The Shared Rewards of Women’s Peace and Security
Carla Koppell, Managing Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, discusses her experiences working in more than 30 conflict zones around the world and the broader relationship between women’s empowerment and good government.
Governance Matters: Research shows that when women participate in peace processes, peace is more likely to last. Why is this and what are some practical steps that leaders in conflict zones can take to ensure women’s inclusion in the process?
Carla Koppell: There is indeed very clear quantitative evidence that peace processes are more likely to occur, more likely to succeed, and more likely to stick when you bring women and civil society groups into the process. That evidence is supported by my own qualitative observations from more than two decades spent working on the women, peace, and security agenda. I have seen time and again how engaging with women and a broader range of stakeholders in civil society helps enrich accords.
People move through society in different ways, and they observe and value different things. When a range of people are involved in a peace process, they bring different priorities, perspectives, and knowledge. That is definitely for the better. Research overwhelmingly shows that having a diversity of perspectives enriches problem-solving and that this is true across the spectrum, whether you are having fun attempting to solve a puzzle with your friends or trying to find a peaceful solution to a conflict.
Further, peace accords are often enriched by things that would have been forgotten or overlooked without the introduction of different perspectives. I was involved in peace talks in Sudan, which sadly experienced a resurgence of violence this year. Women were only brought in during later rounds of negotiation, when they were given an accord to review that had been drafted by the warring factions. They read the draft and said, “What about civilian security? What about the reintegration of combatants? What about refugee return?” The combatant-negotiators had to admit that they had forgotten about those things and actually they agreed that they ought to be included.
The possible costs of not bringing those women in were manifold. It risked a weaker agreement that would have overlooked important issues. It would also have meant that we in the international community had not done everything that we could to build confidence in the negotiating process. Often in a peace negotiation, you are trying to find as many commonalities as possible. If you overlook issues that the parties actually could agree on then you are missing out on valuable common ground that could increase the prospects for the negotiating process and the extent to which parties are committed to an accord.
Bringing a wider range of stakeholders into the negotiation also enhances accountability once a deal has been signed. More people know what is in the accord, more people can hold the key parties accountable to it, and more people can assist with its implementation. We saw that during the famous Liberian peace process when women pushed for a negotiated solution and then assisted with the demobilisation and reintegration process for soldiers.
A 10% increase in the number of girls going to school translates to an average 3% increase in a country’s GDP. Even so, some countries still neglect girls’ education. What works in convincing governments of the need to prioritise girls’ education and women’s advancement?
As with any issue, which argument is most persuasive depends on the target audience. Some will respond most strongly to the moral and ethical argument. I think this is where we should always start this conversation, pointing out that it is wrong to deny half or a majority of the world’s people the chance at basic opportunities or to be involved in decision-making regarding their rights and their roles.
If that does not persuade them, then there are many quantitative pragmatic arguments. For example, there are significant returns on investing in girls’ education, both at an individual level by supporting the earning potential of women, and also for society, with the associated positive impact on GDP. This can be extremely persuasive for many people who perhaps agree in principle that something is important but do not make it a priority or a necessity.
The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Index measures the status of women in terms of their inclusion, justice, and security in 170 countries around the world. There is a very strong correlation between the WPS Index and the Chandler Good Government Index. What trends does the latest WPS Index reveal?
Our 2021/2022 edition focused on the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the results were sobering. The global advance of women’s status had slowed considerably, with widening disparities across countries. Norway ranked first in terms of women’s status, scoring more than three times better than Afghanistan at the bottom. Several major challenges facing women had worsened, including magnified risks of intimate partner violence and higher burdens of unpaid care work, which will have long-term social and economic impacts. But on an encouraging regional note, six of the top 10 score improvers on the WPS Index were in sub-Saharan Africa.
We also found strong correlations between the WPS Index and other important outcomes such as pandemic preparedness, climate resilience, positive peace, and human development. These relationships show that women’s status matters; when women are doing well, everyone in society is doing well.
Since our 2021/2022 edition we have been looking in greater depth at the connection between women’s empowerment and democracy and good governance. This has shown that if we are to advance good government, then we need to pay attention to issues of women’s and girls’ empowerment as a foundational part of that agenda.
