Mediating Violent Conflict: Where are the Women?

by Dr Catherine Turner

Durham Law School, Durham University.


Former Irish President Mary Robinson (left) and Ethiopia’s Hiroute Guebre Sellasie, the UN’s only female lead mediators

In his December 2016 inauguration speech, the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guetterres, indicated that one of the priorities of his term in office would be conflict prevention. He emphasised the need to take more creative approaches to prevent the escalation of conflict, including notably a much stronger emphasis on the use of mediation and creative diplomacy. Prevention, it is said, is better than cure, particularly when conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Israel/Palestine are proving so difficult to ‘cure’. The emphasis on mediation marks the culmination of a longer process of review within the UN of the ways it responds to violent conflict. A series of reports evaluating the UN’s peacebuilding architecture led to the 2016 adoption of the ‘Sustaining Peace Agenda’, marking a commitment to increased coherence across the organisation in co-ordinating peacebuilding activities.[1] Resolution 2282 (2016) emphasises ‘the importance of a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes, […] and promoting […] inclusive dialogue and mediation…’

 This priority is also accompanied by a commitment by the new Secretary General to address a persistent problem within the UN – the need to ensure gender parity.

Resolution 2282 reaffirms the importance of women’s participation in peace and security, as well as stressing the importance of increasing women’s leadership and decision-making in relation to conflict prevention. The bringing together of these two priorities, namely an increased role for mediation in international peace and security and a commitment to increasing the participation of women in leadership roles within the UN, presents a good opportunity to consider the role of women in conflict mediation.

Of course, a commitment to increasing women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacebuilding is not new. Since the Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 in 2000, the role of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding has been on the Security Council agenda. The ‘Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ has consistently highlighted the underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding and a number of strategies have been implemented to try and redress this imbalance. There is a very significant body of work on the reasons that women should be included in peacebuilding. This work has highlighted the benefits of including women and has highlighted the different roles that women play within peacebuilding,[2] however it has largely overlooked the specific category of women in the role of mediator. This is despite clear policy commitments throughout the WPS resolutions that call for greater representation of women within high-level UN mediation teams.[3] And yet, despite over 10 years work on the WPS agenda, the number of women actively included in peace talks as mediators remains persistently low. Research shows that, of 31 UN-led mediation processes between 1991 and 2011, only 3 were led by women as the chief mediator. This translates into only 2.7 % of all chief mediators.[4] As a result in 2013 the Security Council passed resolution 2122 further requesting the Secretary General to support the appointments of women at senior levels as UN mediators and within the composition of UN mediation teams. By 2014 the UN had appointed two female lead mediators – the former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Hiroute Guebre Sellasie of Ethiopia – and women held a further 14% of senior UN mediation positions.[5] However this figure remains low in light of the Secretary General’s 2010 commitment to increasing the number of women appointed to lead UN peace processes.[6]

The very low statistics of women in the role of chief UN mediator creates an impression that women are simply not engaged in the mediation of violent conflict. Yet, in practice, we know this is not true.

In conflicted states across the globe women are actively involved in the mediation of violent conflict. The roles they play are increasingly being recognised through the creation of networks of women mediators such as those created by Nordic States, by African States, and in support of the peace process in Colombia. So why, when women are so active in mediation at the local level, do we not see more women in high level UN led processes? My research suggests a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction.

Responsibility for increasing the participation of women in mediation is divided across different departments within the UN. The appointment of high-level envoys or Special Representatives of the Secretary General – those we all recognise as the public face of UN-led mediation – lies with the Department of Political Affairs. The appointment of a mediator in this context refers specifically to the appointment of an individual by the Secretary General to pursue conflict diplomacy on his behalf. These are high-level political appointments and are almost exclusively at the discretion of the Secretary General himself. The Envoy will be the person responsible for convening the Track I – or state-level- talks. Women are very under-represented in these positions.

This focus on high-level talks and on the leadership role of international mediators can be contrasted with the approach taken by UN Women, the body tasked with working with member states to further the empowerment of women and support peacebuilding capacity within the State. At this level, mediation happens at a local level, within and between communities. It is at this level that women mediators are most strongly represented.[7] Women are regarded as bringing significant skills to mediation not only while official Track I processes are happening, but before and after those processes, in some cases enabling the process to take place. Through their roles as intermediaries women can create the conditions whereby talks are possible, for example by negotiating the cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access or opening channels for dialogue.[8]

The division of responsibility between the DPA and UN Women, both of which have very different operational mandates, creates a potential gap between mediation in local or national contexts and mediation that occurs at the international level. While women may demonstrate strong mediation skills and have considerable experience of mediating disputes, this experience does not result in inclusion in international mediation teams. There is a point at which women mediators tend to drop out of peace talks, and this is the point at which international actors become involved. At this stage, women are not considered to be ‘political’ enough to want to play a role in high-level mediation.

In these circumstances, women’s local experience is often overlooked in favour of bringing in international experts (who may also be women) to consult on the design and delivery of mediation processes. This means that not only do local women become marginalised in the process, but their insight into the conflict dynamics is also lost.

When women return to the process they return in the role of participants in the process—as a vulnerable group to be consulted rather than as the agents of change they have been. Further, the extent of women’s participation is also largely dependent on how willing the mediator is to include them,[9] leaving women inherently vulnerable to exclusion.

Of course not all women who engage in mediation at the community level will seek international opportunities. Similarly, there may be local gender dynamics that make it difficult for local women to step into political positions. But it is patronising to suggest that all women mediators are satisfied with working at the local level. Many have the skill, the experience and the ambition to play greater roles internationally. What is missing is a route to integrate them into formal processes.[10] While the role of Envoy will always be available only to a very small category of people, there is no reason that women should not play more prominent roles within high-level mediation teams.

There may be a very practical reason for the failure of women mediators to make the transition from local or national experience to international experience. It may simply be, for example, that they are not coming to the attention of the DPA at the time at which mediation teams are being selected. Member States therefore have a role to play in the career development and the nomination of women for inclusion within UN teams. If the DPA relies on nominations from Member States for identifying suitable candidates, then States can potentially support the work of both UN Women and the DPA by bridging the gap between the local and the global. This would include identifying women working as mediators within the community sector, the private sector as well as the Women’s sector, thereby casting the net much wider than traditional approaches. It would involve recognising the contribution that women mediators are already making to conflict resolution.

Taking a proactive approach to identifying women mediators, and ensuring that they benefit from the necessary career development opportunities at the national level, would be a big step towards a more coherent approach to ensuring that women’s contribution to mediation is made visible internationally.

Taking such an approach is consistent with the Sustaining Peace Agenda and speaks directly to the need for greater synergy between the relevant agencies responsible for sustaining peace and promoting gender parity.

[1] Resolution 2282 (2016)

[2] Anderlini, SN and J Tinman (2010) ‘What the Women Say: Participation and UNSCR 1325’ International Civil Society Action Network and Centre for International Studies; Paffenholz T et al. (2016) ‘Making Women Count- Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations’ (Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative & UN Women)

[3] Resolution 1325 (2000); Resolution 1889 (2009); UN Strategic Framework on Women Peace and Security 2011-2020; Resolution 2122 (2013)

[4] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

[5] Statistics from the International Peace Institute, 2013

[6] UN, 2010 UN Doc A/65/35- S/2010/466

[7] Conciliation Resources (2013) ‘Women Building Peace’ Accord Insight 16

[8] United Nations Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2015) 54

[9] Global Study

[10] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations


Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

by Ashleigh McFeeters

As acts of political violence flood local and international news media outlets, it is imperative that academic study scrutinises, and if necessary, challenges, these news media representations. For the majority of people watching, listening to, or reading the news, these representations are the only information that they will receive. Hence, the content of these portrayals and how they are produced, have a significant impact on news consumers’ ideologies and understandings of political violence.

What is more, violence (and most threats to security) are deemed a primarily male domain. Women’s involvement in political violence jars with this ‘masculine endeavour. Women who commit acts of political violence are not depicted simply as combatants, freedom fighters or terrorists, but their representations in the news media are gendered. The terms female combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist are pregnant with gendering, as not only does the adjective ‘female’ come before combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist, which highlights her gender before her actions, but the fact that her gender must be qualified speaks volumes about the palatability of women engaging in political violence.

