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Jennifer Freeman on Breaking the Peacebuilding “Glass Ceiling” — Interview by Dean Patricia Márquez

Friday, March 1, 2019

Kroc School Dean Patricia Márquez recently spoke with Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s Associate Director for PeaceMakers Programs and Kroc School Professor of Practice Jennifer Freeman about women's role in global peacebuilding. Below is a portion of their conversation...

Left to Right: Laura Taylor, Kroc School alumna and Lecturer, Queen's University, Belfast; Jennifer Freeman, Associate Director of PeaceMakers Programs, Kroc IPJ, and Professor of Practice, Kroc School; Monica McWilliams, Co-founder, Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, and Professor Emeritus, University of Ulster; Necla Tschirgi, Associate Dean and Distinguished Professor, Kroc School; Karen Henken, Professor of Practice, Kroc School.

Why do you say we continue to sabotage peace?

According to research by UN Women, and the Council on Foreign Relations, women’s meaningful participation in peace negotiations has been shown to increase the sustainability of peace agreements by 35 percent. Yet the so-called “glass ceiling” that blocks women from reaching the corporate top also exists in peace processes. Between 1990 and 2017, women made up less than eight percent of negotiators and mediators. Unfortunately, this reality has negative consequences for global peace processes. It is a reality that many still refuse to recognize, making change more difficult.

What explains that women can improve the chances of lasting peace?

Women’s participation in peace processes can increase the likelihood of peace negotiations reaching an agreement. This is rooted, in part, in their historical exclusion from political power, which makes women more aware of excluded perspectives in society at large, and more trustworthy actors to broker peace among many stakeholders. To gain a platform to be heard, women have oftentimes formed cross-community coalitions. Their ability to articulate shared concerns by all sides of a conflict advances the dialogue and adds credibility to a peace process.

Can you share a specific example in which this was the case?

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), led and co-founded by Monica McWilliams, is a key example. Women from across sectarian lines, who had each been excluded from their political parties, joined together to form NIWC and stood for election to take part in the peace process. Their ability to work together across the Catholic-Protestant divide allowed them to be seen as “honest brokers” by both parties and the negotiators. They worked back channels at key moments in the process and built up popular support in both communities for the eventual referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the women ensured the agreement discussed victims’ rights and provided for reintegration of political prisoners, education, and mixed housing — all issues that had not been raised by other parties and have ultimately been key to consolidating peace in Northern Ireland.

What are some of the specific barriers in the peacebuilding “glass ceiling”?

Earlier last year, a global meeting of experts, which included Women PeaceMakers alumnae, identified several major barriers that are preventing women’s meaningful engagement in peace processes. These include: Patriarchal systems and persistent gender inequality, shrinking political space and threats against women’s human rights defenders, lack of recognition of women’s expertise and lived experience, and tensions between transformative and technocratic approaches.

How can the peacebuilding “glass ceiling” be broken?

Addressing these structural and societal barriers require solutions that are both technical and transformational. By technical I mean things like writing new policies and greater budget allocations for gender expertise. An example of change is the emerging networks of women mediators positioned to elevate and diminish the professional barriers faced by women mediators: FemWise across Africa, the Mediterranean Women Mediators NetworkWomen Mediators across the Commonwealth, and the Nordic Women Mediators Network. One thing these networks do to counter the informal “boys clubs” of existing mediation circles is to promote the exchange of resources and contacts among women mediators. That has led to exchanges between Colombian and Syrian peacemakers with women from the Philippines and Northern Ireland. The exchanges provide invaluable learning opportunities for women peacemakers, who then go on to strengthen women’s engagement in their own peace processes.  

Any last words as we begin celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8?

Include more women now. Improving our chances of sustainable peacebuilding requires the meaningful participation of all genders. We must keep in mind that many men have been key advocates for women’s engagement in peace processes. It is also important to remind ourselves of the role model effect. The growing prominence of regional networks of high-profile women mediators inspires and mobilizes other women. Such networks can help leverage connections and influence other mediators, shifting gender norms in peacebuilding. This is similar to what happened with political quotas in countries like Norway or Ireland, where having more women visible in these positions led to changes in perceptions of women’s aptitudes for politics. 

However, I don’t want to end this conversation giving the idea that we must wait for change to occur through women gradually forging paths for one another. That can be a slow and uneven path to progress. It took the United States thirty years (1970-2000) for women’s political representation to shift from three percent to 14 percent. The United Nations could close the gap between rhetoric and implementation more rapidly by instituting a quota system of its own when it brokers peace processes. Moreover, it could lead by example by finally selecting a woman to be Secretary General. 


Kevin Dobyns
(619) 260-7618

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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