Rwanda offers a very interesting case study. It has had the highest percentage of female legislators in the world – in fact, a majority – for some time. Rwandan women had a really important role to play in rebuilding the country after the genocide. Their election system is also interesting and unique in the way it pushed for women’s participation in politics. There is a general ballot, on which women and men can stand, and also a separate women-only ballot. This has enabled essentially a feeder programme where new female politicians can come into the system through the women-only ballot and as they gain strength and experience they can then stand in the general ballot and create more opportunities for women.
This has shaped voters’ behaviour. Because they had to vote for women on one ballot, it soon became something that everybody was used to doing. It has helped to strengthen women’s role in governance and the outcomes we see today.
Previously, you served as Chief Strategy Officer in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and as their inaugural Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. How does having a coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment work in practice in a government agency?
USAID already had an office for women and development, but my mandate was to transform U.S. development assistance to include an overarching focus on gender equality and establish the empowerment of women and girls as a fundamental part of our mission. This was a big step forward. In the past the agency had not been explicit about prioritising the interests of women and girls throughout its work and as a consequence this had often been overlooked.
One of the most important things we did was to generate and disaggregate data. This was useful because an absence of data means that failings can be masked or hidden. For each sector, whether in education, environment, or health, we assessed how our programmes’ benefits were being delivered to everybody in society, because our interventions needed to lift all boats. What we found was that certain projects were indeed serving some segments of the population, but were missing others out entirely. In response, a great deal of our subsequent work involved building further expertise to understand our partners and beneficiaries, and redesigning our programmes, their implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and learning systems.
We carried out one project in Bangladesh that was supposed to reduce childhood stunting. This combined various interventions such as investing in improved seed varieties, nutrition education, and animal fattening, as well as increasing women’s empowerment by enhancing their voice and influence in the home. When the analysis of the programme came in, we saw that the single greatest driver of success was women’s empowerment. The wider lesson was that any intervention would be even more successful if you added a component related to supporting women’s empowerment. Without this careful monitoring and evaluation, that would never have been known and we would have missed out on the opportunity to combine gender-specific policies with other interventions to boost the return on investment.
All governments are at different stages in their national development and gender equality journeys, but is there any advice that you think can serve all policymakers?
Certain policies are foundational, such as ensuring that women can have land tenure, banking rights (independent of their husbands, or children in some cases), inheritance rights, access to education, and voting rights. It is also essential to have legislation and an enforcement regime that enables women and girls to be free from violence. These policies are vital, yet they are often undervalued or overlooked when women do not have a voice in governance.
In any country, it is important to talk to women and girls about the issues they face and to draw them into the governance domain. They have a lot of brilliant ideas, and they are eager to be involved. They may have a litany of requests and complaints, but they also have a lot of the solutions if you sit and speak with them. Very often they have just never been asked before.
I would also say that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There is already a lot of wisdom and experience surrounding how to advance the equality agenda. Of course, every situation is unique and each solution needs to be adapted locally, but there are many valuable lessons that can be learned from the decades people have spent working on this all around the world.
One final thing to address is that there is often a discussion about whether advancements related to women and girls are culturally appropriate, and whether it is right for somebody to go into a society and impose something on them. I think that is a false question. In every country around the world, there are women striving for their rights and roles within society.
Before we decide that something is culturally appropriate, we need to ask who is telling us that it is not. Even in the most conservative societies, polling shows that most people believe women should have access to schooling and the right to run for office. If you simply talk to a fair sample of women and girls in these societies, they have views as to what is appropriate within their society. We cannot let the most reductionist backward voices define the norms and culture, we must listen to that society as a whole.
- United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (2022). Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2022.
- O’Reilly, M., Ó Súilleabháin, A., & Paffenholz, T. (2015). Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes. International Peace Institute.
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (2023). The status of women in agrifood systems – Overview.
Eighty percent of the cited gains come from expanding the labour force and 20% are tied to the increased productivity that comes with more gender diversity.
Carla Koppell is the Managing Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. She was previously Vice-President at the U.S. Institute for Peace and before that held posts as Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is the author of “Untapped Power: Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion for Conflict and Development”.