The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 4 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Berry, M. E., & Rana, T. R. (2019). What prevents peace? Women and peacebuilding in Bosnia and Nepal. Peace & Change, 44(3), 321-349.
Keywords: women, peacebuilding, peace, Bosnia, Nepal, insecurity, violence, transitional justice, civil war
Despite progress over the past two decades integrating both women and gender concerns into peace and security practices globally, women are still underrepresented in formal peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. To see the breadth of their contributions, one must pay attention to the informal spaces where women contribute to peacebuilding in countries scarred by armed conflict. With that in mind, the authors of this research are interested in the daily lives of women in post-war Bosnia and Nepal. In particular, how do they understand “peace,” and what barriers might be preventing the realization of peace in their lives even in the context of various formal peacebuilding efforts enacted in these countries?
|Peacemaking||Conflict resolution activities like negotiation and mediation undertaken to get the primary conflict parties to come to an agreement on substantive issues at stake in a conflict.|
|Peacebuilding||“A broad range of measures implemented in the context of emerging, current or post-conflict situations and which are explicitly guided and motivated by a primary commitment to the prevention of violent conflict and the promotion of a listing and sustainable peace” (OECD 2005). Entails the transformation of the deeper conditions—especially institutions and relationships—that led to violent conflict in the first place.|
|Transitional justice||Judicial or non-judicial measures taken by countries emerging from armed conflict or repression to address widespread human rights abuses.|
To explore these questions, the authors conducted interviews with women in Nepal and Bosnia in 2016. Both countries experienced post-Cold War armed conflicts, as well as an influx of international actors during these wars and after they ended. Accordingly, these countries are emblematic of formal international peacebuilding efforts, including recent attempts to make peacebuilding “gender-sensitive.” Nonetheless, the interviews revealed significant “gaps…between formal peacebuilding efforts and women’s everyday realities.” Five prominent barriers to peace emerged, common to the two cases: 1) economic insecurity, 2) “contested ‘truths’ about the war,” 3) the “privileg[ing] [of] the experience of some victims over others,” 4) ongoing violence (and/or effects of violence), and 5) continued “spatial” and “temporal” disruption to women’s lives.
The first barrier to peace for many women in these countries is persistent economic insecurity. In particular, women are concerned about older children who are unemployed, and many women also face hardship as widows. In Nepal, widows from higher castes have to contend with especially strict rules and stigma around widowhood, whereas those from lower castes generally face greater overall financial vulnerability. In Bosnia, state pensions for widows are insufficient—though those whose husbands’ bodies were never found face an additional challenge attaining these death benefits. Attention to economic insecurity suggests that international peacebuilding initiatives should prioritize everyday economic well-being, as many women feel they simply cannot participate in trauma healing or justice activities until their families’ economic needs are met.
Second, even though “truth-telling” has become a “core principle of peacebuilding and transitional justice efforts,” helping create a common understanding about what happened during a war or other repressive period, neither Bosnia nor Nepal has achieved this ideal. Instead, due to shortcomings in the design or implementation of transitional justice institutions, debate over the reasons for these wars persists, as does uncertainty about the fates of individual loved ones. The latter problem results in women with missing husbands existing in a state of limbo where they lack a clear societal role (especially in Nepal where social norms and gender roles tend to be more rigid): neither fully wives nor widows, they do not have the closure they need to move on.
Third, a “hierarchy of victimhood”—privileging some kinds of victims over others in terms of recognition or resources—has also limited women’s ability to feel at peace. In Nepal, fear lingers about admitting “victim” status for those on the “wrong” side of the war. Additionally, widows of insurgents are not granted the same compensation as security force widows. In Bosnia, significant international attention paid to wartime rape victims means that women who did not experience wartime rape but did experience other horrors of war might be excluded from certain programs and benefits. Furthermore, international recognition of particular high-profile massacres but not others has left some victims feeling like their suffering has been minimized. These hierarchies of victimhood effectively create divisions between women, possibly preventing organizing on shared women’s issues and hindering peacebuilding efforts more generally.
