This briefing paper collates the perspectives and approaches of 63 women peacebuilders from 39 countries, members of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), who gathered in spring of 2022 during ICAN’s 9th Women, Peace, and Security Forum “Reclaiming Power, Restoring Peace”.
Drawing on their analysis and experiences and reflecting on the decade that followed the first ICAN forum in 2012, the paper seeks to inform international policy debates and offer recommendations for programming.
Women peacebuilders identified seven actions and strategies that center self-reliance, movement-building, and innovative collaborations to expand their reach, impact, and communities of practice:
- Emergency First Responders in Climate Crises and Conflict
- The Triple Nexus in Practice: Food, Water, Energy, Health, Education, Livelihoods, and Peace
- Self-Reliance through Self-Resourcing and Solidarity
- Advocacy through Public Activism
- Citizen Peacebuilding: Raising Awareness, Broadening Participation
- Peace Education for a Pluralistic World
- Diaspora as Peacebuilders
“In the midst of a world in turmoil, the solidarity, energy and solutions that peacebuilders shared at the ICAN 2022 Forum revealed new depths of possibility and potential for positive change. Scaling the work of women peacebuilders across communities to create a vibrant ecosystem of community led efforts is both possible and necessary.”
What The Women Do: Seven Actions
1. Emergency First Responders in Climate Crises and Conflict
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and governments failed to adequately deliver social services, women peacebuilders stepped up as emergency first responders. Many adapted their peacebuilding work to include urgent pandemic response, supporting the drafting of response plans and addressing issues such as food insecurity, disease awareness, distribution of personal protective equipment and mental health and psychosocial support. The wealth of trust they built in their communities through their peacebuilding work and their deep cultural understanding enabled them to respond rapidly, effectively, and holistically to the crisis. For example, in Pakistan, a network of women peacebuilders established by PAIMAN Alumni Trust to identify radicalization and prevent violent extremism mobilized to distribute personal protective equipment, using traditional rooftop communication networks to share health guidance. In other countries women peacebuilders supported framing of social distancing and hygiene messaging in culturally appropriate ways, translating COVID-19 guidelines into local languages, and challenging xenophobic myths and conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.
In turn, the trust and access women peacebuilders gained through their humanitarian and emergency response efforts strengthened their peacebuilding work. By providing aid and cooperating across territories, they initiated dialogue and forged relationships. By reaching out to marginalized populations, women peacebuilders alleviated tensions among social groups. For instance, in Yemen Food4Humanity repaired water pumping stations to prevent local conflict among communities. Women peacebuilders have also leveraged the distribution of food packages and medical supplies as an entry point for negotiating ceasefires between armed groups, by asking them to provide a humanitarian corridor.
2. The Triple Nexus in Practice: Food, Water, Energy, Health, Education, Livelihoods, and Peace
Women peacebuilders increasingly and intuitively integrate their interventions across the “triple nexus” of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding work. Many incorporate humanitarian and development interventions ¬– such as livelihoods, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship skills training – alongside their peacebuilding. These approaches complement each other organically when they have the flexibility to evolve their programming according to the needs of their communities. The effects are mutually reinforcing: beneficiaries who receive livelihood support later become engaged as community peace ambassadors; small livelihood projects offer opportunities for communities in conflict to come together and work towards a shared objective; and economic activities support integration of internally displaced persons or serve as positive alternatives to participation in violent extremist groups.
Women peacebuilders view peacebuilding through a holistic lens. The provision of humanitarian and development assistance is a critical component of their work, because the equitable distribution of (food, water, energy, financial) resources and opportunities for employment and education are necessary prerequisites for positive peace. At the 2022 forum, women peacebuilders noted the importance of identifying new opportunities to exchange knowledge with experts in other sectors, for instance around sustainable energy production, engaging in crisis response, mapping and tracking economic markets, food production and water management. The key limiting factor for further expansion of their work along the triple nexus is the dominant, siloed donor funding structure, which constrains their ability to implement holistic and flexible approaches.
3. Self-Reliance through Self-Resourcing and Solidarity
Where donor funding is scarce, women peacebuilders have found new ways to autonomously fund and sustain their work. In light of growing insecurity, and the rigidity and reduced availability of donor funding, several WASL members have made strides towards implementing income generation and self-resourcing strategies. In Yemen, the Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF) has developed a café to serve as a safe learning space for women and girls and uses the income generated to support the organization. In Cameroon, Pathways for Women’s Empowerment and Development (PaWED) operates a women-led poultry farm, which provides livelihoods for women while simultaneously funding the organization’s peacebuilding activities.
