By Helena Gronberg

As weeks of lock downs, remote work, and stay-at-home orders turn into months, at ICAN we continue to regularly connect virtually with our partners in the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL). These weekly calls, which are a unique window into the realities on the ground in war-affected countries that are now also deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, also serve as solidarity and community-building for all of us.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” said the UN Secretary General when he issued a call for a global ceasefire on March 23, 2020. While the SG’s appeal was applauded, in January 2020, ICAN and WASL issued the first call for a cessation of war, stating:

[T]he blood being shed, the destruction, the violence and billions being spent on bombs and drones provide no solutions…we know that in fraught times, peace may seem impossible. But it is not. It requires the courage to face each other. [E]ven if violence has brought us deep personal loss or our narratives and existence seem to contradict each other, we must talk and we must listen. We must not shoot. For only in doing so, can we find our shared humanity and our interdependence in this world.”

When the pandemic took hold, our partners were among the first to respond and focus on saving lives while still calling for ceasefires and inclusive negotiated solutions.

On May 7, we were joined by H.E. Ann Linde, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, as the discussions focused on how the pandemic is impacting current peace processes. In particular, we explored questions around ensuring inclusivity and transparency, the opportunities and challenges of virtual convenings, and the continued activism of women peacebuilders. Touching on several of the global conflicts in her remarks, Minister Linde reinforced Sweden’s commitment to ensuring women’s meaningful participation in peace processes, including access to digital tools.


 “Now more than ever, the ability of the international community to manage conflict is put to the test” – H. E. Ann Linde, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs

Speaking Truth to Power

Fearing the loss of attention to the ongoing wars, many of the WASL members have increased their public advocacy. Syrian women peacebuilders have published numerous open letters, including to the Security Council, calling for a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian support, and the release of detainees. The spread of COVID-19 has made the issue of political prisoners’ release ever more urgent as the virus threatens crowded prisons already struggling with inadequate sanitation and healthcare. Women peacebuilders in Yemen advocated early on for a ceasefire to ensure an emergency medical response and followed soon with a call for the release of detainees. Through a joint statement that was disseminated widely to policymakers and other stakeholders, the women argued that while the war kept raging, the little attention that the Yemen war had received had all but disappeared. Among other things, the statement called on all parties to: 

“Adhere to an emergency ground and aerial ceasefire to allow health and aid workers to work in safety and ensure that civilians in conflict zones can access medical care and humanitarian assistance.”

It also advised that the international community partner with grassroots initiatives and community-based women and youth networks to maximize impact and effectiveness of COVID-19 responses. Several WASL partners in conflict-affected countries were some of the first to draft COVID-19 emergency response plans and launch awareness-raising campaigns, and they put together strategies to provide medical supplies. Inevitably, the access and expertise that allows them to carry out this work also speaks volumes to the benefits of including women when issues of a country’s future are negotiated and agreed upon. That such networks have invaluable knowledge of the local contexts—as well as access—has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Yet, WASL partners noted that the UN-led peace process is taking Yemeni women backward. They fear that the result—at best—will be a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties who do not care about what happens to the people.

 “By excluding women, we are not listening to the real signs of what could go wrong,” the women argue. Rather, “warring parties get incentives for taking up arms: they are listened to when they take up arms.”

Syrian women are equally worried and have been spearheading appeals to push forward with both the political and constitutional processes in an inclusive manner. The UN Mission in Libya gets equally low ratings by WASL partners who are surprised that it has been allowed to make the same mistakes for years without correction or review. While there is no shortage of competent women, the international community pays no attention to them and bombs keep falling. In Libya, WASL partners say, exclusion is always political or ideological as inclusion exists in the legislation.

COVID-19 is also affecting the Sudan peace talks. With already low numbers of women, there is no improvement in sight. Women peacebuilders are putting their efforts towards responding to COVID-19. This demonstration of commitment to the well-being of Sudanese population in itself should be the reason for their inclusion in the Sudan transitional and peace talks, yet women peacebuilders are receiving little or no support.

In Colombia, WASL partners report that the pandemic has all but halted the implementation of an already fragile peace agreement. There is a real risk that the gendered stipulations of the agreement will be sidelined as discussions focus on how to reallocate resources. While the National Liberation Army (ELN) declared a one-month unilateral ceasefire in early April to allow for humanitarian aid to come through, that ceasefire has now been broken, particularly negatively impacting women in the affected regions. New confrontations have also led to increased displacement of civilians.

 A clear message from many partners is that the COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity for more ceasefires to help countries fight the coronavirus pandemic, but also to implement more inclusive processes as modalities have to change and adapt. Yet too much energy is still being spent on pushing for 25-30% women participation quotas. Energy should be placed on preparedness for being at the table, rather than getting there. 

 There is an urgent need to shift the focus from sharing power to sharing responsibility, said ICAN’s CEO, Sanam Anderlini, as those with power are not taking responsibility and those with less power are carrying the burden of responsibility.

The day after our call, the United States proved just that by blocking a proposed UN Security Council Resolution on global ceasefires over objections to an indirect reference to the World Health Organization. It now remains to be seen what actions will be taken by the international community to stop fighting and save lives. Meanwhile, women peacebuilders keep stepping up and providing gender responsive emergency assistance in hopes of a COVID-sensitive peace. 

Mind the Gap: Technology as a Connector & Disconnector

A final message to the international community came from across the network. Inclusivity also means decreasing the digital divide and closing the gender gap in access to technology.  In several partner countries access to internet is still low and women peacebuilders have neither computers nor software to communicate and engage with external partners.

The international community and donors can help solve this problem by allowing local peacebuilding organizations to have greater flexibility in allocating resources and allowing them to invest in technology and institutional development alongside programming activities.

We were happy to again be joined by Canadian Senator Mobina Jaffer, chair of ICAN’s board, who appealed to Minister Linde to ensure that women on the ground get the resources needed to help their communities. A heartful thank you also to Karolina Vrethem, Deputy Director at the Swedish MFA, for joining us and for her continued support to the WASL community.

Summaries of the rest of the calls can be accessed here

The WASL calls are held weekly on Thursdays at 9am EDT.

For more information please contact Melinda Holmes, WASL Program Director

+1 202-355-8220

1126 16th Street NW Suite 250, Washington, DC 20036

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