As the news media have a significant role in mirroring, creating and perpetuating social norms, the consequences of this is that the categories of representation can be adopted by news consumers and repeated and reiterated through dialogue and socialisation. The news media may be guilty of underpinning, rather than confronting, the dominant patriarchal culture and subsequently participating in women’s marginalisation in public life.

In society, women are generally defined by traditional gender roles, and these narratives are picked up by the news media and bolstered by repeated depiction. In the news media, women are still depicted using a formula of gendered accounts, especially with a focus on appearance. For example, hits in Google for Amal Clooney are blogs dedicated to her fashion sense. Unfortunately, her impeccable style looms large over her career as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Moreover, Michelle Obama is as well-known for her clothes (Weaver, 2017) as she is for her campaign for female education. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with referring to someone’s clothes, when this becomes the be all and end all of a person’s characterisation this is where it is detrimental to women’s equality. If women’s news media portrayal is distilled down to an outfit, this constrains women’s roles to one-dimensional symbols of beauty rather than as figures of change.

This is particularly notable with regards to female combatants, as their acts of political violence are also framed by gender constructions. For example, the online New York Post’s headline ‘She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist’ (Rosenbaum, 2015) gives the impression of puzzlement. Why would a beautiful woman choose to be a terrorist as surely her beauty could have been better spent elsewhere?! The currency (and commodity) of beauty is a valuable and looked-for bargaining chip in society, “[t]hey call her the ‘beautiful terrorist with a Mona Lisa smile’ and she’s as wanted as any work by Leonardo da Vinci”(Rosenbaum, 2015). The choice of the word “wanted” alludes to her being sought by authorities for terrorist offences, but also wanted as in desired sexually. The portrayal of her appearance and associated sexuality have overshadowed her political activism, and the fact that the allusion to her looks precedes her occupation underscores the notion that her appearance is more important than her political agency.


Furthermore, the interview of Viner (2001) and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is saturated with gendered connotations: “international pin-up”; “the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”; “Her cheekbones are still like knives; her eyes are gentle but flicker when moved”. This effusively gendered account of Khaled champions her appearance over her acts of political violence in 1960s and 70s. The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful terrorist’ suggests an uneasiness as beauty and terror are conflated. The paradoxes of sharp cheekbones as signifiers of attractiveness and knives as deadly weapons, and of delicate hands holding lethal arms, are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the female combatant is aesthetically pleasing by adhering to the accepted norms of beauty, however, on the other hand, her beauty is balanced with the ugly acts of terrorists. It is challenging to negotiate and navigate between the two notions in the news media. Therefore, in order to acquaint the female terrorist with the news consumer, familiar frameworks of understanding are utilised.

One such framework is the theme of hypersexuality. The calls Idoia Lopez Riano “the seductress ‘Tigresa’ lost her lust for killing” (Govan, 2011a) that alludes to her sexuality and female libidinousness which portrays her as a lascivious profligate. Frequently, female sexuality is referenced to undermine a woman’s credibility and ability. Moreover, an ‘oversexed’ woman is portrayed as having aberrant sexuality which has led her to murder, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice based on political acumen. The “green-eyed femme fatale”(Govan, 2011b) is a seductress rather than a political activist.

Another theme used to characterise female combatants is that of motherhood imagery. Kendall (2015) reports that Mairead Farrell, a member of the Provisional IRA, endeavoured to distance the female volunteers from the Mother Ireland image “because it didn’t reflect what we believed in…we’d moved on from that”. The iconic maternal figure wholly undercuts any form of agency within female combatants by reducing them to flat characters with meaning imbued upon them, rather than revolutionaries with their own agency.

The themes used in the news media categorise the female combatants/terrorists/freedom fighters in such a way as to undermine any form of agency or choice. The female combatant is difficult to articulate to a mass audience, thus short-hand stereotypes paint her with broad brush strokes and whitewash her political activism to present a less threatening woman, rather than a violent agent of change. A significant outcome of preserving the image of traditional feminine passivity in the news media, is that the imagery is internalised by news consumers and this affects how female combatants are seen. By manipulating gendered cultural norms to advance their cause, women have a vital role in paramilitary organisations where certain activities cannot be performed by men without attracting unwanted attention and detection. However, this further exemplifies and solidifies women’s secondary role in society by fostering gender inequality. Women’s emancipation is truncated because social values, expectations and assumptions about women are preserved.

Women are underestimated because of their presumed non-threatening nature; they are not important enough to warrant investigation. Due to this, women can infiltrate areas without detection or suspicion. In addition, the sensitivities to searching women’s bodies allow women to feign pregnancy in order to hide bombs (Bloom et al., 2011).

Therefore, when the news media keeps these gendered narratives alive it is misinforming the population about female combatants’ capabilities. Perhaps this is over-reading and over-stating the news media’s role – however, as news media accounts of female combatants (and women in general) still present them as sex objects, these representations must be analysed and confronted. It is important to examine gender as a category of experience and a social process, but it must not be overemphasised as a reason for actions. When political violence is reduced to gendered reasons, such as the Chechen Black Widows (Stack, 2011), this only allows the female actors to be understood through the prism of gender, which is a social construction. This is internalised in social cognition and can have devastating effects upon women’s equality, as it fosters the male as the norm and female as the other.

Not only do gender stereotypes in the news media harm gender equality, they also impede counter- and anti-terrorism security measures. Nacos’s advice is that in order to combat terrorism, the opportunities for the manipulation of gender prejudices by terrorists must be shut down. A suggested method is to allow and encourage gender reality to inform counter-terrorism policies by removing the gender stereotypes of female combatants in the news media, as these stereotypes “reflect and reinforce deep-seated societal attitudes”(2005: 448).

To finish, this analysis of the news media endeavours to be critical rather than pessimistic as the news media also have the power to defy pre-existing norms by refusing to use familiar gender stereotypes to represent female combatants and women in general.


Bloom M, Gill P and Horgan J. (2011) Tiocfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 4: 60-76.

Govan F. (2011a) How the Seductress ‘Tigresa’ Lost her Lust for Killing. Available at:

Govan F. (2011b) La Tigresa Kicked Out of ETA After Renouncing Violence. Available at:

Kendall B. (2015) What Drives Women to Extreme Acts? Available at:

Nacos BL. (2005) The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 435-451.

Rosenbaum S. (2015) She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist. Available at:

Stack A. (2011) Zombies Versus Black Widows Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict. In: Sjoberg L and Gentry CE (eds) Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 83-95.

Viner K. (2001) ‘I made the ring from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade’. Available at:

Weaver H. (2017) The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Bold Red Dress During Her Final Speech as FLOTUS. Available at:





CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]



The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?



Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.



Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.



Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.


Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.



Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]



[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at:

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at:

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

Introducing UN Resolution 2272: preventing sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers

by Dr. Sarah Smith.


A United Nations Security Council meeting

Sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers – and others attached to peacekeeping missions – against the populations they are mandated to protect has been a recurrent issue for the UN. Recognising this, in March 2016 the UN adopted its first Security Council resolution aimed at preventing sexual exploitation and abuse (given the acronym SEA) by those under UN mandate. The development and eventual adoption of this resolution took place in response to widespread reporting of allegations against peacekeepers, especially in the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as claims that peacekeepers continued to enjoy impunity despite evidence of a widespread problem. This resolution – Resolution 2272 – bodes well for accountability for SEA within the UN, something that has been blatantly absent previously. However, it is not a panacea and much will depend on whether and how the resolution is fully implemented in practice.

From the 1990s, monitors in peacekeeping missions began to problematise the sexual conduct of peacekeepers, highlighting among other things issues such as the proliferation of brothels and prostitution at peacekeeping sites, peacekeeper involvement in trafficking, and rape and sexual assault. The UN mission in Cambodia is an oft cited case, made infamous by the head of that mission who responded with ‘boys will be boys’ when Cambodians complained of the sexual misconduct of peacekeepers. Reports have also found that sexual misconduct is not limited to peacekeepers, but that humanitarian and aid workers, government and non-government organisation personnel, and private military contractors commit SEA as well. The Dyncorp scandal, popularised in the film The Whistle Blower, is perhaps the best-known example here. Each time new allegations surface, impunity and lack of accountability are cited as major obstacles for both preventing SEA in peacekeeping missions, and providing justice to those survivors who do report.

The UN mission in Cambodia is an oft cited case, made infamous by the head of that mission who responded with ‘boys will be boys’ when Cambodians complained of the sexual misconduct of peacekeepers.

