Balance Aside, Experts Tout Vital Role Women Play in Peace Talks | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Balance Aside, Experts Tout Vital Role Women Play in Peace Talks

WASHINGTON (CN) - On heightened alert after terrorist attacks in Brussels that morning, members of Congress focused Tuesday on the vital role women play in countering violent extremism.

When women participate in peacemaking efforts, those processes result in agreements 98 percent of the time, and are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years, said Jacqueline O'Neill, director of the Institute for Inclusive Security, citing recent research.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing O'Neill addressed opened just hours after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for fatal terror attacks in Belgium today at the Brussels airport and a metro station near European Union headquarters.

Hassan Abbas, a professor at the National Defense University, told the committee that the issue is not one of gender inclusion for its own sake, but a necessity given the effectiveness of women as de-escalators.

Citing research conducted between 1991 and 2007, Abbas said in his written testimony that female police officers "tend to be better than their male counterparts at de-escalating violent situations and are less likely to be involved in police brutality."

"When there are more women, there are less complaints of excessive use of force," Abbas said of female officers. More female officers can also translate into more women coming forward to report violent crimes, Abbas said.

Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who chairs the committee, noted that women's exclusion from peace talks also causes their rights and interests to suffer.

Only 1 percent of 600 peace agreements from 1990 to 2009 referenced violence against women, Royce said.

"Women on my staff made the point that we need to do a better job of recruiting female experts for our hearing panels," the congressman said in opening remarks.

Royce's committee heard about the power of female negotiators firsthand with testimony from Monica Williams. A professor at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, McWilliams helped negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that made peace in Belfast after a 30-year uptick in sectarian violence known as the Troubles.

"Having women at the peace table in Northern Ireland contributed to an improved negotiating process and a more comprehensive agreement," McWilliams said in written testimony.

The United States could have benefitted from such involvement in 45 congressional hearings on the Iran nuclear deal over a year where only six out of 140 witnesses who testified were female, McWilliams added, citing research by the Brookings Institution.

Touting the diverse input that the Geneva talks to end Syria's civil war will receive, McWilliams noted her work in "capacity-building workshops" with Syrian women.

With several participants to represent all sides, McWilliams said the women will sit with the main Geneva delegations and will act as advisers throughout the Geneva process.

"Women are not just victims who need protection, they are providers of services and have agency of their own," McWilliams added.

In an interview after the hearing, McWilliams said Syrian women are refusing to let extremism overtake them.

"They call those guys foreigners," McWilliams said of jihadists fighting in the country. "They say they do not come out of Syria, they do not come out of their background."

Predicting defeat for the extremists in Syria, McWilliams noted their lack of community support, and said women will hold the line in driving that point home.

"The women that I know are standing up to them," she said. "They're able to open up their schools in Syria despite being threatened, and they're refusing to be fully covered. And these guys are getting the message. You're not going to subordinate us. You're not sending us backwards."

Busting the Boys Club

As Congress grapples with understanding international conflicts and formulating policy responses, O'Neill said women's inclusion is "both a rights agenda and a national security imperative."

She urged the panel to pass legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara Box, D-Calif., the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2015 . The bill will integrate women into all aspects of U.S. diplomatic, defense and development efforts, O'Neill said.

O'Neill has some idea about how to bust the boys club, and get more qualified women to give congressional testimony. She penned a recent essay on the topic for Foreign Policy. First, it must be a stated and tracked goal, O'Neill said in an interview.

But it will also require redefining ideas about who is capable and qualified to testify, expanding that to include civil-society leaders and "people with different forms of authority and influence," she said.

When Congress holds all-male panels, people need to call attention to it, she said.

"There can be some element of naming and shaming."

Changing the dialogue about gender inclusion is also necessary to really bust the glass ceiling.

"Often there's a perception that women need to be involved because there's outside pressure to do it," she said. Including women to be just and fair is "important, but it doesn't transform an organization," she said.

"Women can understand the operational environment or threats in the environment in a unique way, and they have access to different communities than men do," O'Neill said. Women see and hear different things than men do, and are trusted and respected in different ways than men, she added.

"These are all things that add up to women having unique contributions, and having those contributions authentically validated."

It is not enough to include women in small numbers, O'Neill cautioned.

"We have to have a critical mass," she said. "There have to be enough women to transform the institution itself and the way they do business for those changes to be seen."

And that requires taking the time to let those changes play out, not placing the burden of change on a few pioneering women.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Royce said in an interview that the committee is committed to looking seriously at the issue of gender inclusion in expert testimony.

"We are trying to increase the number of women that testify at these hearings, and also we're trying to change the focus of the hearings," he said. "This is our third hearing focused on what we can do to address these issues, especially as it relates to conflict resolution, so we're moving forward with a policy."

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