Updated: Feb 6
an interview with Ana Werkstetter
October 31st, 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Spearheaded by women leaders and organisations, this is the first resolution to recognise the value of women’s leadership in achieving international peace and security as well as women’s contributions to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peacebuilding. To commemorate 20 years of Women, Peace & Security, Paeradigms spoke with Latin American expert Adilia Caravaca Zuñiga on the role of higher education and women in peacebuilding.
1. As a practitioner with over 35 years’ experience, what can you tell us about the relationship between Peacebuilding and Gender?
Society attributes certain roles to people based on their gender, usually with women as the main provider of unpaid care work in their families and communities. Because of this, women are aware of nuances in the social fabric of their homes and communities and are often the first to notice the escalation of tension into conflict. For the same reason, women are often at the forefront of peacebuilding processes in the aftermath of conflict. While they are caring for others, women have to deal with their own sexual and personal security, because they are often the victims of abuse, including rape, as a weapon of war. The barriers for women to enjoy their human rights are considerable and persist, including living with the threat of violence, and without access to decent jobs, educational training, health and sanitary services. To achieve gender equality and sustainable peace, these challenges must be addressed.
Despite women’s crucial role during and after conflict, women’s voices are often neglected in peace negotiations, and their contributions made invisible. The UN Agenda on Women, Peace and Security, especially after Security Council Resolution 1325 was approved in 2000, promotes the participation of women in peace negotiations and peace building. However, its implementation has been difficult and there has been little progress in women’s participation in peace processes. There is a real, tangible loss when peace building initiatives fail to be gender responsive in their design and implementation. Equal participation, beyond being an ethical imperative, is a prerequisite to the successful implementation of any intervention.
As women have a leading role in communities, the inclusion of their perspectives in project design and implementation ensures better community buy-in as well as the sustainability of peacebuilding interventions.
In Latin America, for instance, natural resource management has historically contributed to armed conflict. Land tenure, environmental degradation and extractive industries are all interlinked and can have profound effects on rural communities. Ignoring women’s contributions to protecting biodiversity and food production for example, can lead to the mismanagement of these crucial resources and can indeed be a source of conflict. Using gender-sensitive approaches and gender disaggregated data can mitigate this risk. Human rights and gender responsive indicators help assess the impact of intervention in different conflict settings. So, gender mainstreaming in biodiversity conservation and more broadly in natural resource management could constitute a holistic approach to both conflict prevention and peace building.
2. Has peacebuilding in Central America made a difference; do you think things are improving?
Is the world a better place? I would say that every place is better when a war ends. Building peace is much more complex than a simple ceasefire, but this a huge and necessary step, even when other manifestations of structural violence remain, as has been the case in Central America.
Today, there are indisputable improvements, especially when compared to the period before the Central American Peace Accords were signed in 1987. The conditions to ensure free and fair elections were implemented and international electoral observers were allowed to participate. Generally, election results were respected even when new political forces were elected, although, in certain cases, reforms have been rolled back to impede opposition and elected presidents have been ousted.
Another improvement has been the greater political participation of previously marginalised voices. The changes in the political climate allowed many women’s organisations to be heard and effect legislative change. The Peace Accords motivated most countries in Central America to sign and ratify the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (approved by the Organization of American States (OAS) Assembly in 1994), and domestic laws were changed accordingly. Other improvements include literacy campaigns, an increase in women elected to parliament in the region and the institutionalisation of national mechanisms for the advancement of women in line with UN international women’s conferences. There were many years of enthusiasm and growth, best represented by conferences and gatherings that had been completely banned during the war years. Political rights often taken for granted in older democracies such as the right to assembly, association, free press and freedom of expression, non-arbitrary detentions, to be able de demonstrate… are now also (mostly) accepted in the region.
In Central America, the post-conflict period after 1987 demonstrated how deeply structural inequalities were rooted in the region. Even today, the huge military expenditure in these countries reveals a definition of security based on militarism rather than human development and security.
Over 30 years after signing the Peace Accords, conditions that allow a better quality of life are still missing. Systemic violence and conflict persist in the region.
3. What can you tell us about the role of (higher) education in peacebuilding processes?
Generally, elected leaders are expected to have completed higher education. An academic degree carries weight in the image of candidates either for the presidency or congressional positions. Having higher education institutions with a vested interest in peace building, meaning institutions dedicated to inclusion and committed to enabling macro-solutions to societal problems, can make a huge difference in generating the kind of leadership we need.