Following a 2003 bulletin from the Secretary General, the UN instituted a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on peacekeeper SEA. Zero tolerance explicitly prohibited peacekeeper sexual relations with persons less than 18 years of age; exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex; and sexual relations between UN staff and beneficiaries of assistance. Yet the zero tolerance approach has had its challenges and has neither improved accountability nor reduced the number of allegations of SEA made against peacekeepers. Due to the extent of under-reporting by victims, and a culture of not reporting incidences of abuse among personnel, zero tolerance is really only effective in those cases that are identified. In turn, because of the legal framework set out by the Status of Forces Agreement (an agreement between the host government and the UN concerning the privileges, immunities and criminal accountability of UN personnel and peacekeepers), close cooperation between troop contributing countries, who are responsible for prosecuting their personnel, and the UN is required. Troop contributing countries have proven reluctant to prosecute those who return with allegations of SEA made against them. While the UN can make moral claims about the ideal performance of its personnel, it has often claimed that it lacks the mechanisms to respond appropriately or enforce accountability given its lack of jurisdiction over peacekeeper personnel.


A multinational group of peacekeepers march at a Bastille Day parade in Paris.

While peacekeeper SEA has been a recurrent issue then, it reached another zenith in terms of public attention in 2015 and 2016. Attention focused on allegations of child abuse by peacekeepers in the CAR, and particularly on the failures of the UN to respond to these allegations. In April 2015, UN aid worker Anders Kompass was suspended for disclosing to French authorities reports of French troop involvement in the sexual abuse of children. While he was eventually exonerated and reinstated, Kompass announced his resignation in June 2016, citing impunity for those who were found to be abusing their authority and lack of accountability. As a result of consistent allegations though, and the public attention they were garnering, the UN established an inquiry into peacekeeper SEA in the CAR, the results of which are yet to be made public; however early reports indicate a widespread problem of sexual misconduct, including allegations of rape of minors and forced bestiality. In late-2015, the head of the mission in the CAR was forcibly resigned by UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, a move that perhaps presaged what may become an enforcement of accountability up the food chain for the crimes committed by peacekeepers.

Also in 2015, the NGO Aids Free World leaked an internal UN report that highlighted lack of enforcement of zero tolerance policy, lack of reporting and resultant impunity for peacekeepers who committed SEA. Paula Donavan, who co-founded the NGO, also established the Code Blue campaign to end immunity for peacekeeper SEA and cites the misapplication of the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities, via Status of Forces Agreements, as a major obstacle. The leaking of this report and the widespread reporting of allegations, especially in CAR, led the Security Council to consider a resolution aimed at preventing peacekeeper SEA.

As groundswell grew, a precursor to the adoption of Resolution 2272 was the Secretary General’s report on SEA released in March 2016, which, as well as noting that allegations had increased, for the first time listed the nationalities of those peacekeepers that had had allegations made against them. As part of previously instituted measures to respond to SEA, the Secretary General is obliged to report to the Security Council on the number of allegations for each mission and the status of investigations into those allegations. The listing of nationalities in the March 2016 report was a break from past practice: the long held claim that  ‘naming and shaming’ countries that contributed troops that went on to be accused of SEA would be reluctant to contribute troops in the future – not an insignificant concern given difficulties in raising numbers for peacekeeping missions. As the UN has frequently cited that accountability enforcement lies with troop contributing countries, the idea that naming and shaming those countries that do not act would force their hand is considered to be one tool in the UN’s arsenal for ensuring accountability. The reluctance to do this has been viewed as acquiescence to politics over and above the rights and needs of abuse survivors.

The reluctance to do this has been viewed as acquiescence to politics over and above the rights and needs of abuse survivors.

It is not surprising then that the UN has previously been criticised for an apathetic response to allegations of SEA. While the problem is by no means resolved, Resolution 2272 marks a new break, in some respects, from how peacekeeper SEA has been handled previously. It is the first time the Security Council has devoted a session to the issue of SEA, much less adopted a resolution devoted to preventing it. As well as reaffirming zero tolerance, it mandates for the repatriation of entire military contingents or police units with allegations made against them. This is a significant change, beyond a lackadaisical implementation of zero tolerance, signalling a preparedness to put prevention of SEA above the politics of the Security Council. Should repatriation of entire contingents occur, this would, in effect, be a ‘naming and shaming’ of those countries because the repatriation of entire units cannot be done discreetly. This makes the repatriation of entire units – when and if that occurs – a deeply political statement. The resolution notes that the primary responsibility of investigating allegations of peacekeeper SEA still lies with troop contributing countries, but in essence establishes a response mechanism – repatriation – if the actions of troop contributing countries are found wanting.

There are however, a couple of potential problems facing the implementation of Resolution 2272. First, is in defining what the resolution actually stipulates. As Kelly Neudorfer has pointed out, terms in the resolution – in particular the criteria of “systematic and widespread” and “credible allegations” – remain undefined: that is, what constitutes ‘widespread and systematic’ and what is considered a ‘credible allegation’? Furthermore, where is the tipping point that needs to be reached for the resolution, and thus repatriation, to be triggered? These as well leave aside the important question of whether repatriation of entire contingents will eventually occur, even if these triggers are both defined and met. Inherent in the sending home of whole contingents is a preparedness to name and shame countries whose peacekeepers abuse. Given how such processes can be politicised, it is important that the implementation of Resolution 2272 does not succumb to the same political machinations that have seen a deep reluctance to name and shame troop contributing countries take precedent over accountability for peacekeeper SEA.

Second, it is unclear whether the repatriation of entire units will lead to better justice outcomes for survivors, when and if repatriation does happen. Certainly there is an immediate effect of removing perpetrators from the environment in which they are committing abuses. However, in terms of broader justice outcomes for survivors, the repatriation process raises some questions, even if the opaqueness of the resolutions terms is set aside. In the past, individual perpetrators of SEA have been repatriated, quietly removed from peacekeeping sites. This has in effect contributed to the silence surrounding the issue, as the perpetrator is no longer accessible, to their accuser or to investigating units (both local and UN) that are under-resourced and/or unwilling to pursue the matter forcibly. Even if a worthy investigation is conducted, it rests with the troop contributing country to act on it, which has proven unlikely. Based on my research in Timor-Leste, the repatriation of individuals is actually associated with limited justice outcomes and continuing impunity for peacekeepers – it was a source of frustration that perpetrators would disappear, not to face justice in the country. No information on what happened to the accused was provided to victims once they were removed from the mission. To quietly remove an offender, where they are out of access of accusers, to a home country unwilling to prosecute, does little in terms of justice or real change in the institutional culture.

While the adoption of Resolution 2272 deserves credit where credit is due, there justifiably remain questions in terms of both its scope and implementation. These relate chiefly to the exact parameters of the resolution and what the terms therein mean, which in turn impacts when and how the resolution is implemented. At the very least, at an institutional level, the adoption of Resolution 2272 represents a rhetorical commitment, a break from past practice – some evidence of institutional steps towards improved transparency and accountability. The practice of Resolution 2272 will need to move beyond rhetoric though if the prevention – the stated aim of the resolution – and, ideally, improved justice outcomes for survivors, are to be met.

For more on this topic, read Sarah’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

Gender Equality in Northern Ireland – in urgent need of a ‘Fresh Start’

by Michelle Rouse

Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement contains many references to equality and human rights, and one specific reference to the “full and equal participation of women in public life”. Women were also involved at important points in the negotiating process, leading many to believe that the Agreement could significantly transform women’s roles in Northern Ireland. Michelle Rouse argues, however, that in the 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, parties to the process have failed to capitalise on that potential and in its absence a particularly negative legal and political discourse on gender now dominates Northern Ireland.

There is nothing new under the sun, or so the idiom goes at least, and the gender dynamics which lurk beneath the surface of the Northern Irish peace process would certainly appear to support this assessment. It is an enduring truth that women remain the most historically marginalised and excluded group across all conflicts and all jurisdictions. It is equally true that women and men will experience conflict in different ways and will have very different needs in the post-conflict period. Feminist analysis of conflict suggests that applying a gender lens to how specific issues of human rights, security and political participation are framed in peace agreements may provide an effective litmus test for how women’s specific needs will be addressed in the post-conflict system. In other words, we need to give specific attention to the issue of gender if we are to fully understand the ways in which women are served or underserved by the Good Friday Agreement and the current system in Northern Ireland.  This piece shines a spotlight on a significant failing of Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process – namely, that it has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.

