Laura Aumeer: “If We Don’t Include Women, We Miss Out on Half the Expertise in the World”

01/12/2022     4 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Laura Aumeer, Europe-Asia department director at Conciliation Resources (© Teofil Rewers)

The Europe-Asia department director at Conciliation Resources says women play an essential, but often under-recognized, role in peacebuilding. She gets into the why and the how, and shares some resources and tips for sharper, more inclusive conflict-related stories.

For the past ten years, Laura Aumeer has dived into the issues behind gender-based violence in different geographical and political contexts: in the UK, in Nigeria, in South Sudan, in Malawi, and more. Whether as part of an organization or as a freelancer, she has handled and analyzed data, written reports, and provided support to people at the frontlines.

Aumeer’s interest in the ties between decision-making levels and what happens on the ground has manifested as early as 2013 in research on Egypt’s women’s movement, in which she studied the intricate relationships between the state, international actors and the local civil society.

Laura Aumeer is now the director of the Europe-Asia department at Conciliation Resources (CR), a London-based international organization committed to helping the implementation of peacebuilding processes across the world. Aumeer works on cross-regional and more localized programs, focusing on gender, climate and violence prevention.

What follows is the essence of a discussion we had with her this month around the subject of peacebuilding in relation to gender.

Why look at peace through a gender lens?

Laura Aumeer — If we talk about conflicts and peace without talking about gender, we really miss a big piece of the puzzle. We know conflicts have different impacts on different groups, including on women and girls. Unequal power relations,  harmful norms, gender-based violence are all fundamentally associated with increased vulnerability to conflict. And so, if we don’t understand gender norms and how they interact with power in a system, we can’t really get into the root understanding of the issues, of the causes and impact of violent conflict and how to resolve it.

How can women be included in peacebuilding? Aside from getting more seats at the table when there are important decisions being made at the international or national level.

Peacebuilding isn’t just what we sometimes see on the news — you know, the table with the senior mediators around an international conflict. Peacebuilding happens across a much longer period. It is about building trust. It is a long-term process to end but also prevent violence. Between communities, between societies or between communities and governments. So it is not just sitting at a table and coming up with a decision. It could be bringing different groups together at community level to discuss issues. It could also be using film and media to help people understand others’ perspectives.

“It’s important that women peacebuilders are not just seen as people who bring in the gender perspective into issues, but as people who have extensive expertise as well.”

In terms of women’s role in peacebuilding, what we have seen is that, when we talk about those formal mediations, the kind that we often do see on the news, sadly the table is often surrounded by men. There isn’t as much inclusion of women as is needed. But women are playing a big role in peacebuilding more widely, an often under-recognized role, particularly when we are talking about peacebuilding at community level. It’s not around inviting women into those spaces, women are leading those spaces. They are taking charge in those areas, they are playing an incredibly important role.

Do you have specific examples in mind of countries where that is happening, where women are included and are leading the peacebuilding process?

There are loads of examples, but I’ll just give two that I think might be really interesting for journalists. The first one is maybe a bit of a cheat as it’s not just one example. But we, at Conciliation Resources (CR), have worked with a network of women mediators across the Commonwealth. It is a network of just under 50 women mediators working in all different spaces. On their website, you can search for experts by geographic area, by skill sets and by thematics.

Then a more specific example: over the last year, some of my colleagues have worked with two Liberian civil society organizations: Liberia Future Trust (LiFT), which is youth-led, and the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), a network of women-led organizations. They have worked with CR to advocate around the implementation of the 2003 peace agreement in Liberia, and the role of women in that reconciliation process. Part of the work they have been doing involves working with women and communities to strengthen the understanding of these different processes, of the recommendations that are there on paper and need to be implemented.

What do women bring to the table when they are involved and listened to in peacebuilding processes?

I think it’s important that women peacebuilders are not just seen as people who bring in the gender perspective into issues, but as people who have extensive expertise as well. We are working with women who are experts across a number of different topics and issues, and their contributions really should be valid as such. If we don’t include women, we miss out on half the expertise in the world.

I think what has been really powerful to see is women challenging these quite outdated notions of how things have been working and really being able to transform the processes that they are involved in. They have been bringing in different perspectives and trying to include different voices and different groups.

What has the United Nations’ Security Council Resolution 1325 changed at the grassroots level? Is it impactful today?

I always try to be a bit of an optimist so I’ll start with the positives. The Security Council Resolution 1325 is recognized and fairly well-known today. We had the 20th anniversary of that last year. It is well-acknowledged now that we need to understand the different impacts of conflict on different groups including women and that we also need to make sure that there is wider and more inclusive participation in peace processes.

“Not only is the role that many women are playing under-recognized, but it’s just become harder for women. ”

The challenge has been moving that from an acknowledgement to reality. Unfortunately too many processes are still not representative and not inclusive. Particularly on an international level, we still see countries that say “it’s incredibly important that women are included,” but when it comes down to who is nominated to be speaking as part of a peace process and who is engaging in these issues, they will default to the people they always bring in, which is often a narrow group of men.

Not only is the role that many women are playing under-recognized, but it’s just become harder for women. There have been a multitude of issues. There has been the pandemic… It is also often incredibly hard for women to get funding for the work that they are doing at the community level. There are the security implications of their work as well — we have seen the Internet space become harder, more weaponized, more violent for women. So there are many barriers that fundamentally challenge their participation.

Focusing on the positive side, there are networks of women mediators and peacebuilders who are raising the issues themselves and kind of saying: “Here we are. Include us. Listen to us.” And there are new funding streams that are now focused on women’s inclusion.

You mentioned the way women are perceived. What are your thoughts on how they are talked about in the media, whenever it comes to war and conflict? Is there too much of a “helpless victim” representation?

If I had to come up with a list of things to say to journalists, that would be number one: don’t consider women passive victims. Women can be change makers. They can be leaders. They can be involved in violent conflict themselves. We have to recognize that. These are complex issues.

I think — too often and quite understandably — we want to frame things in a way that a wider audience can understand so we try and find a way to describe them simply. But let’s not oversimplify the nature of what is happening and the different roles that women and men are playing within that. Let’s explore the issues around masculinity. Let’s really go into how gender norms are shaping what the expectations are within these areas. I recognize that it’s not possible to do so in every single piece of writing, but if someone is going to be doing a longer form piece, looking at gender norms is critical.

The other thing I would tell journalists is to speak to the women involved to see how you can include perspectives of different groups and of women as well. But I will caveat that, in some contexts, anonymity may be really important as to not put someone at risk.

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