Public policies need to be sensitive to the rights of women, of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples, of people with disabilities. It is absolutely necessary to listen and understand people’s needs, particularly during politically volatile times. This is where higher education institutions can help: by producing relevant research on public policy; by providing space for dialogue between different societal actors; by serving as mediators in conflict resolution; and upgrading instructional and operational techniques to include sensitivity toward often-marginalised perspectives, mainstreaming these into their curricula and work environment.
Higher education institutions can contribute significantly by preparing professionals for more effective interventions, be it in peacebuilding or rural development based on principles of equity and inclusion.
4. Having worked primarily on the field as a practitioner, what do you feel is the biggest challenge when bridging academia/technical knowledge to the know-how on the ground?
Ensuring that there is a shared understanding on terminology and intentions between different actors for peace negotiations seems basic but is necessary. Dialogue between practitioners, community peace builders, academics and researchers, and policymakers is crucial, and requires a shared understanding and a willingness to listen and learn. Even when speaking the same language, misunderstandings and misinterpretations can occur.
For example, in Latin America the use of “gender” has been mis-represented by conservative groups as a threat to the traditional understanding of “family”, referring to the “ideology of gender”. Another example was in Colombia, after women’s groups succeeded in their efforts to be included in negotiations for the 2016 Colombia Peace Agreement. They introduced significant changes to the agreement to improve women’s political participation, improve the rights of rural women and to address the rights of victims of the decades long conflict. Before this agreement, conservatives had weaponised the “ideology of gender” to campaign against the peace agreement, creating divisions in very politically unstable times. Given the strength of the opposition, using a less politicised term—such as equality—might have caused less tension. The referendum on the Peace Agreement did not pass in 2016, though a revised version of the Peace Agreement was eventually ratified that same year by the Colombian congress.
5. How are the current higher education programmes contributing to peacebuilding processes and gender equality in Costa Rica/Central America?
This has been a slow process that has finally begun to take root. Gender Studies programmes have been introduced in many universities, though not consistently, and it has become more common to have gender perspectives included in other programmes such as statistics, law, architecture, psychology, sociology. However, there is still a long road ahead. Even though public discourse is still dominated by men, there is more willingness to include questions that address inequalities based on sex, gender, and race. As women become more educated, there are more women who dare to demand to participate in public discourse.
We often fail to consider how gendered aspects of our everyday lives are. Take for example roads and construction—generally, these have been designed by men, as men dominate these disciplines. But do housing programs consider the perspectives of women, whose experience providing care can be critical in the design of a home?
Women need to enter into disciplines usually dominated by men (such as engineering, science, mathematics) so they can contribute to society more broadly, including in peacebuilding. Similarly, men engaged in roles traditionally assigned to women as well as disciplines relating to care may also help contribute in a significant way to promoting alternative models of masculinity.
6. Should higher education have a bigger role (in general) with topics related to peacebuilding and gender? Why and how?
Higher education institutions can and should be attentive to how gender mainstreaming strategies can be included in their curricula, no matter the discipline. They should be aware of how they can support peacebuilding initiatives in the creation of social and economic structures that better serve sustainable peace.
Peace today cannot be achieved without inclusion, without overcoming social, economic, ethnic, racial, gender and other type of inequality. Sustainable peacebuilding requires a holistic approach that considers human security, environmental conservation, food and water security, equitable access to education, to name a few. Higher education must play a role to sensitise in a comprehensive way all these issues, contribute to their solutions, and inform policymakers as well as the wider public.
Being an optimist, I regard higher education institutions, especially public ones, as having great potential to unite societies, to enable dialogue, to come up with outreach programmes, to inform political leaders and decision makers, and to engage with civil society organisations towards a culture of peace.
Adilia Caravaca is Costa Rican by birth, an internationalist by heart, and has devoted her life to activism for Women’s Rights, Human Rights, Food Security, Environmental Protection, as well as supporting Indigenous peoples and community development in Central America. She is a practicing lawyer with a master’s degree in Gender and Peace Building from the University for Peace (2004). She has been involved in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom since 1983 and served as their International President from 2011-2015. Adilia co-founded the National Committee for Dignified Housing, the movement that contributed to enacting legislation and programmes that made housing accessible to low income families in Costa Rica and put the topic on the public agenda. Adilia continues to be active in social litigation, consulting, activism and some gardening.