‘Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process…has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.’


Stormont, Belfast – the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

How are Human Rights and Gender Equality spelled out in the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement affirms “the right of equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity’.  This “duty” is located within the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity Section of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This was enacted in legislation by Section 75 of the subsequent 1998 Northern Ireland Act.  The section 75 duty was exalted by many as ‘unique and world leading’, earning the impressive moniker of the ‘single most extensive positive duty imposed in the UK’.

The statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality: reasons why

The available evidence however, overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not reduced gendered inequality. Conversely, problems with implementation may have actually compounded discrimination and inequality for the most marginalised women.

Critiques of the duty cite ‘institutional resistance’ as a key impediment. Theories range from the benign, attributing this to an inherently conservative civil service resistant to innovation; to the more malign, suggestive of tolerance for the promotion of equality further down the food chain but resistant to implementation at the top.

‘Available evidence…overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality.’


Certainly when it comes to the ‘big’ decisions, there is ample evidence of a systematic failure to subject policy to full impact assessment. For instance, the Investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the Budget have not once, in 18 years, been subject to a proper Equality Impact Assessment process. Instead, a bespoke ‘high level impact assessment’ has been crafted to cover this. The Equality Commission has emphatically rejected the use of high level impact assessment, but without enforcement powers it can do little about it. What is beyond dispute is the stark fact that no significant budget decisions have been re-profiled or adjusted as a result of identified gender impacts.


Section 75 has also been critiqued on the basis of a failure to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, its failure to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in NI.

Evidence of a worsening situation in terms of the intersectionality of women’s inequality can be determined from the statistics of housing need in North Belfast. The women who are most impacted by social housing inequalities are statistically more likely to be lone parents, have less disposable income and less control over family income. They constitute the ‘low paid and unofficial labour market’.

Catholics represented 73% of those on waiting lists, but only 35.7% of those awarded accommodation, whereas Protestant applicants constituted 26.2% of the waiting lists but represented 64% of those offered accommodation. The stark nature of these statistics has been significant enough to draw the attention of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

There have been suggestions that NGOs and Women’s Groups too, may be consciously avoiding combining religious and political inequalities in reports and lobbying as a tactical approach to their own survival.  If groups are seen to be divisive, overtly political or departing from the narrative of ‘balance, their funding and broad based appeal could be put in jeopardy.

‘Section 75 has failed to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in Northern Ireland.’


For those who may not be familiar with it, this map shows Ireland and Northern Ireland.


Issues of security, while central to any peace agreement, are not typically dealt with in a way that takes account of the particular post-conflict threats to women’s security. The application of a gender lens to issues of women’s security in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland is very revealing.

Physical Security

Arguably, one of the most pressing risks to women’s physical security and integrity is intimate partner violence (IPV). Mc Williams and Ni Aoláin note that IPV can actually increase in the post-conflict setting and may take on particular features as a result of access to legal and illegal weaponry. This means that policy responses to intimate partner violence in post-conflict institutional arrangements must be robust and created for the specific context which they will address.

The ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy‘, however, failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for, and the particularities of the problem it ostensibly seeks to address. It further failed to identify and situate government-related responses within a human rights framework of state obligations. The effect of which, according to McWilliams and Ni Aoláin was to make individuals ‘pleaders for protection’ rather than bearers of rights and status.

The Strategy’s approach to domestic violence as ‘irrespective of gender’ has led to the capture of other forms of abuse which can occur in the domestic setting.  This composite approach has obscured the unequal power dynamics in intimate partner relationships, which form the kernel of the problem.

‘The “Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy”…failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for…’

Legal Security

Feminist analysis also recommends that the reform of substantive law, i.e. the law defining rights and duties, must also involve the reform of law enforcement. In conflicts which have featured an ethnic divide, scholars recommend that agreements must examine compositional issues including gender requirements.

The Good Friday Agreement established an Independent Commission on Policing. Compositional data illustrated that 8% of the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force from 1922 to 2001) identified as Catholic and 13% as female. Female officers were over represented in the part-time reserve and underrepresented at senior levels. The Equal Opportunities Commission did advocate that a gender quota should be included, but this advice was disregarded. The Police Act 2000 which followed made provision for 50/50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment quotas, but committed only to a ‘gender action plan’.

The distinction in the two approaches taken to create compositional change could hardly be starker. The religious element was considered so politically important that it necessitated the immediate introduction of quotas, in order to make massive change occur rapidly. The issue of gender representation however was not similarly regarded, in spite of the UK’s obligations under CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women)]. The Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also noted its concern about the failure to introduce ‘temporary special measures to address the under representation of women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors as well as in political life.’

Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

Economic Security

The Montreal principles on women’s rights hold that economic, social and cultural rights have a particular significance for women and further acknowledge that women’s pre-disposition to socio-economic deprivation is worsened in conflict and post- conflict settings. As such, women clearly have the most to gain from the articulation of socio-economic rights within any Bill of Rights.

The creation of legally enforceable economic and social rights would go right to the core of pervasive structural inequalities, which subordinate women as ‘lesser’. Justiciable rights, i.e. rights which are subject to trail in a court of law, have the potential to be truly redistributive. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended the inclusion of legally enforceable socio-economic rights in a Bill of Rights, a position supported by over 90% of those polled by Millward Brown Ulster. The Northern Ireland Office however determined that the conferral of socio- economic rights in Northern Ireland would give rise to unjustified inequality across the UK. The current British Government’s commitment to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act bodes ill for rights enhancement, and indeed it  suggests that regression on existing civil and political rights is more likely.

Political Participation

In contrast to its myriad of provisions and technical devices aimed at ensuring representation of the different political traditions, the agreement contains no provisions which would give effect to women’s ‘full and equal participation’.

As a consequence, women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding recent Assembly election results which saw the number of women elected rise from 19.4% to 28%, an increase of almost 50%, the Northern Ireland Assembly lags well behind other devolved legislatures which polled on the same day. Women comprise 48% of the incoming Welsh Assembly and 35% of the incoming Scottish Parliament. The absence of legal quotas from the framework agreement has been a defining structural inhibitor which has resulted in a ‘catch 22’ situation; unless more women are elected to the Assembly, it is unlikely to generate a more inclusive political agenda.

‘Women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.’

Acknowledging then the paucity of female representation in the political institutions and public life here in general, the concept of a Civic Forum provided an unparalleled opportunity to ensure that women could impact on the decision making process. It was envisaged that representatives from a wide range of sectors, including the women’s sector, would sit alongside the NI Assembly, working as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural matters.

The Civic Forum was suspended in 2002 with the devolved institutions. Unlike the other institutions provided for by the GFA, the Civic Forum was never re-activated. The recent ‘Fresh Start” Agreement makes provision for a ‘compact civic panel’ of 6 members. Appointed directly by the First and deputy First Ministers they will be tasked ‘to consider specific issues relevant to the Programme for Government’. This circumscribed ‘intermediary’ model is far removed from the model of participative governance envisaged by the GFA. Compelling evidence of exclusion of women from the decision-making process within the civil service is illustrated by the profile of the North’s most senior civil servants – the Permanent Secretaries (who head Stormont’s departments) are exclusively male.

‘Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues.’

While power sharing and consociational arrangements undoubtedly provide stability in transitions from violent conflict, the Northern Ireland experience suggests they may also constrain deeper aspects of political transformation. Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues. Since the Good Friday Agreement there have been a succession of further negotiations and agreements: Weston Park in 2001, St Andrews in 2006, Hillsborough Castle in 2010, Stormont House in 2015, and a Fresh Start in 2016.  Each of these Agreements has been precipitated by a political crisis arising from outstanding commitments and/or allegations of default by one side or another. Issues have included the impasse over the transfer of policing and justice powers, allegations of armed group activity and problems arising within the complex power-sharing architecture. Ongoing default however in respect of key equality and human rights provisions has not, of itself, been regarded as sufficiently important to precipitate a crisis within the Stormont body politic.

On the contrary, in each successive negotiation since 1998 there has been a steadily declining focus on equality and human rights provisions.  At each successive stage of the implementation process, the process itself has become more exclusive and the agenda too has narrowed considerably, largely at the expense of those measures with inherent transformative potential. Human rights elements have been consistently eroded and power issues aggrandised.

