The need to take women’s role in peacebuilding seriously
by Abby DAVIDSON
31 January 2023
As part of this year’s 4 Corners Festival, a panel of women discussed the important role of women in the Northern Irish peacebuilding process. The event took place in the historic Clonard Monastery, with Prof. Gladys Ganiel (Queen’s University Belfast) acting as moderator. The venue was carefully chosen, as it was a site of secret talks that eventually contributed to a ceasefire and later the Good Friday Agreement.
Singer-songwriter Ferna opened the event. Recently winning the Northern Ireland Music Award’s Single of 2022 award, she performed four of her songs, including Lapsed and Walk On.
Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana — an expert in gender in global politics, feminist research methodologies, international relations, and peace and conflict studies — explained United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) as “a commitment to prioritise the need to include women in resolution work”. She further commented on how the UK government’s action plan in relation to the resolution omitted anything to do with Northern Ireland.
Ganiel led the rest of the panel to share some of their experiences of being a woman in peacebuilding, asked how more women can become involved in the peace process, and posed the question, would implementing UNSCR 1325 make a difference for women involved in Northern Irish peacebuilding?
Inspector Róísín Brown (PSNI) reflected on how policing is a privilege for her. She discussed how police officers have to deal with crime sensitively and with an understanding of the generational trauma that may lead to criminal activity in some communities: “We’re dealing with a lot of legacy problems.” Brown noted that women can bring a different aspect to policing. She also commented on how the lack of formal structures that a resolution such as UNSCR 1325 could provide has led to women being “silenced within communities”, despite their tireless work to protect their families and communities. For Inspector Brown, it was important to realise that many women working within their communities would not even consider themselves peacebuilders, noting, “This is their lives.”
Eileen Weir (Shankill Women’s Centre) reflected on her 45 years as a peacebuilder and community activist. In her opinion, her work is not just cross-community, because in the communities she is in there are people from many backgrounds, not just Catholic and Protestant. Weir believes that the women who have worked within peacebuilding in Northern Ireland are often left unrecognised and unsupported: “We’re not getting the investment we need.” She remarked that men should be supporting the women who are doing peacebuilding work. In regards to the question about UNSCR 1325, Weir said that formal recognition of the participation of women would be beneficial, particularly in the case of interface meetings. In the four-plus decades that Weir has been involved in peacebuilding, she has never been invited to an interface meeting: ”There need to be women at these tables.” The implementation of UNSCR 1325 in Northern Ireland would insist on the formal inclusion of women in peace talks.
Emma De Souza, campaigner and writer, reflected on her work to bring UK immigration laws in line with the Good Friday Agreement and the media discrimination and threats that she received as a woman, being labelled as “nothing but a troublemaker.” De Souza said, “We have never given full meaning to the text [Good Friday Agreement] and that many parts of the agreement have not been fulfilled, even though it has been 25 years since the accord was signed. She stressed the importance of having an all-island women’s forum as a space for women to come together and talk about issues that affect them. In response to the implementation of UNSCR 1325, De Souza agreed that the structures need to change. She also considered the issues affecting women getting into peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. In her opinion, these included the ageing population of peacebuilders, the lack of progress in the education system, and systemic barriers which prevent access for women to become involved in peace processes.
Dr Deiana also shared her thoughts on women’s involvement in peacebuilding. She suggested that the issue is not a lack of involvement or willingness to be involved, but rather that people need to “take women seriously” and recognise their roles.
After the discussion, the floor was opened for audience questions. One audience member asked, do you think women should be initiating a Troubles museum? Weir answered that sharing women’s voices is really important, but that when it comes to the creation of a museum, “We don’t need anything to be more political than what we’ve already got.”
Another question was how do we ensure that we won’t have the same discussion about the role of women in peacebuilding in 25 years? Dr Deiana replied that until the demands of campaigners get met, the conversation will not change and that it is going to involve a lot of hard work. In regards to getting men into women’s spaces, the panel replied that it is important to protect women’s space and not allow men to encompass them.
Listening to this group of women discuss their personal experiences of peacebuilding was inspiring. Their sense of hope for the future, while acknowledging the difficulties of working in such a field, opened up opportunities for the audience to reflect on their own challenges and dreams for the future of Northern Ireland.