Foreign Policy

Why Can’t Ladies Finish Wars?

In Aristophanes’s fifth-century B.C. comedy Lysistrata, the women of ancient Athens and Sparta discover an ingenious way of ending the war between the two city-states. They withhold sex from their menfolk until the warriors cease fighting and sit down to settle terms. It’s possibly the most original and effective peace process ever devised.

While Aristophanes’s method might not work for ending modern wars, such as those still raging in Syria and Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the general concept still holds: Women often have unique skills and power when they negotiate or sit down at the table to end conflicts. Yet why are so few women involved in peace processes as negotiators, mediators, community organizers, or facilitators of so-called Track 2 dialogues—far fewer than in many other areas of politics and policy? Why are questions of war and peace still left almost entirely to men?

Women, peace, and security is such a popular topic for university programs, think tanks, and Zoom conferences that it even has its own acronym: WPS. This month, the United Nations is set to host its annual open debate on WPS. The field of WPS gets lots of attention, makes everyone feel as if they’re doing something, and ticks all the right boxes for donors.

In Aristophanes’s fifth-century B.C. comedy Lysistrata, the women of ancient Athens and Sparta discover an ingenious way of ending the war between the two city-states. They withhold sex from their menfolk until the warriors cease fighting and sit down to settle terms. It’s possibly the most original and effective peace process ever devised.

While Aristophanes’s method might not work for ending modern wars, such as those still raging in Syria and Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the general concept still holds: Women often have unique skills and power when they negotiate or sit down at the table to end conflicts. Yet why are so few women involved in peace processes as negotiators, mediators, community organizers, or facilitators of so-called Track 2 dialogues—far fewer than in many other areas of politics and policy? Why are questions of war and peace still left almost entirely to men?

Women, peace, and security is such a popular topic for university programs, think tanks, and Zoom conferences that it even has its own acronym: WPS. This month, the United Nations is set to host its annual open debate on WPS. The field of WPS gets lots of attention, makes everyone feel as if they’re doing something, and ticks all the right boxes for donors.

But WPS is a talking-shop term. Even though I am a woman involved in peace and security—I have worked with the United Nations, teach about conflict at Yale University, and have written about peace and security in my books and countless articles—I’ve been baffled by the term for years. What exactly does it mean? Engaging civil society to take a more active role in ending conflicts? Putting women at the forefront of negotiating teams? Training more women in peacebuilding?

All of it sounds fine on paper—but in reality, it rarely happens. The U.N. Security Council’s groundbreaking Resolution 1325 recognized the disproportionate, unique, and harrowing impact of conflict on women and girls. It was meant to increase the participation of women and “incorporate gender perspectives.” Governments were supposed to implement national action plans to support women peacebuilders.

But in the current conflicts raging across the globe, I don’t see many women leading the talks or being empowered to select the participants of peace conferences. With the U.N. deadlocked in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere by various member states that benefit from each continuing war, the trend falls on letting boutique conflict resolution organizations—such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, or the European Institute of Peace in Brussels—set the stage by engaging in Track 2 dialogue, as informal, behind-the-scenes peace processes are known.

Track 2 usually involves civil society representatives hashing out the opening moves of how to end a conflict. This often includes faith-based leaders and—at least aspirationally—women’s groups. Although women’s groups are a powerful component of civil society, women are rarely there. Interestingly enough, all three conflict resolution organizations mentioned above are run by men who once held senior positions at the U.N.

The women close to the men waging war could also have tremendous influence. The powerful spouses of leaders, for example, are not always peacemakers, but they should be—and things might turn out differently if they were called on to influence peace processes. Wives of senior military commanders are potent as well; they can often influence their husbands in a way that the men’s closest advisors cannot. They are often mothers and can exercise empathy. They can help stop massacres or grievous human rights abuses.

Just think of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, who was silent when her husband chemically gassed Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in 2013, killing children. This was not long after she gave an infamous interview to Vogue (now scrubbed from the internet) talking about her children’s charity. Asma was silent when her husband bombed family homes in Homs and when he leveled Aleppo with barrel bombs, hitting schools and hospitals.

