The Responsible Women’s Role in Peace Building

On October 7, 2011, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to three formidable women: Tawakkul Karman, a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2005; and Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia who campaigned against the use of sexual assault as a weapon of war.

Karman, 32, was the first Arab woman to win the peace prize. The award was bestowed in recognition for her role in peace activism in Yemen, long before the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, and for initiating positive change in political oppression and the role of women in the rise of new democracies. The two Liberian women (Sirleaf, 72, and Gbowee, 32) were the first sub-Saharan African winners of the peace prize since Kenyan Wangari Maathai won it in 2004 for the fight against deforestation by mobilizing women to plant trees. Maathai died in 2011 at the age of 71. Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia, campaigning to end government corruption and to work for reconciliation after fourteen years of civil war. Gbowee, in Liberia, organized hundreds of female protesters throughout Monrovia to demand disarmament of fighters, forcing attention on women combatants exploited and sexually assaulted by warlords. She was honored by the Nobel Committee for mobilizing women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections. Sirleaf campaigned for peace within the government (in the country’s top leadership role), whereas Gbowee and Karman worked as individuals — Karman with limited support from her government.

It was the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s hope that the prize for the three women would shine a light on the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.

Pakistan set an example by holding a four-day International Islamic Women Police Conference in November 2011 in Islamabad to unite women police officers from more than ten Islamic countries to build synergies and discuss context-specific gender issues. In 2010 Pakistan female law enforcers comprised less than one percent of all law enforcers. In comparison, female officers comprised a third of the total Australian Federal Police workforce. The Pakistan government now has a policy to integrate women in the mainstream police force, which is an increasing international trend in Muslim countries. Research has shown that women police officers bring a public-friendly image of police as they are much less likely than men to use extreme methods of control, such as threats, physical restraint, search, and arrest.

Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics, in his book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation” (2012) contends that “living with people who differ — racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically — is the most urgent challenge facing civil society today.” That’s because people tend to avoid engaging with people who are different from themselves by acting in a tribalistic manner which, he says, “involves thinking you know what others are like without really knowing them” resulting in an “us-against-you” mentality. Sennett promotes social cohesion that requires commitment to community and empathy with others: from polite social civilities such as saying “please” and “thank you” to mutual communication. It’s not just about talking and listening; it’s about sympathy, empathy, and above all, shared and familiar dialogue. It’s a concept that women understand, naturally and innately.

Women in governments and individual women can work side-by-side to influence, promote, and sustain local, country, regional, and global peace. As governments look toward contributing to peace building, they should look no further than the women in their own communities. Without meaningful participation of women in peace processes there are less chances of durable peace. Women as peace-builders are often leaders in recovery and rehabilitation activities as post-conflict nations, such as South Sudan, transition to stability. The importance of women in peace dialogues and social cohesion cannot be overstated, not only for post-conflict countries, but also for local communities.

Healthy economies support peaceful existences. Investing in women can yield a significant gender dividend through three essential means: (1) women as workers; (2) women as consumers; and (3) women as voters.

Women make up the majority of small business owners across the globe, thus narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates. Women also often influence up to eighty percent of buying decisions in households. In addition, the number of women earning six figure salaries is increasing at double the rate of men earning large incomes. Women can affect economic competitiveness, fiscal health, and sociopolitical stability. Therefore governments that nurture female talent and decision making can become more competitive and can subsequently hasten economic growth — which is becoming increasing more urgent in times of global financial crises. Industries that understand women’s buying preferences and how to market them as consumers, through employing women in leadership positions, can substantially increase their market share. Women are therefore not a niche market — they are the power players in the market.

A 2010 McKinsey & Co. survey found that the majority of executives believed that gender diversity would improve their company’s financial performance. For years males have been dominant in executive boardrooms. In 2010 in America only fifteen percent of board members in large firms were on their boards, thirteen percent in Australia, and ten percent in Europe. This represents a squandered opportunity. Emerging is evidence that mixed-gender boards make better decisions than monolithically male ones. Mindful of this, European countries are also passing laws that would force companies to promote more women to the executive suite. A new French law requires listed firms to reserve forty percent of board seats for women by 2017. Norway and Spain have similar laws; Germany is considering one. Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice commissioner, says she wants European boards to be thirty percent female by 2015 and forty percent by 2020.

There are two main arguments for compulsory quotas. One is that the men who dominate corporate boards promote people like themselves. The second argument is more subtle. Talented executives need mentors to help them climb the ladder. Male directors mentor young men, but are reluctant to get chummy with young women, lest the relationship be misconstrued. Quotas will break this vicious cycle. The lack of role models is no longer the main obstacle to women’s careers: children are. One study found that two-thirds of American women had, at some point in their career, switched from full-time to part-time or flexible time to balance work and family needs. But in doing so, they made it harder for women to gain the experience necessary to make it to the very top, and to be appointed as board members.

Some argue that quotas are too blunt a tool to solve the problem because quotas may force firms either to pad their boards with token non-executive directors, or to allocate real power on the basis of sex rather than merit. Neither is good for corporate governance. Norway started enforcing quotas for women in 2006. A study by the University of Michigan found that this led to large numbers of inexperienced women being appointed to boards. However, firms that addressed the issue by appointing women with a career path that enhanced their skills and promoted gender diversity, were more likely to reap the financial rewards.

The economic gender dividend can be reflected in increased sales, expanded markets, effective recruitment and retention of staff, and a marketing strategy that actually responds to the market. Hence, collectively, the diverse perspectives — of men, women, youth, aged, disenfranchised, and minorities — can lead to more effective economic growth, financial stability, social cohesion, diversity of leadership, and peace.