The invisible role of women in conflict mediation


8 March 2021

In 2000, a historic Security Council resolution 1325 was passed. This resolution affirmed the importance to increase female participation across peace and security work.

This was then followed by the 2009 Resolution 1889,  in which the Security Council expressed concern about the inherent under-representation of women in the UN, especially across mediation. The objective and the commitment made by the Security Council was and is to make women central players and actors in mediation and no longer marginal members in the consultation process alone.

Resolution 1325 was extremely clear: more women must be appointed as envoys and special representatives in order to close a clear gender gap and increase the representation of women in conflict resolution processes. This has become known as a landmark resolution on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

That said, more than two decades have passed since the WPS agenda and the number of women actively included in global peace talks as mediators remains low. Which indicates that there are significant challenges for increasing the role of women as mediators. 

In a paper by Catherine Turner, she suggests not only are numbers low, but women’s role in mediation efforts are not recognised. Why are women  in a perpetual state of invisibility across UN mediation efforts? She believes that answering this question will not only raise the profile of women’s role, but also inspire more women to join conflict mediation work.

One of the reasons she outlines is women not being considered within mediation efforts. One reason for this is how mediation is defined. A narrow definition, means women who do in fact work in mediation are not being recognised as doing so.

In the present situation, women are simply absent (or at least significantly underrepresented) from Track I diplomacy, i.e. the high-level, formal and international mediation processes. Whereas women are key actors in Tracks II and III, which are both more informal and community-based processes. Turner states:

“When the term ‘mediator’ is understood to refer only to an UN-appointed envoy, and only mediation that happens at the level of Track 1 diplomacy, the impression is created that women are simply absent as mediators” 

This creates the persistent illusion that women do not have a role in mediation and peace negotiations, devaluing their fundamental contribution to the successful outcome of these delicate processes. 

While it is not Turners paper’s purpose to outline the advantages that women bring to peace negotiation. I want to recognise some of the numerous benefits from the presence and inclusion of women mediators in current informal proceedings.

Firstly, their informal mediation (i.e. negotiating the cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access or opening channels for dialogue) make formal peace talks possible.

Secondly, in many cultures’ women are recognised as less threatening, less ‘political’ and therefore able to ensure access to warring parties, stimulate honest community conversation and prevent the spread of fake news.  Due to this widespread perception as non-threatening peacebuilders, they are crucial in promoting the outcomes of peace talks and the consequent convincing that needs to be done in local communities. 

And finally, through their direct and constant contact with local communities, women mediators are much more in tune with the local context and culture than international experts. This would hypothetically allow for peacebuilding and mediation processes that are not divorced from the local reality (i.e. westernized peacebuilding).

However, Turner suggests that these advantages that women bring is what makes it a double-edged sword, which mean women remain as mediators at the community-level. If they are only associated with the ‘softer’ skills of peacebuilding, then it is unlikely they will be viewed as capable for the ‘harder’ and more political role of negotiating peace with warring parties. 

As such, Turner outlines tangible ways to make an effective change against the invisibility of women mediators. She calls for greater recognition of the role that they do play and to get more women into the high-level Track I positions.

To achieve this, the following should be actioned:

Broaden the scope of the term ‘Mediation’

The scope should include Track II and Track III activity to give a more complete picture of mediation activity and recognise the effective contribution of all women involved.

Not miss the opportunity to transition community-level mediators to the formal mediation team

This can be achieved by creating a mediation advisor role.

Encourage greater coordination between the various UN departments

At the moment each department acts as a separate unit, while a common, strategic and coherent action between the various initiatives is needed to effectively promote women mediators.

States must commit to promoting the participation of women

Including more women in the lists for envoy positions not only increases the chances of female participation. But also makes a statement and promotes their role as qualified agents. They should be active protagonists for gender equality and actively appoint women in the high-level positions.

The invisibility of women within UN mediation efforts does not only fail to recognise the value of women, but renders the mediation space as masculine, and discourages other women from considering mediation as a career. This is a problem that cannot be ignored and must be actively challenged at every level. Indeed, this challenge and promise of change must also concern regional or sub-regional organisations (i.e. ECOWAS, OSCE), states and all NGOS (i.e. Carter Foundation) involved in mediation processes.

Read Catherine Turner’s (2018) article ‘Absent or Invisible? Women Mediators and the United Nations’ (published in Glob Policy, 9).