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  • Writer's pictureJoe Reid

‘Add Women and Stir’: How Patriarchy Restricts Intersectionality in Peacebuilding.

How does the understanding of gender influence peacebuilding? Is improving the participation of women enough to create a gender-responsive peacebuilding structure?

It is estimated that currently, 2 billion people live in places affected by violent conflict. A quarter of the global population. With the world experiencing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War, there is a crucial and increasing need for effective peacebuilding to re-stabilise the lives of many.¹


Peacebuilding can be understood as the “development of the constructive personal, group, and political relationships across ethnic, religious, class, national, and racial boundaries”² with the aim of resolving injustice in “nonviolent ways and to transform the structural conditions that generate deadly conflict”.ibid In this case peacebuilding can be understood as an umbrella concept that encompasses a variety of processes that vary extensively based upon the contexts of each individual peacebuilding action. In turn, these individual peacebuilding actions will vary depending on the actors involved, the context in which they are operating and the desired outcome of the process. For example, this can manifest itself in the forms of transitional justice mechanisms at both the international level, such as the International Criminal Court and international criminal tribunals and at the local level in the case of traditional transitional justice mechanisms such as Gacaca courts in Rwanda and Mato Oput in Northern Uganda.³·⁴ Or community healing and capacity-building initiatives such as truth and reconciliation commissions and United Nations peacebuilding initiatives.⁵·⁶ However, as with all social institutions and practices, these processes are inevitably shaped by social order and the power relations embedded in such social orders/ social dynamics, and therefore, patriarchy and the gendered hierarchies that come with it.


In the case of peacebuilding, this means that initiatives are often dominated by male elites and the voices of women and marginalised communities often go unheard as their participation is marginalised, undermined and overlooked.⁷ The global dominance of patriarchy within societies globally, and the effect this has on the lives of individuals and communities of all genders, is of course not a recently discovered phenomenon, and therefore, activists, scholars and communities have been challenging what this means for peacebuilding for some time.  

There have been advances in opening up and adapting peacebuilding initiatives to be more inclusive. Inducted into the United Nations Security Council’s agenda in 2000, the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda through the UNSC Resolution 1325,  aimed to increase “the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in peacemaking, conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts”.⁸ This led to the later establishment of the United Nations Political and Peacebuilding Affairs stand-alone Gender, Peace and Security Unit in 2016, which aims to streamline and prioritise gender issues into peacebuilding affairs. This codified advancement has to be recognised as both significant and positive. However, it has been debated that this hasn't led to significant change on the ground in peacebuilding operations. As is common with United Nations proceedings, due to its central role of being a diplomatic body, words and policy often do not equate to equal action on the ground. 

In the case of gender equality, this can often view peacebuilding interventions as ‘not practicing what they preach’ as their gender inclusive intentions often become behest to patriarchal norms in management and programme delivery structures and local social and cultural norms.⁹

At the core of this is the reality that both gender and peacebuilding are highly contested concepts, and the ambiguity of these terms at the international level, coupled with the localised contexts within which peacebuilding efforts need to operate to be successful, associating the two topics together can “make matters worse than better”.¹⁰

Navigating this phenomenon is understandably difficult as any kind of successful cross-cultural initiative needs to make space for cultural relativity and compromise to be inclusive of such. However, this can then negate the importance and complex nature of gender in times of conflict and post-conflict contexts, as gender increasingly becomes seen as an ‘add on’ or ‘box to be ticked’ within peacebuilding initiatives.¹¹

Patriarchy plays a key role in perpetuating the sex/gender binary (the idea that there are only two genders which are instinctively linked to the two sex categories of male and female) and the androcentric and heteronormative assumptions that come with this understanding of gender. In doing so this restricts the acknowledgement and understanding of intersectional identities within society and subsequently simplifies gendered approaches to peacebuilding. Intersectionality can be understood as the ways in which systems of inequality and discrimination based on individual characteristics such as race, gender, sexuality, disability, class etc can intersect with one and other to create unique dynamics and experiences of discrimination and inequality.¹² 

