8 March 2023
Women, Conflict and Peacebuilding
When reflecting upon the peace process in Northern Ireland, you might find yourself envisioning that a largely male-dominated political sphere facilitated it.
You would be right. Out of the 110 members elected to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, a consortium that led to multiparty talks which brought about the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, only 15 women were elected.
Despite low levels of representation in political forums during the peace process, women’s actions and voices still had a profound impact on our peace process.
This International Women’s Day, as we approach 25 years since the signing of the Agreement, we take a moment to reflect on the experiences of women during and after the Troubles.
The Northern Irish Women’s Coalition (NIWC), led by Monica McWilliams, a Catholic academic, and Pearl Sagar, a Protestant social worker, was one of few political parties of the time that did not fall behind sectarian divisions. Instead, their focus was to ensure women in Northern Ireland had agency over their own future and were “written into, rather than out of the peace process”.
Mo Mowlam’s fearless and often radical dedication to achieving the Agreement is highly regarded across these islands.
In the contents of the Agreement, women lobbied for the provisions to create the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, for including a focus on language and the importance of reconciliation, and to make provisions to address the needs of victims and survivors of the decades of violence.
It was women who brought the importance of women’s rights to equal political participation to the forefront of national conversation through their role as facilitators, mediators and negotiators.
Women who helped hold families and communities together in the worst years of violence.
Who worked on a cross-community basis long before peace negotiations hit our mainstream politics and provided safe spaces for children to come together and integrate with the ‘other side.’
The courage shown by these women was, and remains, of crucial importance to the consolidation and continuation of peace.
Twenty-five years later, we are – thankfully – in a better place. The number of elected female representatives has repeatedly risen in the years following the creation of the Forum for Political Dialogue and women continue to take up more places and spaces in our society.
But we still have a long way to go in both recognising and addressing the unique ways in which women experience conflict. Little has been done to acknowledge or address Troubles-related sexual violence or the violence that often transferred from the streets, into their homes.
Likewise, more recognition must be given to the women continuing to step into the spaces of peacebuilding, reconciliation and advocating for the needs and rights of women and girls in a modern Northern Ireland.
With the backdrop of Women’s History Month in March, the pending 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and the development of a new Strategy for Victims and Survivors, it is timely to stop and reflect on how we do better for the women and girls for whom conflict legacy is still very present.
We must acknowledge and highlight the impact of women’s voices in the peace process. Not only because they deserve it, but because it is important for young women and girls to see themselves represented and included in meaningful political and social change.