It is now 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement opened up a new landscape of peace in Northern Ireland. Today, we share our experience in building and sustaining peace with others seeking to end conflict and the terrible suffering that accompanies it. One element of the Northern Ireland peace process of keen interest to peacebuilders is its remarkable focus on cross-community initiatives, and in particular the crucial role that women played throughout the peace process negotiations.
While there is a powerful story to tell about women’s engagement in the Northern Irish peace process, our example is far from perfect. Women were neither institutionally supported nor intentionally involved in the peace process by the main parties in the negotiations. The women of Northern Ireland had to win their seats at the table through their own determined efforts. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was born across a dinner table in April 1996. It was a grassroots, cross-community initiative that wanted to ensure women were “written into, rather than out of” the peace process. In the space of six weeks it founded a political party and succeeded in gaining two seats for women at the peace table. Those two women drafted language on crucial issues such as integrated housing, mixed schooling, victims and reconciliation that has had a lasting impact on Northern Irish society.
In 2019, it is understood that when women are meaningfully involved in peace processes, there is a far more significant chance of a longer-lasting and more inclusive peace. The fact that we do not always see this understanding translated into action on the ground is both baffling and frustrating. Nowhere is this missed opportunity more evident than in the current peace process underway in Yemen, which remains perhaps the gravest country situation on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council.
The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition’s expertise was rooted in a firm understanding of the local community. Beyond the formalized network of the coalition, women from all communities and backgrounds at every level of society in Northern Ireland were and continue to be agents for change and peacebuilders in their everyday lives. Likewise, Yemeni women’s groups are working within communities and across political divides. They have called for an immediate cease-fire. They have activated local truce committees for local security. And they have led efforts to restore educational and health facilities.
Similar to the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Yemeni women’s groups have also advocated for a broadening of the agenda, calling for due attention to be given to gender-aware disarmament, demobilization and the reintegration of female and child soldiers into society.
Integrated schooling was introduced into the Good Friday Agreement because these Northern Irish women knew how much further they had to walk to bring their children safely to school. Similarly in Yemen, knowing the lay of the local land, women have facilitated access for humanitarian deliveries, working to improve the dire situation facing the population.
These groups have much in common, but with one crucial difference: Yemeni women are not at the table. They do not have a formal and recognized voice with which they can influence the peace process. They are not completely excluded, and the work of the Special Envoy of the U.N. Secretary General for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, in creating the Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Board is certainly commendable. Yet proximity is not enough. Yemeni women cannot be left on the sidelines, on the outside looking in. These highly qualified women need to be formally involved in all stages of the process.
Following 20 years of sustaining peace in my country, the case study of the women of Northern Ireland remains the exception in peace processes, not the norm. The work of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition continues to inspire many. Its leaders have gone on to share their experiences across the globe, from Colombia, where women played an important role in the peace process, to Syria, where women activists hope they, too, can take their rightful seat at the negotiations table. Recent developments underline for us the importance of maintaining cross-community and cross-generational experience sharing.
We will continue to share the stories of women peacebuilders, but this is not an area where Ireland wants to stand alone. More needs to be done to systematically involve women from the beginning; not as an afterthought and not as a token; not focused solely on women’s issues but seen as equals, experts in their respective areas.
History needs Herstory. It is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.