How many women does it take to make peace?

Women’s empowerment is high on the agenda for aid agencies.The UN considers equal rights for men and women an effective formula for bringing stability to conflict riddled states, and Millennium Development Goal 3 focuses specifically on policies that give women a voice in political institutions. Seth Kaplan, author of “Fixing Fragile States”, goes even further and suggests that if more women were in positions of power, less wars would be waged and more peace could prevail. But experiences of women inYemen, Pakistan and Somaliland show that more women in parliamentary seats is not all that matters.


Abeer Al-Absi is raising her two daughters in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. She works for Progressio, an international human rights organisation and considers herself a lucky woman in the context of Yemen’s history of tribal conflicts and social suppression. “I was able to study and now I’m here to work for human rights in my country. We need to take advantage of this time after the revolution and push for real changes.” Since president Saleh was removed in last year’s popular uprising, Abeer is hopeful for her family’s future and optimistic about the change her country is undergoing. The constitution has yet to be rewritten but she says “a lot has changed already. We had practical segregation between men and women before, but during the revolution we saw women in the streets, actually on both sides of the uprising – pro and anti government.”  According to the Global Gender Gap ReportYemen is the most repressive country in the world for women to live in.

For policy consultant Seth Kaplan, Yemen’s extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure and the country’s tribal conflicts are typical characteristics of a fragile state. He argues that social divisions are a fundamental hindrance to peace, and turn poor states into unstable societies, prone to conflict. He also says that “as long as women are without any power in all kinds of relationships in society, it’s a sign that the country will have problems to stabilise in the future.” Yemen’s revolution brought a 30% quota for women in parliament. Potentially this will give women representation on a political level, and in Seth Kaplan’s view this is more likely to work towards compromises in the political solution process. “If the country is not cohesive, I would say women are much more likely to solve that problem, simply because they seek solutions through talking rather than through other means.” Even though this theory is difficult to prove quantitatively, and some might find it politically contentious, it is reflected by the UN security council resolution 1325, which urges for women to be included in peace and security efforts.

Women in Pakistan, on the other hand are well represented politically. They too have a 30% women’s quota in parliament, but Kulsoom Monica, who works for the Heinrich Boell foundation in Lahore, is critical whether that is enough.“Women have been struggling from the start in Pakistan” Kulsoom says. “In 65 years people of Pakistan have faced different dictators instead of democratic rulers and women’s rights have been violated all this time.” Today there are women in prominent positions, like the foreign minister Hina Rubanni Kahr, but Pakistani society is still conservative and stuck in mostly patriarchal traditions. Pakistan’s political elite may be more equal and show a commitment to egalitarian ideas but what if that is not mirrored in society? Then, Kulsoom thinks, it becomes more important to bring men into the process. NGO’s started to raise awareness among male heads of clans in the tribal areas, who did not allow women to go to polling stations and cast their votes. With the efforts of NADRA, the National Database and Registration Authority, 40 million women have now been registered, and Kulsoom hopes they will cast their votes in the upcoming elections.

In Somaliland the first free elections took place in 2010. The territory is not recognised as a sovereign state by the international community and political institutions are young. In 1997, after years of civil war, Suad and other women founded a network of grassroots women’s organisations. They wanted their concerns to be included as new, social and political institutions were beginning to take shape. Suad is Progressio’s country representative in Somaliland and believes that raising awareness of women’s issues is just as important as getting women elected. Somaliland is influenced by its nomadic culture which gives women a more respected place in society than in many other African or Arab countries. A woman’s role is seen as the family caretaker as well as the manager of a community, but in politics women still have to deal with men’s reluctance to share power. Suad says that she sees many political problems being of a social nature and women are closer to these issues. “Men can take care of the big issues but women know what the community needs”, she says. Seth Kaplan agrees with that view which promotes inclusive institutions. He wouldn’t say that peace and security is a women vs. men issue, because it’s often ethnic or sectarian issues that divide societies, but women are more likely to see solutions in working together for their communities.

Although the focus of aid agencies on women’s empowerment remains important, it seems to take more than that to make a lasting move towards a more stable statehood. Whether a revolution overturns years of suppression, women are mobilised for mass voting power  or grassroots movements concert their efforts, it takes all women and men in society for peace to enter the stage of power relations and stay.