‘…Eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

The Stormont House Agreement last January –  collapsed all of the outstanding Good Friday Agreement commitments in respect of Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity into one catch –all, generic paragraph. Unsurprisingly, this attrition has coincided with the absence of a specific voice for women at most of the negotiations which have followed the Good Friday Agreement.  The continued absence of this specific voice suggests that eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

For more on women’s participation in peace processes, and consociational and power-sharing peace agreements, read Tajma Kapic’s piece on women’s political participation in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

Unveiling the Women of ISIS: Part 2

by Amanda Ocasio

This is the second piece in a two-part series discussing how the women who join ISIS are often inaccurately portrayed as victims forced to join the group, with no free-will or agency of their own. Both pieces in this series are adapted from a presentation given by Amanda at Harvard University in May 2015. The first piece in this series discusses, amongst other things, ISIS’ strategies for recruiting women to the group. It can be viewed here


This photo, of a woman receiving weapons training, was sent to Amanda by ‘Abu Jandal’

In my last post, I discussed the Islamic State group’s strategies for getting women to join its ranks.  Of course, it helps to actually speak to these women.  One muhajirah, who keeps her twitter account private, agreed to speak via direct message for this project as long as her screen-name was not used.  She tweets press releases from the Islamic State, excerpts from Quran and Hadith which are meant to validate the agenda of the Islamic State, and commentary from IS scholars. “My life only started when I got to Sham, Alhamdoulilah…” she says in a conversation over Twitter direct message:

“What do you want me to say?  We are living here under Sharia, the law of Allah SWT…No racism.  Everything equal for Muslim [sic].” 

She emphasizes the fact that men handle most issues related to security:

“No, we don’t fight, Alhamdoulilah. We have enough men to do that for us.”

When asked why there are so many pictures of women carrying weapons, she explains that it is:

“Just for security reasons.  If they have a weapon they can use it.  Their husbands, brothers, fathers learn them how to use it [sic].” 

“Abu Jandal,” a pro-IS twitter user from the UK, provided some of the sources considered for this project. In January, 2015, he sent along a picture showing a woman attending weapons training in the Islamic State. She is standing with a man (her instructor), and a small child—proving my anonymous contact’s point about the availability of weapons training to women.

The second part of my anonymous contact’s statement is important for two reasons.  First, it shows that, contrary to what some media accounts have claimed, women can exist outside of the home. Second, this shows that men and women are partners in the state-building project.  Women are not forced to depend on men for everything.  They can take care of themselves, and protect their families.

“Sisters Role in Jihad,” a jihadist manual geared towards women, has been circulating on the internet for 2-3 years now.  When the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium added the manual to their archive of primary source material, they incorrectly labeled it as an “Islamic State Handbook.”   According to “How to raise a jihadi-baby…” a December, 2014 article in The Daily Mail, the manual has also been used by other groups but has most recently come to be used by ISIS. It provides the example of Runa Khan—a mother from the UK who was jailed in December, 2014, after she made several pro-jihad Facebook posts, and was caught advising an undercover law enforcement agent on ways they could enter Syria. This seemingly minor distinction is important because it shows how women of the Islamic State have enough of an awareness of the world around them to take discourses from other groups and make them relevant to the Islamic State.

The manual begins with reference to Quran 9:71, and a hadith about how to correct “a violation of Allah’s command.  Taken together, these passages demonstrate that men and women are equal partners in jihad.  The manual continues, drawing no distinction when it notes that the best way for both men and women to respond when they observe a “violation” is jihad fi sabeelilah, or “fighting in the path of Allah.” It normalises jihad by likening it to a woman’s daily prayers and the act of fasting during Ramadan, and notes that in the same way a woman does not need a man’s permission to pray or fast, she does not need a man’s permission to go off on jihad.

The manual goes on to list three ways that women can take part in battlefield operations.  First, it encourages women to take part in the actual fighting.  This section begins with an appeal to history—asking women to remember the great female fighters in Islamic history who came before them. The manual does draw a distinction, noting that the battlefield is primarily a male domain, but there are exceptions.  “It should be noted that physical fighting has been a role assigned primarily to men…” it says, “However, when the need arose, our brave sisters never held back from fighting, and neither should they now!”

The section concludes with the following “note for sisters wanting to participate in fighting these days”:

By the Grace of Allah, The Most High, the situation in the Ummah is not that desperate yet, that sisters are called to fight. Those sisters who voluntarily want to join the fighting for reward from Allah, are advised to not go unless the leader of Jihad in that place calls sisters to fight. As for other help, they can go if the Mujahideen are able to accommodate and protect them. However, sisters should definitely be prepared!

This section is important for three reasons.  First, it shows that women are capable of evaluating the rapidly evolving political landscape, and making the decision to take to the battlefield on their own.  Second, by stressing the importance of making sure that the mujahideen can protect women, it shows just how important women are to the Islamic State.  Third, by saying that “sisters should definitely be prepared,” the manual acknowledges a woman’s agency and her ability to prepare for battle on her own.

In the next section, the manual mentions ways that women can support fighters in the battlefield.  They can provide medical support, food, water, weapons, and encouragement to the mujahideen.  The section again appeals to history. It mentions the Quranic example of Safiyyah bint Abdul Muttalib who carried a spear into battle and remained at the back of the army as they marched on. She was prepared to strike the enemy, but actually kept that position so she could “strike those Muslims who dared to escape from the battle.” It then provides a present day example of a woman from the UK who carried weapons and ammunition over mountains for the Bosnian Muslims “…as she knew the enemy would not suspect her.” The third and final part of the section on battlefield operations mentions that women can take part in guard duty, and take on other responsibilities related to protecting the community.

 The second part of the manual details the many ways women can participate in jihad away from the battlefield. Her roles here are much more nuanced than people admit.  Women don’t just procreate. They are also expected to provide children with a balanced education–providing both physical training and academic lessons. Women are expected to become familiar with the training routine first, both so they can participate themselves, and so they better can train their children.  Once again, women are not just acting to better the state.


This photo was sent to Amanda by an anonymous source

This section of the manual also shows how influential women are when it instructs women to encourage their loved ones to wage jihad. The section mentions four additional ways for women to contribute, but due to space limitations, I will only mention the second way—that is jihad “on an academic level.” As part of this charge, women are told to study the works of famous scholars so they can provide counters to people’s objections to jihad. This also makes it possible for them to train other women and, in some cases, men. Lastly, this makes it so women themselves can become passionate about the cause and then motivate others.

 In February, 2015, the Al Khansa Brigades published “Women in the Islamic State”—a manual by women, for women.  It mentions in the introduction that it is not an official state document, but it is still a useful source to consider given the role that the Al Khansa Brigades play in the day to day affairs of the Islamic State.  According to an interview carried out by Syria Deeply with Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official in Raqqa, the Al Khansa Brigades are an all-female police force that works “…to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law.”

In the introduction, the authors say that the Islamic State is simply picking up where the Ottoman Caliphate left off. “The era of Western dominance and its influence on our lifestyle and way of living has passed, whether it is regarding its social, educational, economic…or medical and industrial aspects,” the manual says.  The Islamic State sees itself as bringing people back to the faith, and liberating people from the forces of western imperialism.

They also argue that what they suggest for women is nothing new:

“Foremost among the first people that we refer to are Muslim women, members of their Islamic community.”

The manual says:

In that day, they had a role. Today, too, they have a role, one which is derived from the principles of Islamic law and its teachings.” 

The piece continues, noting that a woman’s role has been “tampered with.”

Moving on, the women of Al Khansa criticize both men and women for their shallow vanity.  “Man adorned and decorated this world, trying to make it look like Paradise because he does not believe in the true Paradise…”, it says.  The women then go on to explain their true purpose—namely, implementing Sharia and spreading Islam.  They do clarify, however, noting that secular sciences do still have a place in the Islamic State, as long as they’re put to use to serve God’s cause.

The piece then provides a manifesto.  Women are instructed to follow the examples of Assiya, Mariam, Khadija, Fatima and Aisha—some of the great women of Islam.  After that part, the authors make an interesting argument:

“The problem today is that women are not fulfilling their fundamental roles, the role that is consistent with their deepest nature, for an important reason: that women are not presented with a true picture of man.”

In other words, it is the shortcomings of men which lead women to take action to meet the needs of the community.

