Advocating for peace

How women contribute at the negotiating table and to building lasting peace

Dr. Marie Louise Baricako, President of Inamahoro (second from right), speaking at the workshop, the Mediation Role of Women in Peace Processes, held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in October 2020, with the sponsorship of the African Union and UNESCO’s CRÉA-PAIX (Communautés Régionale pour l’Autonomisation et la Paix).

Photo: Courtesy Miriam Anderson

During peace talks to bring about the end of a war or armed conflict, most of the people at the negotiation table have historically been men. Yet involving women in the process brings many benefits: from longer lasting peace to greater representation of women in politics once the conflict is over. But a successful peace agreement doesn’t guarantee a “happily ever after.” When circumstances shift back to conflict or unrest, the same women who helped build peace may find themselves playing new kinds of roles. Miriam Anderson, associate professor of global politics at Toronto Metropolitan University and visiting fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is working with a group of such women in East Africa to learn how the networks they create support them personally and in their peace advocacy work.

“When you exclude women from negotiations, you’re missing out on the viewpoints and interests of half the population,” says Anderson. “And it’s the half that is disproportionately affected by sexual violence, displacement and other consequences of armed conflict, so what they have to say is vitally important.”

Women’s peace is more than the absence of war

As part of her PhD research, Anderson looked at the role women played in negotiating the 2000 peace agreement signed in Burundi following seven years of civil war. That agreement led to the adoption of a 30-percent electoral quota for women in parliament. Post-conflict election results exceeded that target, with women currently holding about 38 percent of the seats in the lower house—a significant increase over the prewar total of around 12 percent.

These results are not unique to Burundi. Peace negotiations involving women have seen women’s rights issues advanced in Colombia, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and other countries. Anderson says one of the reasons for these achievements is that women tend to come from a wider variety of roles within civil society, enabling them to bring to the table the perspectives of more of the population. They also have a broader conception of peace itself and what a peaceful society should look like after the treaty is signed.

Meeting organized by Inamahoro in Kigali, Rwanda, on March 8, 2020, in celebration of International Women’s Day. The theme was “I belong to Generation Equality: Stand up for women’s rights.”

Photo: Courtesy Miriam Anderson

“The feminist conception of peace is about more than just the absence of war,” she says. “For these women, peace is about feeling safe in their homes and when walking their kids to school, and having food to eat and access to employment.”

Activists in exile

Although women helped bring about peace in Burundi in 2000, the situation has since deteriorated, with the government becoming increasingly authoritarian. Protests in 2015, many of them led by women, including some who were peace activists during the war and had since become parliamentarians and senators, were met with violence. This forced these women, along with thousands of other Burundians, to flee the country, many arriving as refugees in neighbouring Rwanda.

Having formed relationships with these women during her PhD research, Anderson was interested in what would happen next. With a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, she is now working with Mouvement Inamahoro, the group formed by those women, to learn how they are continuing their advocacy from outside the country.

“What does a women’s peace organization do when there is no armed conflict, no active negotiations, but they still see themselves as working for peace?” asks Anderson.

Poster: "Peace is your business. It is at the market, it is in your working place. All of us need to make sure that we are acting for peace. And until we act for peace, it will not happen." — Marie Louise Baricako

Photo: Courtesy Miriam Anderson

To answer that question, she interviewed the group’s members, starting with in-person visits in Rwanda but shifting to online video calls during COVID-19. She asked about members’ reasons for joining Inamahoro, the roles they play in the organization, what peace means to them and how their work shifted to humanitarian response during the pandemic. As part of her commitment to a participatory approach, Anderson also explored questions of interest to Inamahoro leadership, including asking for members’ thoughts on the objectives of the organization and whether it is heading in the right direction.

She found that while belief in the cause was a driving force for most women, many also joined for the friendships and social connections that helped them feel less alone and isolated.

Raising awareness of the forgotten peace activists

While larger geo-political conflicts and the people they displace often attract global awareness and support, Anderson says it’s important to remember that smaller, less high-profile situations like the one in Burundi can also produce refugees who also need support. By shining a light on the work of grassroots-level activists in areas without active conflicts, she hopes her research will encourage our government and international agencies like the United Nations to recognize the importance of organizations like Inamahoro and dedicate resources to support them.

“Burundi is a small country and now that it’s not actually at war, it’s a bit forgotten,” says Anderson. “But the political situation there has driven more than 50,000 refugees into the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda alone. There’s so much more we could be doing to help.”

Learn more

To learn more about Miriam Anderson’s work on women peace activists, read her paper, “From Peace Talks to Pandemics: The Continuum of Feminist Peace Activism”. You can also follow Anderson on X and Bluesky Social.