In addition to financial self-reliance, several WASL members have strengthened their organization’s resilience to environmental threats such as climate change and power outages by installing solar panels. Self-reliance strategies also involve protection from physical security threats, for instance targeting and retaliation by armed groups, by implementing physical security measures around their offices and places of work such as building walls, setting up camera systems, and hiring guards and security officers. Self-reliance requires staying energetic and motivated by maintaining good mental health and healing from trauma. Women peacebuilders are increasingly implementing strategies to maintain the emotional well-being of themselves and their staff, including by integrating psychosocial and mental health support into their operations, leaning on their own skills as psychologists and social workers, seeing therapists, and finding time to carry out spiritual practices.Several WASL members are providing trainings and accompaniment to their peers to improve their self-reliance and equip them with the tools to further the resilience and capacities of their communities.
The Secure, Here, Now tool, designed and implemented by Corporación de Investigación y Acción Social y Económica (CIASE) leads women peacebuilders through a holistic process to address their physical, cognitive-emotional, economic, political, and spiritual safety. Neem Foundation organizes trainings to build the capacity of women-led peacebuilding organizations to provide counseling and psychosocial support in their communities. Finally, locally rooted and globally connected networks like WASL and the solidarity they provide are essential for fostering the self-reliance of women peacebuilders. When WASL members have faced intimidation, threats, or even violence against themselves or their families in retaliation for their peacebuilding work, others are there for them: offering words of support, sharing their own experiences, providing practical advice, and taking action. WASL members have advocated for the release of peacebuilders from detention, ensuring and providing protection, and assisting with evacuation and resettlements for those at risk
4. Advocacy through Public Activism
Women peacebuilders effectively deploy activist methods such as non-violent protest, civil disobedience, alliance-building, and movement organizing that fall outside of traditional NGO funding and project structures. Women have long been at the forefront of such protest movements. From the 2011-12 revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, to the October 2019 protests in Iraq, the Myanmar struggle for democracy, the Sudan revolution and in 2022 Iran, women are present, organized and vocal in public spaces.
In Latin America they are leading indigenous and social movements for the environment. Historically and across the world, women-led movements have tended to be grounded in non-violent action and transformation. Their movements are also highly inclusive, protecting and advocating for the needs of everyone in their communities, including men.
That said, a persistent risk that many have encountered is the takeover by other forces, once a conflict reaches the point of negotiations, or an authoritarian state is toppled. For women peacebuilders, approaching their work as movement-building is critical to sustainability and authenticity. It is also more engaging than using short-term projects and NGO-centric language as it reaches a broader swath of people who then participate as citizens, rather than beneficiaries.
Conducting peacebuilding advocacy through activism and protest instills public ownership: the messages belong to the people, rather than being set and approved by funders. Activist tactics also allow women peacebuilders to operate entirely outside of existing power structures and institutions, vocally demonstrating their resistance and practicing the new structures they envision.
Finally, besides being an advocacy tool, protests can themselves be a peacebuilding strategy. They build unity around shared aims of peace, justice, and equality; provide a sense of agency, hope, and purpose; and offer a non-violent avenue to channel grievances.
5. Citizen Peacebuilding: Raising Awareness, Broadening Participation
Peacebuilding as a practice, especially in the realm of civil society and among ordinary citizens is still relatively nascent. But peacebuilders see the need and urgency for greater awareness and involvement of citizens in efforts to mitigate the polarization and rising hate speech and weaponization of identity within their communities and nations.
In Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya and elsewhere, women peacebuilders have successfully trained local, “insider” mediators to resolve problems before they escalate into violence. Women peacebuilders have also recruited, trained, and organized cohorts of local peacebuilders who engage in advocacy, conflict resolution, and extremisms prevention. In Tunisia, for instance, Ahlem Nasraoui, President of Young Leaders Entrepreneurs organized a virtual hackathon to bring together young people during which they developed gendered peacebuilding projects.
