The Role of Women in Making and Building Peace

Last June in Suai, a small town in Timor-Leste, I held an open day with local women and men to mark the tenth anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. This resolution recognizes the unique impact of conflict on women's lives and highlights their often overlooked contributions to resolving and preventing conflict. It also calls on the international community to involve women fully in every aspect of our work for peace and security.

The discussion at the meeting was lively. Women presented their achievements and shared their ideas on how the international community could better help them reach their goals. Topics ranged from community policing to cross-border reconciliation with communities in Indonesia to domestic violence. I was struck by the energy and diversity of the more than one hundred people who came to voice their concerns. Police officers, local government officials, and community leaders joined scores of ordinary ¬women -- mothers, wives, breadwinners, and heads of household.

My lasting impression of the ¬women of Suai was that they were not demoralized by their past. On the contrary, they radiated energy and resourcefulness. Their stories and work helped me understand that if the United Nations were to make a lasting contribution to peace and stability in Timor-Leste on my watch, it would be by building on the initiative and resilience of these women and helping them become fully involved in determining the country's future.

Women's involvement in decision making is particularly important in Timor-Leste, where men and women are building the economic and social foundations of a stable society and resilient institutions, following a twenty-four-year struggle for independence which claimed the lives of 183,000 Timorese.1

One of the women taking on this challenge is Madalena Bi Dau Soares, a former, long-serving fighter in the Timorese guerilla army. I met Madalena in her home in the Liquiça district to which she had returned in 1999 to set up and run two kindergartens that she financed with her small veteran's pension. When asked why she did it, she gave a simple answer: "I wanted to achieve something good, leave a mark in the community. After fighting for independence, men found other things to do. I wanted the same for me."

Filomena dos Reis is another independence fighter turned grassroots peace activist. She trains Timorese women in mediation, negotiation, and conflict-resolution. In 2005, Filomena and her colleagues organized a cross-border dialogue between Timorese and Indonesians. The initiative was in response to conflicts between communities, due to cattle straying across parts of the border that were not clearly demarcated. To resolve these disputes, the two sides selected sixty people to participate in the dialogue, which was watched by five hundred observers. The talks, which took place over three days in September 2005, resulted in a set of recommendations that were submitted to the Timorese and Indonesian Governments. One of the recommendations was to conclude ongoing negotiations about passes allowing women to move freely between markets on either side of the border. This became a reality in 2010, when the two Governments issued the border passes.

Madalena's and Filomena's achievements are even more impressive in light of the Timorese women's history over the past decades. In fact, women played a significant role in Timor-Leste's struggle for independence. During the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste from 1975 to 1999, women were guerilla fighters and members of the clandestine front. In Timor-Leste and abroad, they advocated against the Indonesian occupation. They brought resistance fighters food, ammunition, and messages, and gave them shelter. Women's organizations also contributed by training ¬women in survival and teaching vocational skills.

The women of Timor-Leste now have a huge stake in reconciliation and peacebuilding initiatives. They want their country to learn from its history in order to have a peaceful and stable future. Nevertheless, women were largely absent from high-level dialogue initiatives to end outbreaks of violence in 1999 and 2006. The situation may, however, be changing. Throughout Timor-Leste, women are leading grassroots reconciliation initiatives, and they are moving into the corridors of power. Indeed, female political participation in Timor-Leste, now comprising 30 per cent of parliament members, is the highest in Southeast Asia. Women also lead the ministries of finance, justice, and social solidarity. Across the country, women are carving out a space for themselves at the national, district, and village levels to address domestic violence, economic hardship, and other issues that affect women and the population at large.

Bearing in mind this history of strength, suffering, and survival, what can the United Nations do to help those women in Timor-Leste and other countries who fight for peace and security for themselves and their families? I think one of our most important roles is to provide positive role models for women's involvement at all levels of decision making. My experience as one of three female Special Representatives of the Secretary-General leading peacekeeping missions is that the presence of a woman in high-level discussions can make a difference. The presence of a female leader can inspire other women in international, national, and local institutions to seek high offices. This was an important motivator for me when I worked in Afghanistan and Sudan, where cultural norms often kept women from holding decision-making positions.

We need female role models at every level of the institutions we support. That is why I encourage police-contributing countries to send a higher proportion of female police officers to Timor-Leste and other countries. The presence of women in uniform sends a clear signal to the population that women have a central role to play in maintaining public safety and security. Timor-Leste is leading the way for the United Nations in this regard -- today, women make up almost 20 per cent of the country's police service, while women represent only 6 per cent of the UN police in the country.

In other areas, however, Timor-Leste can make further strides. For example, only ten of the country's 442 village chiefs are women. The United Nations should do all it can to help women reach such positions of responsibility traditionally reserved for men.

Women in decision-making positions can also ensure that women's concerns and interests are taken into account when choices influencing peace and security are made. From my work in different conflict areas, I know that decision makers often fail to include women's knowledge and interests when making policy. In Afghanistan, for example, the international community did not act as agriculture moved from traditional crops to narcotics. Women were not part of that decision-making process. Another example pertains to the methods used by disarmament programmes to identify combatants, which exclude women associated with or providing support to the armed forces. At the same time, reintegration programmes fail to take into account women's specific needs for livelihoods. This happens even though we know that women's abilities to make a living and provide for their families is a crucial factor in bringing a society back from conflict.

By failing to take advantage of women's thinking and contributions in rural economies, and by underestimating the role women can play in averting the economic collapses that are often at the root of cycles of conflict, we miss important parts of the peace puzzle and risk investing in peace and security solutions that are likely to fail.

The international community has much to learn from Madalena Bi Dau Soares and Filomena dos Reis and their readiness to seek new ways to contribute to the security and well-being of their communities. If peace and stability are to be sustainable, women like them must be involved at every stage, from setting government strategy to carrying out projects, and from voting on laws to implementing them in the communities. As members of the United Nations, we must listen to women, recognize their transformative powers, and defend and promote their inclusion in every way that we can. If we are serious about peace -- and we are -- it is the only way forward.
Notes 1 Chega! The Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation Timor-Leste (CAVR), 2005, www.cavr-timorleste.org