Young Women Peacebuilders on the Front Lines: When Conflict is Not the Only Threat
No matter the conflict: Myanmar, Tigray, Ukraine…you name it, women are on the front lines responding to situations caused by the crisis.
While often risking their lives and sometimes losing them, women work to alleviate the immediate needs of people but also negotiate the end of hostilities. That is why we at UNOY proudly call them women peacebuilders. The title is relevant as we must honour their meaningful role toward a more just, equal, and peaceful world. But more importantly because whatever title we use, we must acknowledge that women peacebuilders are holders of the right to a life free of violence.
Although being on the front lines sounds like a cool job, peacebuilding is a risky activity. Defending rights is one of the most dangerous things you can do, particularly in conflict contexts. According to the UN, in 2020, in 26 conflict-affected countries, at least 35 assassinations of women human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists were documented. Alarmingly, this figure surpassed reports from 2018 and 2019 (UN Security Council, 2022).
double threats faced by women peacebuilders
In times when peace is needed the most, women peacebuilders face a myriad of violence, such as attacks, death threats, travel bans, surveillance, etc. based on the work that they do. This violence is usually rooted in the aim of discrediting their peacebuilding work and creating obstacles to exclude them from conflict resolution processes. In general, human rights defenders are a group commonly targeted with violence because of their defence activities. However, women peacebuilders face disproportional patriarchal violence like femicide, sexual abuse, sexist stigmatisation, reputational damage, domestic and labour violence, and/or gender-based travel bans (UN Women, 2022).
For example, in 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights warned about the increased violence toward women human rights defenders during the armed conflict in Colombia, highlighting:
“Differentiated risks and disproportionate effects based on their gender…the rights they defend, their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
~ Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Colombia, 2022
This violence continued even in the post-peace agreement Colombia, undermining the overall efforts to disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (Lawlor, 2022).
Intersecting forms of violence are also found with young women peacebuilders. They are exposed to heightened attacks and risks rooted in adult-centrism. The ‘If I Disappear’ report commissioned by the UN Office of Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth (OSGEY) in 2021 documented that young women activists reported:
“Difficulties with implementing projects aimed at female empowerment due to fear of social stigma in the community; threats from traditional men and tribal elders; online hostility; harassment in the workplace; rape threats; and a lack of dedicated protection measures.”
~ ‘If I Disappear’: Global Report on the Protecting Young People in Civic Space, 2021.
Similarly, racialised women peacebuilders experience double discrimination. In a survey conducted by OSGEY, young women activists stated to be victims of ‘racial profiling by state and non-state actors, which leads to tense interactions and relationships with law enforcement bodies’ (UN OSGEY, 2021). Racialised youth have been wrongfully linked with stereotypes of violent groups or gangs, even though there is evidence of them engaging in peace advocacy.
In the case of women environmental peacebuilders, they have become the target of attacks by state and non-state groups. Some of them are rural, afro-descendant or indigenous women, who are fighting to protect their communities by transforming conflict related to extractivism, land ownership injustice, natural hazards or natural resources monopolies (Ashtari Abay, 2022). Their activism is nourished by the need to tackle exploitative capitalist structures. Still, they are being neglected. According to the NGO Global Witness, over 1 in 10 of the environmental human rights defenders killed in 2020 were women (Last Line of Defence, 2022).
how to contribute to stopping the violence against young women peacebuilders?
Okay. So the data reveals that violence persists and increases… then what can we do about it? There is plenty of work to do in terms of prevention and protection for young women peacebuilders that are under threat. State actors are responsible to protect, but civil society organisations and grassroots movements can also support them.
Prevention is often ignored, but if implemented it can help mitigate risks and vulnerabilities. It should all begin with the promotion of respect for the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other instruments dedicated to holding States accountable for ensuring a safe and enabling environment for young women peacebuilders to operate in. Here are some examples of what NGOs can do:
- Design communications campaigns dedicated to dignifying the role of peacebuilders and/or the risks they face. We need empathy toward women peacebuilders to stop stigmatisation!
- Advocate for the need to stop violence against women young peacebuilders as a top priority on the public agenda. Let’s build coalitions and networks to bring about action.
- Increase youth capacities on risk mitigation, research on best practices of prevention, and knowledge sharing with other NGOs. For example, at UNOY we are developing our members’ capacities through holistic protection training programmes.
- Conduct regular assessments on the psychological and physical wellbeing of staff and volunteers, as well as check-ups on digital and physical security of the workplace.
- Create protocols or manuals about what to do in case of an emergency or life-threatening situation, as a result of peacebuilding work. In addition to a reaction protocol, at UNOY we are developing a prevention protocol.
