Women’s Meaningful Participation in Peacebuilding: Reflections from South Sudan 

Women’s participation in peacebuilding in South Sudan is not new, it has been as old as there have been conflicts.  Women have been often been at the forefront of peace initiatives, organizing and building movements for ceasefire and to rebuild their communities.  While women have always been involved in conflict, as combatants, peacebuilders, victims, their engagement was not always recognized.  The passing, exactly 20 years ago, of the UN Security Resolution 1325 (2000) passed on 31st October 2000 represented a watershed in the history of women, peace and security and a recognition of the UN Security Council of the roles of women in advancing the global security agenda. 

As someone who had worked with women organizations and individual women on peacebuilding in South Sudan, the question I often ask myself and will attempt to answer is, is it possible for women to have a meaningful engagement in peace processes as they have currently been formulated and what assumptions do we continue to make regarding women’s meaningful participation. 

The framework for international peacebuilding and negotiations prioritizes those who have been directly involved in the wars, as combatants and automatically excludes majority of women, children and disadvantaged and ordinary men.  The models for mediation and negotiated settlements of conflict do not take account of gender analysis, power dynamics between warring parties, between women and men, among communities and among women.   This model poses major challenges for women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding.

The first hurdle is for women to be part of mediation.  In South Sudan, women had to organize informally and through all kinds of informal and often not recognized processes and with some support from UN influential member states (US, UK and Norway) to ensure that they were at least present at the table even if they were not ‘parties to the conflict’.  The second hurdle is always the assumption that women are homogenous and that in a conflict situation, all women wanted was to resolve the conflicts.  My experience did not give credence to this assumption.  Women were as divided as men, on the basis of political party, on the basis of ethnicity and there were very many mutual suspicions, allegiances and interests among women that were not always in sync and did a lot of harm to women’s organizing and having a single voice.  

A woman holding her baby at an internally displaced persons (IDPs). camp. Photo by Adriana Mahdalova / Shutterstock.com

The age divide was also a challenge in women’s participation in the peace process.  In patriarchal societies South Sudan included, older women are often conferred with ‘privileges’ as defenders of patriarchy including as gatekeepers on who could speak on behalf of women, on what issues and rewarded with a few powerful positions.  These positions become seen as ‘earned positions’ that must be defended against younger women, often at the forefront of the advocacy to engage in the peace process.   

In South Sudan and according to the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, “sexual and gender-based violence including rape and gang-rape was a central characteristic of the conflict, in instances amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This became a rallying call for women’s organizations – as a rationale for calling for ceasefire, for showcasing the horrendous crimes that were occurring against women and girls, for post-conflict reconstruction and justice and for a place at the decision-making table.  This became the most contentious and divisive within the context of women’s organizing.  Women peacebuilders were accused of bringing infamy to the young nation of South Sudan by speaking about sexual related crimes and women in the position of power then made it a campaign to undermine women’s organizing and cast women as ‘enemies of South Sudan and of South Sudanese men’, highlighting how women’s participation, benign as it seems, has very high stakes, highly political and often a huge security risk for women.  

Peacebuilding and mediation are expensive processes in terms of money and time.  Leaders of warring parties usually have a lot of time in their hands, when a ceasefire has been declared and are able to spend months in cities where mediation is ongoing, in this instance, Addis Ababa and Khartoum.  They were also fully funded by the UN, sponsoring governments and the African Union.   Women on the other hand had to make great sacrifices, to take time from families or take their children with them, in foreign countries and usually at their personal expenses.   This meant that women’s engagement is often ad-hoc, stop and start and not as consistent to be as impactful as it should be.  

The choice of sites for mediation is also fraught with political ramification – the role of the chosen government in the conflict and accessibility. 

Most women who wanted to attend the peace talks were denied because they were not given visas as they were not part of the official delegations of the warring parties, and lack of free movement of persons in Africa became a factor on who participated in a critical peacebuilding process, even of one’s country.  

The issue of sexual harassment and abuse in a highly charged, masculinized environment of peace talks is one of the open secrets of peacebuilding.  Women groups were not only dealing with getting their voices heard, they had to deal with not just sexual harassment to be able to negotiate and put their issues at the table, but also have to deal with rumours about their sexual activities while they were out in Addis Ababa and Khartoum respectively. This is a tactic that was used widely to checkmate women’s participation and reduce their struggle to proving they were ‘virtuous women’.   

Who, how and what to negotiate as ‘ASKS’ for gender equality and responding to women and girls’ needs during peace talks and subsequently what goes into the Peace Agreement were often contentious.  There was no agreement on what priorities should be, and more importantly, who should be speaking for women.  Every woman that was directly part of the peace talks became a target – credibility, constituency, sexuality was all questioned and attacked by all sides of the divide.  There was absolutely no protection for the women peacebuilders.  

Regardless of the challenges, women were still able to achieve some major results, they successfully organized a formidable coalition,  developed strategic papers on gender equality, collectively negotiated the most important issue for women, that is, women’s participation in decision making to influence post-conflict reconstruction, transitional justice and recovery especially women’s economic recovery.  This was through the inclusion of the 35% affirmative action in the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement (this, of course, has been flagrantly discarded in the constitution of the newly constituted government in South Sudan with no consequence and a site of a new struggle for women).  

As the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the UNSC 1325 in October 2020, and even with the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19 that we are dealing with, it is important to highlight once again, that women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding is not benign, it is not cheap and a highly political process.  Starting any internationally mediated peace agreement must include conditions – all parties must include at least 30% representation of women and representatives of women peacebuilders with full negotiating powers.  This ensures that the different interests of women are represented at all levels and across political/party lines.

All women accredited to peace talks must be fully funded, and to ensure consistent participation, that they are able to rotate in those peace talks to take account of gendered roles that burden them.  All negotiated peace talks, whether led by the UN, by regional bodies or by individual UN member states must include code of conduct on protection from sexual abuse and exploitation.  

Women’s organizations must be funded intentionally, not in an adhoc and inconsistent way, to allow women groups from the ground up, displaced or not, to organize on their own, build their constituencies, to raise their issues especially around their personal security and safety, their livelihoods and to know that those issues will become part of the bigger reconstruction of their country.  Women must be able to understand and interpret their local politics but more importantly how these are linked to global politics – arms race, defense funding and local conflicts and wars.  It is only when women’s participation is seen as a fully-fledged political process and not an addendum, that women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding can be achieved.  


Funmi Balogun

Funmi Balogun is a Nigerian feminist writer.