Asma was also silent when he starved to death the people of Moadamiya using his tactic of “starvation or surrender.” She could have reminded her husband that he also had children—what if this were happening to them? Like the strong women of Lysistrata, she could have leveraged their relationship, but she chose not to. The same with Mirjana Markovic, the wife of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was considered the power behind the throne as her husband ripped the country apart via four wars in the 1990s. Markovic was presumably with her husband in Belgrade in July 1995, when 8,000 Bosniak boys and men were slaughtered at Srebrenica. Milosevic was the top of the chain of command, and he was besotted with his wife—she could have influenced him and stopped the genocide. She was a fiercely nationalist politician in her own right and may even have pressed him on, underlining the point that leaders’ spouses are often too important to ignore.

We’re all aware of the gender imbalance in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But the life-and-death imbalance is in peacemaking. In 2018, the World Economic Forum concluded: “Only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of negotiators. And yet, studies have shown that female participation is the secret to ensuring lasting peace.” The report cites examples of women being instrumental in forging peace in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and the Philippines.

There have been attempts to right the balance. In 2017, the United States became the first country in the world with a comprehensive law on WPS. It states: “The WPS Strategy recognizes the diverse roles women play as agents of change in preventing and resolving conflict, countering terrorism and violent extremism, and building post conflict peace and stability. The WPS Strategy seeks to increase women’s meaningful leadership in political and civic life by helping to ensure they are empowered to lead and contribute, equipped with the necessary skills and support to succeed, and supported to participate through access to opportunities and resources.” The irony: This law to advance women’s equality was passed under one of the most misogynist presidents in U.S. history.

As with most government reports, I read the law over and over and am still wondering what it means—and how it will be put in practice.

Nordic countries still surpass most places with their advancement of women’s rights and their commitment to peacebuilding. Finland was the first country in Europe to give women the right to vote and remains one of the most impressive countries in the world in terms of women and gender equality in politics. Yet, at a famous, off-the-record peacemakers’ confab that takes place in Norway every year, I noticed only a handful of women, and most were the special assistants of powerful men.

And the powerful women who are often cited in politics don’t seem to go down the road of peacemaking. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took her country to war in 1982. U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton stood by while her husband did nothing in Rwanda or Bosnia until it was too late.

Women are often portrayed as victims of war, largely of sexual violence. But women have power. According to U.N. Women, when women participate in a peace process, it increases the likelihood of peace lasting more than two years by 20 percent. The U.N. Security Council has called for women to be more involved in conflict resolution. One strong grassroots example of conflict resolution is the Mothers of Srebrenica, a powerful advocacy and lobbying group founded after the 1995 genocide in the Bosnian town.

U.N. Women’s analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War shows that, “in cases where women were able to exercise a strong influence on the negotiation process, there was a much higher chance that an agreement would be reached than when women’s groups exercised weak or no influence. In cases of strong influence of women an agreement was almost always reached.”

If we really want to start developing WPS into more than just a trendy acronym, we need to prepare more women to be on the ground and in Track 2 processes—to learn how to organize, facilitate, and negotiate. These skilled activities, along with decision-making, are too often left to men. In peace processes in places like Mali, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, women were woefully underrepresented. Only Colombia, which has so far managed to stay at peace after a long and bloody war, is an example of where women were better represented.

Gaining more diverse input in peace processes can only have positive results. After all, women are usually not the combatants but the ones picking up the pieces of a broken society. They know what needs to be done. They know how to heal and how to patch together broken people.

I think a copy of Lysistrata should be sent to the head of every government, who should read it carefully as a metaphorical model for implementing peace and charting success. We should remember the wise words of the title character Lysistrata: “Before now, and for quite some time, we maintained our decorum and suffered in silence whatever you men did, because you wouldn’t let us make a sound. … But if the women gather together here—the Boeotian women, the Peloponnesian women, and ourselves—together we’ll be able to rescue Greece.”

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