- Continuously monitor international, national, and local states of civic space and public security. This website from CIVICUS is very useful for up-to-date monitoring of civic space around the world.
- Ensure spaces and dialogue for the voices of young women peacebuilders to be heard. Meet each other and reflect on the violence and structures that we come up against.
- Inspire and empower the next generation of young peacebuilders to construct long-lasting alliances and knowledge sharing on prevention advocacy.
Currently, there is a limited number of resources for urgent, life-threatening individual cases of women peacebuilders at risk, and the responsibility of providing protective measures; particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations (UN Women, 2022). This represents a critical protection gap that both states and international organisations must fill. Here are some suggestions of what we can do:
- States must provide protective measures to guarantee the personal security of peacebuilders that are sensitive to their differential needs and the violences they face; and if the protective mechanisms fail, the State must work to make them effective.
- Support must take into account that peacebuilders serve at the forefront in times of conflict and humanitarian disasters, and are very much needed. In situations of emergency, it is often difficult for peacebuilders to access physical, emotional, or financial assistance to carry out their work safely and effectively.
- Ensure access to justice and remedy with guarantees of non-repetition. In conflict scenarios, sometimes there is a deficient rule of law and accountability but in the event of violence and trauma, the State should provide measures for peacebuilders to access justice.
- Mobilise support within civil society and grassroots movements to ensure financing for the protection and participation of peacebuilders more broadly.
- Advocate for financial allocation to research young women peacebuilders’ needs in terms of their protection and participation, particularly those who are threatened, targeted, or in a vulnerable situation.
Young women peacebuilders on the front lines are fighting two enormous fights: to smash the patriarchy and transform violent conflict. The double, triple, and unlimited threats they face must be addressed. If peacebuilders are at risk, we are all at risk because sustainable peace will only be possible with them. Let’s continue the conversation on how we can create a safer space for peacebuilders to carry out the job they love, cherish, and champion.
Ashtari Abay, N., 2022. Protecting the Participation of Women Peacebuilders. [Blog] Analysis and Commentary, Available at: <https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/03/protecting-participation-women-peacebuilders> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Centre for Women, Peace and Security London School of Economics and Political, 2022. Women Human Rights Defenders: Left behind in the women, peace and security agenda. Policy Brief 02/2020. [online] London, UK: Centre for Women, Peace and Security London School of Economics and Political, pp.11–22. Available at: <https://www.lse.ac.uk/women-peace-security/assets/documents/2020/PBS01Dwyer.pdf> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Global Witness. 2022. Last line of defence: 2020 report. [online] Available at: <https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/last-line-defence/> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Global Fund For Women, 2019. Self-Care From The Frontlines: Women Human Rights Defenders On How They Stay Motivated To Keep Fighting. Available at: <https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/what-we-do/voice/campaigns/charged-up/self-care-from-women-human-rights-defenders> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Lawlor, M., 2022. Front Line Defenders- Colombia. [Blog] Human Rights Defenders Critical for Post-Accord Justice in Colombia, Available at: <https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/blog/post/human-rights-defenders-critical-post-accord-justice-colombia> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Riccoboni, G., 2021. Violence Against Women Human Rights Defenders Imperils Security. [Blog] Newlines Institute: Special Initiatives, Available at: <https://newlinesinstitute.org/united-states/violence-against-women-human-rights-defenders-imperils-security/> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
UN Women, 2022. Accelerating Support for Women Human Rights Defenders on the Front Lines of Conflict and Crisis. [online] Available at: <https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1j/k1joyv2faf> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
United Nations Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, 2021. ‘If I Disappear’: Global Report on Protecting Young People in Civic Space. [online] New York, USA: United Nations Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth. Available at: <https://unoy.org/downloads/if-i-disappear-global-report-on-protecting-young-people-in-civic-space/> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
United Nations Security Council, 2022. Prospects for Women Peacebuilders Vastly Worse than before Pandemic as Spoilers Ramp Up Action Aimed at Silencing Their Voices, Human Rights Chief Warns Security Council. [online] Available at: <https://www.un.org/press/en/2022/sc14768.doc.htm> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Colombia, 2022. Implementing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda for Sustainable Peace in Colombia. Shadow ReportS CEDAW Committee, 72nd Session. [online] Bogotá: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), p.11. Available at: <https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/COL/INT_CEDAW_CSS_COL_33732_O.pdf> [Accessed 16 March 2022].
Dinorah Arceta, Former Communications Officer at UNOY Peacebuilders
Originally posted at the UNOY Blog website: http://unoy.org/young-women-peacebuilders-hrds/