The marriage dynamic at work in the Islamic State is also much more balanced than the media makes it seem. “Hence, while Islam gives man dominance, it bestows upon women the honour of implementation (executive),” the piece says. Men and women work together to build a home and a family, and the contributions of both are necessary in order for the family unit to thrive. Women of the Islamic State are not expected to assume this leadership role without any training. The manual goes on to note that education for women is favoured by the Islamic State, as “She cannot fulfil this role if she is illiterate and ignorant.”

The manual has sections on aesthetics, offers critiques of western models of femininity, and provides a few case studies. I will only discuss two more sections here—“secondary functions for women” and “suggestions of a curriculum for Muslim women.”

The section, “secondary functions for women” makes the argument that a woman’s most important function is that of wife and mother, but notes that she does so much more. Women are able to go off on jihad if the enemy is attacking and the imams issue a call for it. Women are encouraged to study religion. Women are permitted to become doctors and teachers, as long as they adhere to Shariah guidelines.

A discussion of the section, “suggestions of a curriculum for Muslim women” also feels like an appropriate way to wrap this up.  It shows that women receive instruction in a wide array of subjects from an early age—ensuring that she is well read and able to fend for herself in the material, spiritual, and academic realms. Starting from the age of seven, she receives instruction in fiqh, religion, Arabic, the natural sciences, textiles and knitting, and basic cooking. Particularly important to note is the fact that she receives instruction on her legal rights in the context of marriage.  In other words, she is always able to assert herself.







Unveiling the Women of ISIS: Part 1

by Amanda Ocasio

This is the first piece in a two-part series discussing how the women who join ISIS are often inaccurately portrayed as victims forced to join the group, with no free-will or agency of their own. Both pieces in this series are adapted from a presentation given by Amanda at Harvard University in May 2015. The second piece in this two-part series, featuring excerpts from Amanda’s correspondence with a female member of ISIS, and a discussion of a jihadi manual aimed at women, can be read here

 Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.39.23Screen grab of a woman carrying a kalashnikov in Raqqa, Syria, from a video secretly taken by a Syrian woman living in the ISIS-controlled city, aired on France 24 in September 2014. 

Many journalists and academics have made the argument that women join the Islamic State group looking for adventure, power and a sense of purpose, but are disappointed with what they find after joining. These writers and thinkers miss opportunities to discuss displays of female agency. Yes, one finds abuses of power, but one can find those anywhere. Women of the Islamic State do not all blindly follow the Islamic State agenda. They help to shape it in their own way.

Women are the ultimate ‘keyboard warriors’ in the Islamic State. They regularly post guidance, and words of wisdom to a wide variety of social media platforms. For example, a woman who writes under the name ‘Umm Layth’ uses tumblr. I will focus on three parts of a four part series she wrote called ‘Diary of a Muhajirah‘. The second part of the series focuses on how a woman should deal with her family when she makes the decision to move to the Islamic State. She writes:

‘Wallahi preparing yourself to leave is difficult because you are leaving the women who kept you in her womb for 9 months, who breastfed you, who stayed up till night taking care of each and every one of your needs and the person who you truly feel at home with’.

She draws a noteworthy distinction here. It is a woman’s ties to her mother, not her father, which make it hard for her to leave. A woman is not as wed to patriarchy as the dominant media discourses make us believe.

Umm Layth notes that parents will most likely not understand a woman’s decision to join the Islamic State. Instead of judging them, or responding with hostility, she suggests that women keep their parents in their prayers. ‘You have to answer to Allah (swt),’ she reminds women, ‘so always fear Him and give your family and parents their right.’  She concludes the entry with a note where she attempts to dispel the myth of Jihad-al-nikaah or ‘sexual jihad.’ ‘Sisters a little note: many people in present day do not understand and cannot comprehend at all why a female would choose to make this decision,’ she says. ‘They will point fingers and say behind your back and to your families faces that you are taking part in “Jihadul nikaah” or “sexual jihad” and many many more vile terms.’  This point is important for several reasons. First, by classifying ‘sexual jihad’ as a ‘vile’ term, she is actively attempting to dispel myths about her gender. Second, it shows a woman taking control of jihadist discourses and attempting to define her personal jihad on her own terms.

The third part of Umm Layth’s series is a little less focused. She says:

‘First of all wallahi wallahi I know my position. I am not a scholar… or even a student of knowledge…So please do not assume that of me’.

First, she tries to define ‘normal.’ She establishes herself as a common, everyday woman but all of her entries demonstrate a knowledge of theology and law—showing that it is possible for all women to learn their rights, exercise their rights, and actively engage with the dominant discourses of the Islamic State.  She goes on to mention that she hopes her words will encourage both men AND women—proving that the gender divide in the Islamic State isn’t as sharp as the media would often lead us to believe. She continues, noting that, contrary to what the media has said many a time, these women aren’t uneducated. Many of the women who move to the Islamic State were studying at university before making the move.  She also reminds the reader that these women come from good families.  They’re not the troubled girls who were seeking personal meaning or adventure as the media likes to make them seem.

Her next argument is interesting in that it challenges the orientalist discourses on possession and worth.  Yes, these women have ‘left their luxuries behind,’ as she says, but they do receive ghanimah (an Arabic term, typically used to refer to spoils of war).  This can include anything from animals to household appliances. Yes, these women don’t define wealth and worth by a more materialistic, western standard, but that doesn’t mean that they are poor.

Another entry in the series reads like a brief instructional manual. In it, she helps to prepare women for their husbands’ martyrdom. She provides a checklist for women to help them make sure that all of their needs will be met, and suggests a website for ‘further reading’. She concludes with a message to men where she stresses the importance of making sure that their wives are prepared for their inevitable death, writing:

‘You are responsible for your wife. You make sure to give all her rights to her and under this comes one of the most important duties of yours brother, and this is to educate your wife!’

This entry is important for three reasons. First, it proves that women don’t just rely on men to tell them everything they need to know to thrive in the world around them.  Women are much more active in shaping their own destinies. Secondly, women do not lose their ability to function after their husbands have passed on. Third, it shows another example of a woman holding a man accountable, by reminding him of his responsibilities to his wife.


The dark-grey area shows the territory controlled by ISIS as of 01 May 2016. By BlueHypercane761.

Umm Ubaydah is another Islamic State ‘keyboard warrior’ who uses tumblr to reach her audience.  Her blog is more academic.  She posts a lot of quotes and essays from famous Islamic thinkers.  In one post, she provides advice to a woman on how to assemble a library on Islamic subjects:

‘…download all of Anwar’s series, try to get sheikh Ahmed Musa Jibrils lectures, and books I would say from Abdullah Azzam, Abu Muhammed al Maqdisī (despite his opinion on dawla I highly recommend his books on aqeeda, they’re really good), download books from Ibn qayyim, sheikh Yusuf al Uyari…’

This brief post is important for two reasons. First, it shows women providing guidance to other women. Their knowledge of their faith is not put through a patriarchal filter.  Second, it shows a woman processing the Islamic State agenda and assembling her own list of supplemental readings which answer any questions she might have in a way that makes sense to her.

In another post, Umm Ubaydah re-posts Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s essay, ‘Regarding Whether the Parents’ Permission is Sought Once Jihad Becomes Fard Ayn.’  One key point that the essay emphasizes is the fact that:

‘The situation of the permission from parents and husband not being required is sustained until the enemy is expelled from the Muslim land, or when there is the accumulation of sufficient numbers to expel the enemy even if all the Muslims in the earth are assembled.’

By re-posting this treatise on the permissibility of jihad, she shows that women understand what are said to be more masculine discourses on war.  She also shows that she is very much aware of her rights outside the home.  Women do not just live in the shadows of their husbands and parents.  Furthermore, by re-posting this essay, Umm Ubaydah reminds women that jihad becomes a gender blind obligation in times of war.

Dabiq Magazine, an Islamic State publication, also addresses what I like to call ‘The Woman Question.’ The seventh issue features ‘An Interview with Umm Basir Al-Muhajirah.’ In the west, she is known as Hayat Boumeddiene—the wife of Ahmedy Coulibaly, the man who swore allegiance to ISIS and took 12 hostages in a Paris supermarket in January, 2015. The fact that she is speaking on her own here shows that her worth to the Islamic State did not decrease after her husband’s martyrdom. She begins by harshly judging both men and women, and asking both to become more active participants in their religion. ‘Why do you degrade yourselves by thinking you cannot understand the Qur’ān and Sunnah and believing you are in need of the understanding of this imam or that scholar?’ she asks, ‘It is true, we need the people of knowledge in general, but, Alhamdulillāh, Allah facilitated the understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunnah’. This all goes to show, once again, that both men and women are equally capable of thinking for themselves. Nowhere does one find men or women being force-fed a stern, legalistic interpretation of Islam.


