To break cycles of war we must break cycles of custom: Why we need women within disarmament

Philip Chennery

Operations Team, SCRAP Weapons

Bougainville, the main island of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville of Papua New Guinea has held its first independence referendum. Following a brutal 30 years civil war, their spectacular transition from jungle fighting to peaceful negotiations has been suggested by Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, as ‘a lesson for us all’ in handling peace talks and the disarmament that accompanies it. Ahern directly credits the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement, and the careful handling of relationships between warring factions before and since, as being key to avoiding a return to war. Ahern failed however to mention the dedicated work of women in the Bougainville community who made possible the agreement of the BPA, thus paving a way for the disarmament and democratic processes that followed.

At a global level, we see that women have always played a significant role in disarmament. Examples range from the first world war, when women in warring and neutral countries came together to form the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), to the presentation of the first annual Nunn-Lugar Trailblazer Awards to five former Pentagon officials in recognition of their getting the instrumental Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program off the ground. 

And yet whilst key individuals and groups of women have had tremendous impact around the world there is still a disproportionate lack of female representation within society. Despite the fact that research teams from McKinsey have found that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile, we are still dealing with a work environment where there has only been only modest signs of progress in the representation of women. Strikingly for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted

Whilst such inequalities persist, society loses so many of the benefits which an increased diversity in the workplace can offer. Given all the tremendous input by women on global disarmament and peace processes so far, this boils down to a significant net loss in terms of speeding up progress. Research from Forbes suggests that ‘Groups with women happen to be more socially sensitive. They are better at reading others’ social cues and more likely to make room for and consider interjections of varying opinions.’ Skills like these play a particularly important role in negotiations, especially with matters as sensitive as weapons of mass destruction, raising the question as to why women should be so unequally represented within institutions around the world.

We should look towards Bougainville Island as a source of inspiration in how a far more equal society can effectively break from cycles of violence and successfully implement peace. The Security Council’s resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security exploring what it was that made women in Bougainville so effective in their efforts to promote disarmament found that their power stemmed from a balanced community arrangement where women had a vital role in the life of the clan; most language and cultural groups in Bougainville are matrilineal. Individual women used their high status in the family to negotiate peace in their communities, using their influence as go-betweens with the warring factions to maintain constructive dialogue. Their dedication meant that in 1991, they were able to create a ‘peace area’ from which armed men were excluded.

Bertie reminds us that ‘less than half of the world’s peace agreements survive their first five years’ mentioning how ‘on my own island of Ireland the Good Friday Agreement took 13 years of hard negotiation from ceasefire to political settlement. Even today, 21 years later, the agreement requires constant care and tending.’ The message presented to us by the success in Bougainville is therefore striking and clear: in order to move away from cycles of war and the use of armed force, societies should fully embrace a programme of widespread gender equality and representation, facilitating disarmament and peace processes worldwide. 

It was a break from gender tradition that helped WILPF to take the international stage. It was Germany’s first female jurist Anita Augspurg, who in collaboration with Aletta Jacobs organised the monumental 1915 International Congress of Women. By continuing to shift from traditional ways of perceiving the structure of society, and ensuring women play an equal role in mainstream institutions, companies and governments on international and local levels, we can pave the way for a peaceful future.

Philip Chennery

Philip is a member of the Operations team at SCRAP weapons