This leads to a situation in which, despite the progress made in incorporating women into peacebuilding, actors still struggle to incorporate ‘gender’ as a non-heteronormative binary within both top-down and bottom-up forms of peacebuilding. This reality has been referred to by some as the ‘add women and stir’ approach.¹³ A phenomenon that sees the simplistic understanding of gender which is predominated by patriarchal norms leads to a situation where gender stereotypes are reinforced rather than challenged in peacebuilding initiatives. This in turn can lead to a situation where gendered inequalities which acted as catalysts for conflict, or gendered experiences of violence during conflict, are not tackled and therefore jeopardise the chance of peace being lasting and transformative.¹⁴

Intersectionality is key to feminist peacebuilding as aforementioned, if an approach does not recognise the intersecting dimensions of an individual's identity it is likely to reinforce injustices.¹⁵ Moreover, the recognition that women are too often included in peacebuilding as a homogenous group removes the opportunity for post-conflict analysis to be multi-layered and thus able to fully understand the interplay between entrenched power systems.¹⁶

A well-documented example of this is the exclusion of marginalised communities from peacebuilding and transitional justice mechanisms in Nepal. Following a decade of civil war Nepal’s post-conflict federalisation noted the correlation between inclusion and stability and within the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement spaces were made to tackle inequality and exclusion linked to ethnicity, religion, caste and gender.¹⁷ However, initiatives which were guided by the UN Women, Peace and Security agenda with the intention of making peacebuilding more inclusive, were in reality almost entirely focused on cisgender heterosexual women.¹⁸ Alongside this, these practices were being implemented into a wider culture dominated by both patriarchal norms and values, and hegemonic and militarised masculinities following the conflict.ibid Therefore, even where provisions were made, significant progress did not follow as the focus remained on ‘elite’ and male-focussed forums and processes. 

The significant lack of progress relating to transitional justice for those who were victims of gender-based violence during the war is a clear case where patriarchal norms hindered progress. Out of the nearly 60,000 cases submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only 300 have been cases of sexual violence.¹⁹ Indicating the remaining stigma around sexual and gender-based violence, and the fact that despite gender being ‘included’ in this process women and marginalised communities played little part in formal processes.

This is compounded by the structural inequalities often suffered by gender-based violence victims of ‘lower caste’ communities such as a lack of access to police stations and subsequently the time and financial means to get there.²⁰ Indicating how structural, cultural and gender inequalities have intersected to create a unique form of discrimination in this case. This has been documented within the wider structure of male dominated and ‘elite’ led transitional justice processes which can “alienate and even delegitimize grassroots victim-centred activism or reduce consultations with such groups to a form of tokenism”.²¹ Thus, where spaces are made to include women, it is often women from more privileged backgrounds who dominate. This has led to a wider distrust of broader peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts within the country meaning that many of the inequalities that existed before and contributed to, the conflict still largely remain.²² 

This provides a clear example of the aforementioned gap between ‘gender mainstreaming’ and the inclusion of intersectional identities in peacebuilding and transitional justice mechanisms caused by simplistic interpretations of gender within a patriarchal system. Although it is clear there was an effort to include a focus on gender in the post-conflict reconciliation processes, it fell short of providing for many individuals and communities who were overlooked due to the shortcomings of this interpretation rooted in patriarchal assumptions. Moreover, where women's participation has been improved, this has not been matched in women’s and marginalised communities’ ability to influence decision-making.²³

This case is a well-reported example of the wider phenomena of peacebuilding and transitional justice mechanisms failing to recognise, include, and provide for many women and marginalised communities due to the intersectional nature of their discrimination. With the recognition that entrenched gender regimes can be reinforced and exacerbated within, and persist after conflict, more needs to be done to ensure that peacebuilding initiatives are as inclusive as possible.²⁴ 


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