Women peacebuilders have also recognized the importance of engaging the media to share their work and approach. They highlight the importance of media training and production in their grant proposals, including podcasts and alternative forms of media outreach. Since the media require short, messaging, a key issue is enabling and building peacebuilders’ confidence to share their stories and the tangible impact of their work. International recognition and awards are also essential for enabling them to access media outlets. That said, because peacebuilding is often sensitive and nuanced work in highly polarized contexts, there can also be significant risks as messages can be edited and warped out of context. Visibility is therefore a double-edged sword and working with trusted media outlets is essential.
To sustain and develop peacebuilding practices, it is vital to train and educate the next generation of peacebuilders, not only to pass the baton and to bring new energy and ideas to the field. Younger peacebuilders generally have a better understanding of social media and its effective use for outreach. WASL members are involved in developing and integrating peace education curricula and clubs in schools, teacher trainings and recruiting young people as peace ambassadors. The inclusion of young people in peacebuilding processes is also needed. In Liberia, for instance, youth-led organizations participated in national peace and security meetings and fora. Looking ahead, documenting women’s peacebuilding methodologies, best practices, and guidance will be critical to ensure knowledge transfer to the next generation.
6. Peace Education for a Pluralistic World
Women peacebuilders understand that peace education is an essential method for promoting the knowledge, skills, values and mindset needed to dismantle cultures of violence and war, while building capacities for nonviolent conflict resolution and the respect and practice of human rights, pluralism, and equality.
In a world where educational, media and religious spaces (schools, universities, mosques, churches, temples) are increasingly fragmented and captured by political and extremist movements that spread rigid interpretations of religion and culture, and weaponize identity, peace education is an urgent and vital antidote.Across the WASL network, women peacebuilders such as Bushra Hyder and Mossarat Qadeem from Pakistan have developed peace education curricula that can be scaled up and adapted by women peacebuilders in other contexts.
Their curricula promote inclusivity, pluralism, active citizenship, and the peaceful resolution of conflict and include modules on shared cultural heritage, modalities of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, peace and religions of the world, and human rights, cooperative values and active communication. They integrate arts and culture in their teaching, as well as volunteerism and exchanges with other faiths and identity groups.
In Nigeria, Libya and Iraq, members have developed curricula on the nexus of Islam and Peacebuilding to counter extremist ideologies and provide youth with peaceful alternatives to practice their faith. The efforts to widen faith-based teachings that celebrate diversity and promote gender equality is also critical to the work of WASL members in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
7. Diaspora as Peacebuilders
Heightened levels of global insecurity have forced a growing number of women peacebuilders to leave their home countries and continue their work from the diaspora. At the 2022 forum, women peacebuilders from countries including Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Ukraine shared their migration journeys and the complexity that comes with practicing peacebuilding from the diaspora.
They described the difficult circumstances that they faced balancing their peacebuilding work in exile with the financial, logistical, and psychological challenges that come with emigration. Staying engaged in activism helps many feel connected to their countries of origin. It can also be a strategy for managing the emotional trauma and loss of control that comes with being distant from their homeland and its people.
Working from the diaspora, however, can also offer new opportunities for keeping the attention on their countries and advocating solutions to the international community. Communication platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal are immensely helpful in maintaining a connection to people back home and to other diaspora members who share messages of support and hope.
But diaspora activism can also prompt vicarious trauma and anxiety. Women peacebuilders may feel guilty about living in relative safety while their home countries are experiencing violence.
Many feel obligated to provide financial remittances, even when their own economic situation is precarious. Despite their best efforts to stay connected with their home countries, women peacebuilders often struggle to sustain their legitimacy while living abroad.
Access to mental health and psychosocial support, and to an ecosystem of diaspora peacebuilders that can relate to and validate their experiences is therefore critical. Maintaining their membership and participation in global networks such as WASL is also crucial, since often the skills and experiences gained in one setting can be adapted to others. This opportunity to share their knowledge and experience with peers across other countries is personally validating, professionally enhancing and has immense value and impact for their peers.
“As conflicts, climate and other crises ebb and flow, the women peacebuilders at the frontlines will remain the first responders and the points of contact for the delivery of assistance to marginalized regions and communities. They bring a deep reserve of cultural and political know-how, trust, and care, because it is their homes and communities that are at risk. But they cannot do the work alone. Support for their localized efforts, including capacity and technical resources to address the food, water, health, and energy crises that may arise is crucial.”