Fourth, many women still experience violence—or the persistent effects of violence—even after the war is officially over. Most prominent is the existence of intimate partner violence in the wake of armed conflict— likely related to wartime trauma, the availability of weapons, and/or increased levels of alcohol/drug abuse on the part of spouses. In addition, women experience the lingering effects of violent trauma in their bodies and minds years after the wars ended.
Finally, dislocation—both spatial and temporal—makes it difficult for women to find peace. In Bosnia, the war displaced almost half the population, meaning that families are now scattered across the country or the world, creating an inescapable emptiness for many women. In addition to displacement, Nepalese women also face “temporal dislocation,” the sense that their life plans—for education and professions—were disrupted by the war, never to be fully recovered, especially for lower-class women.
Although these barriers demonstrate the continuum of violence and insecurity in women’s lives “between wartime and peacetime,” women in both countries have also developed innovative ways of building peace in their daily lives—whether through cultivating beauty and normalcy in their homes to overcome wartime grief or through creating women-only spaces for building solidarity and healing by sharing wartime experiences, often with women from opposing sides.
In the context of women’s experiences in post-war Nepal and Bosnia,
Five prominent barriers to peace emerged: 1) economic insecurity, 2) “contested ‘truths’ about the war,” 3) the “privileg[ing] [of] the experience of some victims over others,” 4) ongoing violence (and/or effects of violence), and 5) disruption to women’s lives.
Barriers to peace affect different women differently, depending on their wartime experiences and their various identities, with more marginalized women “often feel[ing] these barriers most acutely.”
Women find innovative ways to build peace in their daily lives, significantly supplementing formal peacebuilding initiatives.
This research, along with other work by feminist scholars, serves as a useful reminder that there is a continuum of violence in women’s lives not adequately captured in the distinction between war and peace. Even if a peace agreement has been signed and fighters are being demobilized, this does not necessarily mean “peace” has arrived. Ultimately, the only meaningful way to determine whether peace has emerged is to ask those living in the society in question whether their lives are peaceful. These findings from Nepal and Bosnia resonate with thinking on human security, an approach that understands security as being most salient at the individual level and as comprising more than just military threats. Rather, an individual can experience a range of different threats, from inadequate access to food or healthcare to environmental hazards to direct violence against one’s person. The particular positioning of women in post-war societies means that they are vulnerable in specific ways to many of these forms of insecurity. Not only are these forms of insecurity themselves important to address, but they also influence women’s ability to participate meaningfully or at all in many of the formal peacebuilding programs and mechanisms established by the international community. Whether due to economic insecurity or to the non-recognition of one’s victim status, this inability to fully participate in formal peacebuilding initiatives has implications for the more traditionally conceived “peace” process.
For these reasons, international peacebuilding actors should be more attentive to the barriers to peace identified by women in specific post-war contexts while also supporting women’s local peacebuilding activities, as these often supplement formal peacebuilding efforts in important ways that meet women’s and broader communities’ needs. Women, with their frequently shared identities as caretakers and mothers, are often able to find and build connections across other lines of difference in war and post- war contexts. International actors therefore need to see and recognize these informal, women-driven grassroots peacebuilding efforts—even if they are not named as such—as the crucially important endeavors they are, devoting resources accordingly. They should be valued as much as, if not more than, formal peace processes and peacebuilding initiatives, which may not have the reach and responsiveness of these grassroots efforts. At the same time, women’s active participation in these informal spheres should not take attention away from the importance of their meaningful inclusion in formal processes, as well, where they are still underrepresented despite UN Security Council Resolution 13251 back in 2000—and where their ability to build these connections would add significantly to parties’ ability to reach an agreement and make that agreement a smart and sustainable one.
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Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Women for Peace and Democracy-Nepal: http://www.wpdnepal.org.np/