The covers of issues 1 and 2 of Dabiq magazine

Boumeddiene continues, saying, ‘I saw from amongst you generous people with enthusiasm. Do not lose these traits by following certain individuals. Sincerely ask Allah to guide you. Strive against your inner selves so that you might succeed.’ This shows that women have enough of a knowledge of their faith and the Islamic State agenda to advise others—both male and female. Women are not simply acted upon. Second, her admonition to ‘Strive against your inner selves’ is important because it shows that there is no mob-think mentality at work. Jihad in the Islamic State is a very personal decision. Moving on, she tells the reader that, ‘It is essential for you to love Allah and His Messenger more than your own selves, your husbands, your children, and your parents.’ This last part dispels the myth that women are only able to find personal meaning in the home. They do not just define themselves in terms of their relationship to patriarchy.  The piece concludes with an appeal to women to remember the great women of Islamic history, and to follow their example.

A pro-IS Twitter user who goes by the name of ‘A.Ibrahim’ suggested much of the material considered for this project. On March 26th, 2015, he sent along a video on Diwan al-Madhalim (The Board of Grievance).  Ibrahim emphasizes the fact that men and women are both given a chance to have their concerns heard by the court. When I asked if there are any differences in the ways men and women are treated, he responded by saying ‘Not much difference. I know a muhajirah (a female scholar from Saudi Arabia) who’s working in a court in Raqqa.  There’s a ladies’ section in every IS institute.’  He went on to note that the structure and function of the court is really nothing new. ‘The first Diwan al-Madhalim…was established by the caliph Umar bin Al-Khattab, 1400 years ago,’ he says, showing that the Islamic State isn’t trying to advance a new understanding of Islam.  Everything about it is steeped in tradition—including its treatment of women.

In an exchange back in April, 2015, ‘A. Ibrahim’ spoke of the work done by the IS Health Ministry. He stressed the fact that the ministry has actively worked to employ female doctors to tend to the needs of female patients in order to prevent any mixing between men and women. Around that same time, the Islamic State opened a medical school in Raqqa where both men and women are free to study. The only caveat is that men and women must remain separated at all times. Other than that, both genders are given the same chance to pursue their studies.  Separate does not necessarily mean unequal.

Also in mid-May, 2015, there was some confusion after an Islamic State wedding certificate surfaced on Twitter. The Independent then published an article entitled, ‘ISIS wedding certificate shows jihadi bride demanding right to be a suicide bomber as condition of getting married.’  Ibrahim clarified the bride’s position in a conversation with another twitter user, and sent me a link to the exchange. Ultimately, he says that the bride’s true position got lost in a series of translation errors.  ‘The option is signed by the wife that the husband does not prevent her…’ he said.  In other words, she can make the choice to carry out a martyrdom operation, but doesn’t necessarily have to do so.  This is an important distinction because it shows that women can take part in battlefield operations if they feel so inclined, but they can also prove their worth in other ways.

Part 2 coming on 26th May.

The European Parliament called for an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. Now what?

by Kloé Tricot O’ Farrell

On 25 February, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the humanitarian situation in Yemen which includes a historic call for an EU arms embargo to be imposed against Saudi Arabia. While the resolution is non-binding, Kloé Tricot O’ Farrell argues it is significant for a number of reasons, not least for reminding EU Member States of their legal responsibilities and calling them to order over their arms transfer practices.

Sana Yemen

Sanaa, Yemen

First of all, the European Parliament resolution and related coverage has raised awareness about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and the serious breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) committed by all parties to the year-long conflict.

Since the Saudi-led intervention began in Yemen in late March 2015, both sides of the conflict have carried out indiscriminate attacks which are reported to have killed over 3,200 civilians and injured thousands. The fighting has also left over 21.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes are reported to being responsible for a majority of the civilian casualties. Notably, in February 2016, at least 168 civilians were killed and 193 injured, around two-thirds of them by Coalition airstrikes according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. On 15 March, 106 civilians were killed by airstrikes on a market in Hajja province in what the UN describes as one of the deadliest incidents since the start of the conflict. In addition, fighting and indiscriminate shelling in residential areas by Houthi and Saleh forces have caused numerous civilian casualties.

Second, the European Parliament – the only directly elected EU institution, which represents over 500 million citizens – has brought much needed attention and scrutiny to the role of EU Member States in the Yemen conflict. Indeed, in spite of the paucity of publicly-available information, a number of reports (for instance, this legal opinion by Matrix Chambers, this Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report and this Control Arms report) have highlighted that EU Member States have sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and coalition members that are at risk of being or have been used in Yemen. The legal opinion by Matrix Chambers concludes that transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia capable of being used in Yemen are in breach of both the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to which 26 EU Member States are a party (and with Greece about to become so). It is important to note that there is no evidence that Houthi forces and their allies are currently being supplied with arms from States Parties to the ATT.

While the European Parliament has a rather limited role in EU foreign policy, by calling EU Member States to order over their arms transfer practices it has demonstrated a welcome commitment to scrutinising the implementation of the EU Common Position on arms exports. And although the Common Position notes that “the decision to transfer or deny the transfer of any military technology or equipment shall remain at the national discretion of each Member State”, it creates a legal obligation on Member States to ensure the conformity of their national policies with its provisions (see Article 29 of the Treaty on European Union).

Therefore, while some EU Member States have supplied and continue to authorise arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and coalition countries that are at risk of being used in the conflict, the EP Resolution recognises that “such transfers are in violation of [EU] Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on arms export control, which explicitly rules out the authorising of arms licences by Member States if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and to undermine regional peace, security and stability.”

In addition, the Resolution’s call for the establishment of an EU arms embargo was supported by a majority of Members of the European Parliament (359 voted in favour, 212 against and 31 abstained) and received significant cross-party and cross-country backing, in spite of intense Saudi lobbying against the resolution. What’s more, while initiatives at the European level are often removed from the public sphere, EU civil society and citizens mobilised around this process, including through a petition calling for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia and organised by the campaign group Avaaz which garnered over 750,000 signatures, thereby highlighting growing awareness about the conflict in Yemen and the role of EU arms exports therein.

While the European Parliament demonstrated that it would not turn a blind eye to EU countries lending a hand—or weapon—in support of a war that is killing and injuring civilians as well as harming prospects for peace in Yemen, some national parliaments have also raised questions around their governments’ arms export policies in the current context.

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For instance, in the UK, the Parliamentary International Development Committee, following oral evidence sessions with non-governmental representatives and Government Ministers, sent a letter to the Secretary of State for International Development to ask the Government to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Committees on Arms Exports Controls has also just launched an inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured arms in the conflict in Yemen. The inquiry will examine if there have been any infringements of the UK Government’s arms export licensing criteria and discuss what action should be taken in such cases. In the Flemish region of Belgium, several discussions pertaining to arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the framework of the war in Yemen have taken place – with the cross-party support for the European Parliament Resolution being used to call for a Flemish arms embargo. In Italy as well, arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been discussed in Parliament. Notably, a senator from the ruling Democratic Party asked whether the government intended, following the adoption of the European Parliament Resolution, to halt all transfers to Saudi Arabia and to push for an arms embargo at the EU level.

Third, the numerous questions raised around the conduct of the war in Yemen and arms exports to Saudi Arabia are a reminder of EU Member States’ legal responsibilities and the fact that it now falls on them to act. While none of them have so far suspended their transfers to Saudi Arabia, some have defended their permissive export policies, notably on geostrategic and commercial grounds. For instance, in the context of a burgeoning arms-supply relationship between the Belgian region of Wallonia and Saudi Arabia, with a 300 percent increase from 2013 to 2014 in the value of approved arms licences, the Minister-President of Wallonia prioritised the thousands of high-value jobs he claims the arms industry provides – an argument which the Green Party criticised for putting human rights on the back-burner. In the UK, the Government has defended its sovereign right to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, claiming that, on the basis of the information available to them, there is no evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has acted in breach of IHL in Yemen and that they are satisfied that all extant UK licences for export to Saudi Arabia are compliant with EU and national Arms Export Licensing Criteria. France has provided little by way of commentary on its export policies towards Saudi Arabia, however its practice, including the recent decision to supply the Saudis with €3 billion worth of inter alia combat vehicles, helicopters, warships, anti-tank guided missiles and surveillance equipment, is an obvious pointer to how it is approaching the issue.

