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  • Anandha Lekshmi Nair

Women and Peace

Behind the notion of a special role for women in peace and conflict resolution lies the assumption that across all other identities, 'women' have a common bond - women are mothers, women are nurturing, women want peace. But women can be combatants, they can be violent; they can also want peace, they can also so want to resolve conflict; just like men, they too can have a range of motivations.

Of course, it is possible in certain kinds of contexts for women to use their conventional identity to be peace activists in quite creative ways. For example, in Sri Lanka, the political formation called The Mother's Front that emerged between 1990 and 1993 had a huge grass-roots membership. Basically, these activists were mothers protesting the disappearance of their sons and male relatives. Young men vanish, usually taken away by the state and sometimes by militants. For three years, The Mothers' Front actively used their identity as mothers: on the one hand, presenting themselves in traditional ways as mothers who care, emphasizing the maternal suffering; and on the other hand, presenting these sentiments politically, in the public arena. This is a conservative maternalistic politics where motherhood and the special moral responsibility of mothers are used to defend the dominant status quo with all its social inequalities intact.

Arguments concerning women’s biology or social conditioning suggest that they are more prone to nurturing and caring than men are. Life ‘giving’ precludes life ‘taking’ from the female character, rendering women incapable of violence, owing to a biological predisposition towards creating new life and nurturing. An essentialist view of sex differences as ‘given’ cannot coexist with a goal of transformative change in gender relations. It is quite clear that a woman is not inherently or irreversibly anti-militaristic or anti-authoritarian. Nor is her peaceful nature a matter of chromosomes or menstrual cycles. It is through social processes and structures that have been created and sustained over the generations, which keep women out of any political position with influence over state force.

The core issue with the association of women with peace activism is that it raises, and reinforces, gendered norms, through the assumptions of what it means to be a woman. There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about this link, four of which are of particular relevance.

Firstly, the association of women as guarantors of peace can prevent both women and peace from being taken seriously in the realm of the political. Secondly, this association can be used to justify the exclusion of women from public roles in politics beyond the realm of peace activism.

Thirdly, assigning women as the primary actors driving the peace project can exclude men from fulfilling peaceful roles; in this respect, the feminization of peace reinforces the masculinity of war, and thus reinforces a binary of political action which is strictly gendered. Fourthly, operating within these idealized notions of femininity will trap women into idealized roles based on their gender, thus threatening the rising tide of gender equality by denying women (and by extension, men) the opportunity to present themselves as complex and multifaceted political actors who are driven by motivations which extend beyond their gender. Women also exist as members of national, religious, racial, and socio-economic groups who can be driven by political agendas that exist in separation from, or in opposition to, notions of gender justice.

In making the participation of women contingent on their ability to embody their gendered role as actors for peace and to deliver successful outcomes, the ultimate danger women can befall is failure to achieve these outcomes or fulfill these roles. If women are given a place at the table on the guarantee that they will ‘secure the peace’, and if they are unsuccessful in doing so, this means that they have failed as both women and as peace negotiators. Consequently, the already difficult task of securing women’s political participation is made even more difficult.

-Written by: Anandha Lekshmi Nair

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