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Give Women a Chance to Make Peace in Mindanao

April 25, 2012

By Eileen Pennington

The southern Philippines’ island of Mindanao has suffered through decades of violent conflict. As the opposing parties explore prospects for an enduring peace, a new study commissioned by The Asia Foundation demonstrates that one key to long-term conflict resolution will be the women of Mindanao. In “Gender and Conflict in Mindanao,” researchers Leslie Dwyer of George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution and Rufa Cagoco-Guiam of the Institute for Peace and Development at Mindanao State University-General Santos City, combine field study with a deep literature review to identify opportunities for higher impact, gender-inclusive programming in conflict resolution, as well as areas for further research and investment. The study, which The Asia Foundation launches tomorrow, April 26, in Washington, D.C., offers both encouragement and critical insights for those engaged with the people of Mindanao on peace and development.

Peace in Mindanao

In Mindanao, the greatest involvement of women in conflict resolution remains at the grassroots level, where women have played key roles in mediating long-running conflicts. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Dwyer and Cagoco-Guiam reinforce the growing international consensus (codified in U.N. Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 and 1820) that for it to succeed, women need to be meaningfully involved in all levels of peace-building, from the grassroots to national and international efforts. The government of the Philippines has advanced this agenda, having engaged women as part of its peace panels for more than a decade, and in 2010 becoming the first country in Asia to create a National Action Plan for Women and Security pursuant to UNSCRs 1325/1820. In a major breakthrough in 2011, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the government’s counterpart for peace negotiations, named two women as consultants to its peace panel for the first time. These positive steps demonstrate the important role that international advocacy can play in helping to bring women into the process of conflict resolution and peace-building.

Yet all too often, even when women are included in peace-building processes, it is in numbers too small to be meaningful or in positions too marginalized to be influential. In Mindanao, the greatest involvement of women in conflict resolution remains at the grassroots level, where women have played key roles in mediating long-running conflicts. The study argues that Mindanaoan women have underutilized capacities for resolving peace, such as greater mobility to travel outside the home compared to men, and insight into the everyday impacts of a conflict, that should be capitalized upon to build a just, sustainable peace. Unfortunately, the temptation in many conflict-affect situations is still to provide fleeting opportunities for women’s voices to be “heard” rather than risk disturbing power equilibriums by bringing women into more central and influential roles in the process of conflict resolution.

President Obama recently noted in a speech at the White House Forum on Women and the Economy that “women are not some monolithic bloc.”  This points to a persistent challenge: how can participation be broadened and deepened so that women, whose interests are as varied and divergent as men’s, are equally represented?  Dwyer and Cagoco-Guiam caution against having the voices of a subset of (usually) elite women serve as the sole representatives for what “all women” want and need. Token representation, or representation without influence, risks reinforcing the view that women’s participation does not lead to meaningful differences in outcomes. In the face of such complexity, the necessity of being deeply grounded in the local context is indisputable, and the researchers argue that it is critical to conduct a robust gender analysis to understand how the roles, opportunities, needs, and constraints of men and women may differ.

The study also points to the importance of providing tailored services to men and women. For example, in Mindanao, mobile vocational training services could help men to deal with the reduced mobility that has resulted from years of conflict that have trapped many men inside the home in order to avoid being caught up in the strife. The subsequent limited opportunities for education and earning have forced many men out of their traditional roles as breadwinners, but left few alternatives. For women, targeted services such as supporting woman-owned micro-businesses would protect the empowerment gains that have been made while reducing the strain that comes from taking on additional roles without reducing the traditional burdens women carry. Gender-sensitive programming, in other words, is about both women and men. Still, a critical question remains – how can women’s empowerment gains be protected so that the transformations in women’s roles lead to greater power and agency, and not to exhaustion, as women take on both the breadwinner and nurturer roles in the conflict-affected household?

Success in solving this problem will most certainly involve concerted efforts from both men and women, but the pay-off will be considerable – enhanced resiliency of individuals and of whole communities, and the increased likelihood that an equitable, durable peace will emerge.

Eileen Pennington is the associate director for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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