This level of permissiveness is far from universal among Member States, however. Germany’s decision-making, for example, has been somewhat schizophrenic. Since Sigmar Gabriel became Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister in 2013, Germany appears to have exercised caution regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia, notably by refusing the delivery of tanks and assault rifles. In January, Gabriel stated that Germany would take a more cautious approach to licensing arms exports for Saudi Arabia. Yet, he recently announced the approval of several arms export deals with Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, the second-most active member of the coalition in Yemen.

Other States are following a much more restrictive path. The Dutch Government is now applying a presumption of denial on arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, meaning that only if it is clearly established that goods cannot be used in the conflict in Yemen or to commit human rights violations can a licence be issued. In Flanders, while no decision has of yet been taken to systematically refuse arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the government announced that there is a consensus that they will not be authorised given the situation in Yemen and the broader region. In Sweden, according to official statistics, no licences were issued for arms exports to Saudi Arabia from the start of the Saudi-led attacks until the end of 2015, and discussions with Swedish officials suggest that any supply of ‘offensive equipment’ is highly unlikely in the current circumstances.

This wide variation in national approaches and the contradictions between some export licensing decisions and the spirit and letter of the Common Position are undermining the very notion of an EU Common Position and risk undermining confidence in and implementation of the ATT. However, ironically, this situation demonstrates that the content of the Common Position and the ATT are perfectly well-suited to deal with the situation in Yemen; when they are implemented with due rigour, they do prevent irresponsible transfers. It therefore falls to all States to meet their own legal arms transfer obligations but also to challenge other States who are not meeting theirs.

With every weapon sold taking us further from a political solution to the conflict, EU Member States must immediately suspend arms shipments which could be used in Yemen, and head the calls of the European Parliament by supporting the establishment of an EU embargo. The Council of the EU, in its April 2015 conclusions on Yemen, recognised that only a political agreement could provide a sustainable solution and restore peace in Yemen. As such, rather than feeding the conflict, Member States should be pursuing every diplomatic avenue to help achieve a sustainable and inclusive political agreement.

This piece was orginially featured on Saferworld’s website

The Political Participation of Women in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Tajma Kapic

Mostar during war

Mostar, Tajma’s home town, during the conflict.

I was 26 and had just finished university when the war broke out. I vividly remember my terror, alone in my apartment, when the shelling started. I witnessed first hand the horror of war.

My personal experience as a survivor of the Balkans war and my continuing concern for the welfare of women in post-conflict situations lead me to my PhD research . My project is a comparative analysis of the impact of the Good Friday Peace Agreement (1998) and the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995) on the political participation of women in the post-conflict societies of Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After the initial shock, I started working in the local children’s aid organisation, distributing aid to children across the lines of division in my hometown of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the end of the war, I have been either learning about, or working towards improving the lives of women and girls in the countries affected by war and disasters.

While undertaking a Master’s degree in Development Studies, my thesis centred on the integration of Bosnian women refugees into three European countries: Ireland, Norway and Sweden. I focused on a comparative analysis of refugee laws and policies in those countries and their ability to provide services for refugees. The research gave me an insight into refugees’ own experiences of integration and the difficulties they were faced with in this process. My first project looked at women who were forced to leave their homes and their country as a result of the violent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina but I always felt that it was equally important to answer the question of what happened to the women who remained.

What are power-sharing agreements, and where are the women?

International norms on democracy and women’s rights agree that the presence of women in political institutions, as well as their participation in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction is undoubtedly important. Two of the most celebrated power-sharing peace settlements in history, are the Dayton Peace Agreement that administratively determined today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Good Friday Peace Agreement, that ended a long running low-level conflict in Northern Ireland. These agreements have had varying impacts on the space available for women’s political participation.

Both countries are still deeply divided post-conflict societies and they both have peace agreements based on principles of power-sharing. So why, then, is the political position of women in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina weaker than that of women in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland?

In order to answer this question we should perhaps explain what power-sharing peace agreements are. These types of arrangements are also referred to as consociational peace agreements and they are becoming the international community’s, and the UN’s in particular, preferred solution for ending civil wars through peace negotiations as well as the main tool for building durable peace and democracy in war-torn and divided societies. The main tenets of consociational arrangements are: institutional representation for all significant groups, cross-community executive power-sharing, mutual veto powers in order to protect group’s vital interests and a high degree of autonomy for each community. Although these types of peace agreements are implemented and positively accepted around the globe, women are often ill-served by such settlements. Ethnicity and nationality lead consociational considerations and thus, considerations of gender equality suffer.


Mostar, today.

The Dayton Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement: Differences and Similarities

The Dayton Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement are inarguably similar, but also unique in their own right. Both agreements are power-sharing arrangements between communities that are still divided. Moreover, they are similar in that were brokered under the influence and active participation of the international community, during the same US administration. Despite these similarities, there is a significant difference in the form of power-sharing arrangements contained in the agreements. They also differ in the outcome for women, with the political position of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina being weaker than that of women in Northern Ireland.

The Dayton Peace Agreement, which stopped the three-year long conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is often described in academic literature as the new ‘social contract’ that was to set the standards for post-conflict societies. This peace agreement however, gave insufficient attention to women’s political rights. Further, since there was a complete absence of women in the peace process, it became a ‘dialogue of men’ which in turn created a conservative backlash and became a characteristic of women’s post-conflict experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The women of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the course of the twentieth century, have lived under six very different political systems, including two different kingdoms, two major wars, a socialist political system and a transitional democracy. Each of them developed its own notion of gender relations. Very few political systems include women in their apparatus, especially beyond the minimal numbers. First multi-party elections in many post-socialist societies in Europe manifested itself in a considerable reduction in number of women in parliament. The post-socialist states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia are certainly not an exception. The socialist’s one party rule in Yugoslavia had at least some egalitarian idea in relation to the inclusion of women in the political sphere, on principle, if nothing else. But amongst the nationalist parties in the former Yugoslav republics, there is not even an abstract egalitarian idea with regards to women and their political representation. The nationalist leaders of these former socialist states believe women should be seen but not heard, as the saying goes.

Women, who have during the conflict held a family and very often whole communities together, taking full responsibility for their survival and integrity, are very often left out in the processes of post-conflict economic, political and social reconstruction. While these processes are going on in their absence, and decisions are being made by their male national political leaders and in the presence of the international community representatives, women are told to go back to their ‘normal’ lives and activities. This has been especially evident in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This has real-life implications for women in the political sphere today. So women’s participation in decision making bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina went from having a female Prime Minister of Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in 1983 to not having one single female minister in 2008. The post peace agreement elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina had a near catastrophic result for women’s representation in the parliament and went from zero women representatives in the 1996 and 1998 elections to 7.14% in the 2000 general elections. The two following elections, in 2002 and 2006 had the same percentage of 14.29% of elected women parliamentarians, while elections in 2010, showed a slight increase to 16.67%. In the last general elections in 2014, women numbered 21.40% of representatives to the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dayton Peace Agreement has also been criticised for not including gender within its framework and therefore disadvantaging women. It has also been criticised for the fact that its focus on ethnicity has meant that up to the present ethnic divisions have been privileged at the expense of other forms of social identity, including gender.

In the end, although it may seem that there are no implications that these two conflicts and their consequences are directly comparable, there are many theoretical similarities in the manner individuals, especially women, respond to their impacts and how they observe their place in the post-conflict setting. That being said, in relation to peace settlements, the Dayton Peace Agreement was less successful, since it reinforced patriarchal relations of power and traditional gender roles in this society through the subjugation of women. Considering that societies who fail to incorporate gender equality in all segments of its public and private spheres are likely to be submerged into a conflict, the gender blindness of the Dayton Peace Agreement can have extremely negative consequences for this still divided society.

With my research I hope to compare the routes to political office of women and the experience of women politicians, candidates and political activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland. Through this research, I also aim to contribute to a discussion on the reforms necessary to implement gender equality in political representation in these states and to contribute to the wider discussion on integrating gender equality into consociational peace agreements.