Last night the EastWest Institute, a foreign policy think tank that promotes dialogue and understanding on security issues—these days, often with Afghanistan, Pakistan and other South Asian nations—held its annual awards dinner. I was invited because, this year, the institution has chosen to honor female parliamentarians and peacemakers, a welcome development in what EWI President John Mroz aptly described as a “policy community that is comfortable in its old ways.”
As we well know, those ways are profoundly gendered. At home and abroad, in cases of conflict or peacetime, high-level political dialogues are seldom particularly representative of the population—they tend to be led almost exclusively by men. The latest statistics tell us that even in 2012 women’s participation in national parliaments still hovers around 19%. The figures go from bad to worse when you look at leadership and peace processes. A sample of 24 major peace processes since 1992 reveals that only 2.5 % of signatories, 3.2 % of mediators, 5.5 % of witnesses and 7.6 % of negotiators are women. And zero women have been appointed to Chief or Lead peace mediators in UN-sponsored peace talks.
This, said Mroz, has to change. It is time to include women, who can be integral to the process of building trust, imagining creative and inclusive solutions, and ensuring that the “new definition of security”—economic security and human security, for instance—are met. Human security is at the core of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which in 2000 was a landmark first recognition of the unique vulnerabilities women face in war and the integral value they contribute to peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts—and should be at the center of our efforts to achieve legitimate and lasting peace. The 1325 framework is the primary inspiration behind the Institute’s emerging efforts to provide structured and ongoing opportunities for female leadership and engagement in security dialogues.
Last night’s program celebrated the contributions of two female MPs, Dr. Fehmida Mirza, the first female Speaker of the National Assembly in Pakistan (and indeed, the first Speaker of Parliament in the Muslim World), and Shinkai Karokhail of Afghanistan. I have followed Karokhail’s work since she was profiled in the PBS Series Women, War and Peace. One segment explored the ongoing efforts of women to insert themselves—often at great risk to themselves and their families—into Afghanistan’s opaque and beleaguered peace process. I spoke with Karokhail a bit after the dinner, and though she radiates optimism for the future and what women can contribute to peace, she is highly cynical about the peace process as it stands now and the status of women in her country:
“Half the population still lives under violence. Half the population still has no rights to make decisions for itself. Half the population is still living as second class citizens. What my government should learn is that this half the population is half the talent, half the energy and half the commitment to peace, and should be taken into account. Women are not part of the conflict, but they will be part of the solution.”
Although the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are famously fraught, Karokhail is particularly optimistic that it will be possible to improve things by promoting dialogue and understanding between female leaders on both sides, which has already begun. One of the East West Institute’s programs is the Women Peace and Security Working Group, which brought together Afghan and Pakistani female parliamentarians for the first time in each of their countries to engage in dialogue and exchange for the peace, development and improved relations between their two nations. In June of 2011, a delegation of Afghans traveled to Pakistan to hold talks with the government calling for increased roles for women in reconciliation talks with the Taliban and established a plan for MPs to engage in ongoing talks on security and development in the region. A year later, a delegation of Pakistani MPs returned the favor, traveling to Afghanistan to build on that progress and provide support for their Afghan counterparts.
As Speaker, Dr. Mirza is in a unique position to reinforce these efforts of female MPs at the leadership level. We have seen that from Rwanda, to Iraq, to Ireland, women are often the first to cross lines of conflict and work together to find workable solutions—whether at the grassroots or “grass-tops” level. The key is having support at the leadership level that reinforces and promotes that dialogue. Dr. Mirza has made a commitment in that regard—she is spearheading a National Convention of Female Parliamentarians that brings together women leaders at the highest levels of national government with those at the local level. She has developed a women’s parliamentary caucus. And she is translating female political dialogue into policy results that deliver for women and girls—24 of the 98 bills Mirza has shepherded into law have dealt with women and children. Finally, her philosophy holds that peace is more than the absence of war, but the embrace of democracy and human security.
That way of thinking is right at the heart of what 1325 is all about.