and 2011. After reading this article it just shows that women should be able to be apart of many more peace agreements involving war and should stop being seen as weak and incapable.

  4. princedan benild December 8, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    The though that women have fought hard to change the world is always an interesting subject but reading about what they actually tried to do and what has be done is completely outstanding. They have pushed through there own ways to heard and also for women to be considered as not just women but humans equal to man. The fact that there were only two women’s signature out of 61 show that even if it isn’t a big number, those two have made themselves be public in show that they are capable of peace and they can make decisions.

  5. Romina Filippelli December 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    This article shed some light on very important issues, such as the need to include women in discussions about peace. A statistic that especially shocked me was how 2 out of 61 peace agreements between August 2008 and March 2012 included women. This article leaves me with the hope that women can come forth to bring a new gender perspective to the table, as it is clearly needed.

  6. Adam Larbi December 10, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    It is really unpleasant to see that women don’t have a lot of presence in peace decisions. The fact that they ” represented less than 3% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011” is really surprising. Indeed, women already have shown enough proof of their capacity to make the right decisions through time and this shouldn’t happen today. The major problem for them is probably the fact that they are still associated by many people with old ideas about women.

  7. Kassandra Napolitano December 12, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    I found this article very interesting; it brought up many important points about women and how they are defined with “feminine traits”. The article showed what women did to fight for the things they were passionate about and how they should be seen as equals in society. One thing that struck me was how women went to great measures to protest – for example, covering themselves with ashes and lying in the road. One very striking statistic was how women were only signatories in approximately three percent (2 of 61) peace agreements between August 2008 and March 2012. These numbers are extremely important to note – women have made progress, but they’re still seen as inferior to this day.

  8. Gabrielle Messier December 14, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

    Very inspiring article. When women are mobilized all together to make things change, they always do something out of the ordinary. It shows that they are strong and valuable, even though they are still aren’t taken too seriously. Thus, I was saddened by the fact that there was so little improvement in the so-called gendered perspective of the UN.

  9. Nicolas Laporte February 27, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    This article introduces the notion that women play important roles in war, despite the prevailing belief that war is a male activity. Indeed, women are often regarded as peaceful outsiders in the context of wartime, who cannot truly understand its reality. Through nonviolent protests such as establishing a peace camp around an American military base, many women have striven to make their voices heard. Women have long protested against war, and revealed how its violence extends far beyond its physical casualties. Nevertheless, despite the adoption of UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, in the upper echelon of peace negotiations, women are still marginalized. Indeed, out of 31 peace negotiations between 1992 and 2011, women were the chief mediators and negotiators respectively 3 and 9 percent of the time. Thus, it is clear that there remains work to be done in this area.

  10. Kelly MacDonald March 27, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    Women are strong proponents for peace for good reason: but it is a shame that peace has, as a result, been devalued as feminine, meaning that male leaders will chose the “manlier” root: war, for fear of seeming peaceful. This reminds me of my biggest issue with Hillary Clinton and her campaign. Hillary Clinton has risen in politics by presenting a very hard, masculine mask by being quick to say yes to war and bombs and not always advocating for women’s rights upfront. She is devaluing everything that makes her a unique candidate for the presidency where her femininity has the potential to gain her close to half of the voters’ support. To have an American president who values peace as well as war would be an amazing start to peace promotion around the world.

    A surprising and very forward thinking idea is one developed by the critics of war, the idea that peace is not merely the absence of war. This is implying that peace is not only the negative ethic (the absence of killing) but the positive ethic as well (perhaps a building of relationships or a sense of community between previously warring nations). If we applied the positive ethic during post war/ peace negotiations, would this decrease the potential for another conflict? Probably.

  11. Meagan Batista May 9, 2016 at 1:49 am #

    Women are strong in a sense that when men in particular do not let them be apart of peace meetings, or become of higher status in the war, they do not give up. I believe that men use their masculinity to create a sense of power compared to women. Having authorities that support women and who stands by equality would be a great way to promote equality. This could bring a new idea that women and men can be classified as the same. There would not be an evident division between them.

  12. Kaitlyn Butt May 10, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    Many women are strong advocates of finding peaceful solutions in violent situations. As expressed above, the notion of peace is viewed as a feminine trait and as a result, view as weak. However, in my opinion, those who seek peace in difficult situations are the brave ones. To find a peaceful solution, you need to walk into the heart of the issue, often putting yourself in harms way, in order to find a solution that would work for both sides.

    It is commonly view that the act of war is associated with masculinity. As history has shown us, wars can sometimes last for years, causing economic downfalls, as well as take the lives of hundreds of soldiers and bystanders. Feminine trait or not, it be wiser for all those involved to find a peaceful solution to the issue before hurting innocent people.

    It is disappointing that in this day and age there were only 2 women signatories out of 61 peace agreements. If we follow the notion that Peace is a feminine trait, than more women should be present during peace agreements. It is my hope that one day women have the opportunity to play a larger role in the peace process.

  13. Zakary Dorfman May 12, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

    This article was very interesting to read as it exposed me to many ideas about women in combat that I had not previously known much about. As mentioned women have been known to seek peace a lot of the time in times of war. They are a “powerful voice for peace” as mentioned. They have tried there hardest to make their voice heard. Women must be recognized as men’s equal in all realms of society and especially during times of war when the “man” is typically seen as the one who should fight.

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