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Book Review: Women and Peacebuilding

New publications of interest

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Book Review

Women and Peacebuilding

Dyan E. Mazurana and Susan R. McKay, Women and Peacebuilding (Montreal: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 1999), 116 pages.

Reviewed by Diane D'Souza

I recently attended a meeting of contributors to a book on religion and peacebuilding. In presenting and responding to each others' draft chapters, it didn't take long for us to realize that we were each defining peacebuilding in different ways. It wasn't much longer before we noticed that women were often invisible in many of our accounts. In their "essay" Women and Peacebuilding, Dyan Mazurana and Susan McKay -- both of the University of Wyoming at Laramie -- show us how these two facts are connected.

"Peacebuilding" activities carried out by states, the United Nations (UN), or large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have tended to emphasize the management of violent conflict, reconstruction of the infrastructure of war-torn societies, and the provision of emergency humanitarian aid. This focus has led practitioners and researchers to neglect, among other things, the local peacebuilding activities of women. On occasions when women have been acknowledged as important actors, the thrust usually has been to strengthen their numbers in decision-making bodies or to provide sustainable and gender-sensitive development programmes. Seldom have people engaged in resolving conflict asked women how they see or do the work of building peace.

The authors of Women and Peacebuilding seek to address this issue. Drawing on material they have collected from around the world, Mazurana and McKay argue that the majority of women's grassroots groups working for peace -- as well as a few UN agencies and some peace researchers -- do not see peacebuilding primarily as post-conflict reconstruction of societal structures and institutions. Rather, they argue:

... our research found that while structural reconstruction is important and necessary, by itself it neither builds nor ensures peace. Many NGOs and grassroots groups were found to view peacebuilding as a process, not a product, through which psychosocial, relational and spiritual needs were addressed. Grieving, sharing stories, participating in actions demanding governmental accountability, training in responding to post-trumatic stress disorder at individual and community levels, and working on common projects such as building schools and running radio stations were some of the processes through which communities sought to heal and rebuild communities and build a just peace. (92)

In other words, peacebuilding encompasses a wide range of activities that make sustainable "a culture of peace," to use the language of UNESCO. Once we define peacebuilding to include improving relational behaviours and healing psychological wounds, women's significant grassroots activities rise to the top. Indeed, as Graca Machel points out in The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, women are often established and active agents of peacebuilding and conflict resolution at local levels. She emphasizes the wisdom and experience women have gained through their efforts to protect children and sustain communities, sometimes in perilous situations. Mazurana and McKay echo this point, stressing women's agency. It is not only that women experience conflict and post-conflict reconciliation in ways significantly different from men, as UN and other studies have shown. They also carry important knowledge about and energy for dynamic grassroots reconciliation -- qualities which are little recognized and, therefore, underutilized.

Mazurana and McKay correctly note that women also contribute to violence, and that the very term "women" glosses over tremendous diversity and difference -- including, for example, complications of class, race, and religion. Still, they argue, it is a category that can be useful at this stage in our thinking. They suggest one reason that women's peacebuilding work is "essentially invisible" at UN, governmental and academic levels is that grassroots groups seldom document their peace work, and when they do, the circulation of their writings is often outside mainstream circles. Given this context, Women and Peacebuilding makes a solid contribution in documenting and circulating key information.

There are three main sections to the book: women's grassroots peacebuilding, nongovernmental organizations and peacebuilding, and the United Nations and peacebuilding. The division between the first two categories is rather fluid, as the authors acknowledge. To my mind, the stretch is a bit forced. I am not convinced of the utility of distinguishing grassroots organizations from NGOs -- especially the way it is done here. But semantics does not take away from the richness of the material. The authors give us solid overviews of the main aims and programmes of Women at the Table (Northern Ireland), Women Monitoring the Peace (Sudan), Together We are Strong! (Russia and the Caucasus), the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (US), various NGOs in the Philippines, the Life and Peace Institute (Sweden), the International Development Research Centre's Peacebuilding and Reconstruction Programme Initiative (Canada), and the Jerusalem Link (Israel/Palestine). To flesh out their thinking on issues like "The Foci of Grassroots Women's Organizing for Peace," "The Human Dimensions of Peacebuilding," "Coalition Building and Networking for Peace," and other topics, Mazurana and McKay offer further snippets of detail about conflict situations around the globe where local communities are playing active and innovative roles. For readers thirsty for solid information on women's peacebuilding, the material is gratifying, if tantalizingly brief. I particularly miss the grassroots voices and would have welcomed more narrative along with the factual analysis.

In the book's last section we learn quite a bit about peacebuilding carried out through the UN and its related agencies including the Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the Commission on the Status of Women, the Economic Commission for Africa, the Organization for African Unity, and the Division for the Advancement of Women. The authors document and analyze briefly from a gendered perspective various reports, projects, and activities, including initiatives from the Secretary General's Office, the War-torn Societies Project, the Beijing Platform for Action, and Graca Machel's work on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Although the detailed material from all three of the book's sections is valuable, the documentation on the UN is clearly the most thorough. The citations alone are a gold mine for researchers.

Mazurana and McKay make a number of insightful observations. They trace the evolution of the words peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebulding and describe how they are understood today. Having noted how the terms are carefully distinguished in UN, government, academic, and some NGO circles, they then observe that most grassroots groups fail to uphold these distinctions. Indeed, some groups do not even call their work peacebuilding. This is perhaps related to the finding that grassroots women working for peace see themselves as doers not "experts." As the authors summarize, their practices are oriented toward the processes of making and building peace, rather than theorizing about it.

Another key observation is that women's starting points at the grassroots level are most often very practical -- food and security for families, the future of children, the provision of adequate shelter. Women's groups often give primary attention to the indirect structural violence of warfare, poverty, and the degradation of the environment. Many also name women's economic, social, cultural, and political empowerment as an essential part of the process of building a sustainable peace.

Women and Peacebuilding is small enough to be a quick read, yet thorough enough to make a solid contribution to conflict and peace studies. Students and researchers in the fields of international relations and women's studies will also find it useful. The book's value for policymakers is increased considerably by the authors' gleaning of six practical lessons for effective peacebuilding. In addition to upholding the need for the inclusion of gender perspectives in all peacebuilding initiatives, policies, and projects, they stress that the very idea of peacemaking must be enlarged to include psychosocial, relational, and spiritual peacebuilding -- all areas where women are doing significant work. Mazurana and McKay also emphasize cultural specificity and the need to recognize, honour, and build upon local approaches, experiences, and expertise. They close with a special plea for the documentation and evaluation of community-based initiatives and for increased networking among organizations. This, they suggest, could be flagged as a priority for Western funding organizations.

I sorely miss an appendix of contact addresses for the dozens of groups mentioned throughout the book. Given the authors' concern for networking, this absence is surprising as well as disappointing.

The Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development is to be commended for its work in bringing out this, its eighth in a series of essays on human rights and democratic development. I only hope Women and Peacebuilding gains the wide readership it so richly deserves.

Tabula Rasa Institute

The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute.

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This article Copyrights Michael E. Salla, PhD. All else ©1998-2000 Tabula Rasa Institute.