06/09/2011 20:03 BST | Updated 06/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Women Must be Given a Leading Role in Reconciliation

Libyan women's groups recently staked their claim to a more meaningful role in the reconciliation and reconstruction of their country. They noted, among other things, that women were largely absent from the recent Paris conference convened to discuss Libya's future.

Earlier this year I attended a conference in Iraq where Iraqi women made a similar case. Despite a quota system that guarantees them a quarter of all parliamentary seats, they were angered by their limited representation in the Cabinet and in key parliamentary committees mandated to shape Iraq's future through, for example, the distribution of its oil wealth. As in Libya, they also highlighted the neglected potential contribution women can make to the process of reconciliation in Iraq.

There are clear democratic principles of gender equality women's groups can point to when making this case. There is also an obvious statistical argument. As men and women are equal in the relevant respects, the skills and talents of value to a post-conflict society are likely to be distributed evenly across both men and women in a sample size as large as the population of a country. No society can afford to sideline half of its talent, certainly not a society recovering from conflict.

A brief survey of some past reconciliation programmes suggests, however, that women often make a contribution out of proportion to that predicted by either of these arguments. Women's groups are often among the earliest and most successful advocates of reconciliation, and often emerge as its natural leaders.

I am thinking here of movements such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who forced the first full inquiry in to the fate of the hundreds who disappeared in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s; the Women of Srebrenica who have greatly facilitated the international investigation of the Srebrenica massacre while providing support and education to the children orphaned by this tragedy; as well as of dozens of other women's groups from South African to Iran.

These contributions are not best explained, I believe, by the archaic notion that women are somehow more peaceful than their male counterparts. Nor, I think, is it explained by the dubious assumption that women form a more homogenous group than men.

One feature does, however, clearly distinguish men and women in the wake of conflict. A disproportionate number of the victims of conflict are women. Major General Patrick Cammaert, the former UN Peacekeeping Operations Commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recently suggested that in some conflicts it is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier. Women suffer both directly as casualties of war and as victims of various forms of gender-based and sexual violence, and indirectly through the collapse of the family-structures on which their livelihoods often depend.

This supplies a further and distinctly practical reason to ensure women are included in the political process in the wake of conflict. To exclude women is to exclude a large and important category of victims, and few reconciliation projects have succeeded where this has been the case. It will, for example, be almost impossible to identify the full catalogue of crimes committed during a conflict without engaging women in the process, as women are the principal victims of many of these crimes. Furthermore, those who bear the brunt of the cost of conflict are often among the first to bridge cultural, ethnic, or religious divides and to find common ground with each other. Some of the organisations cited above, for example, have successfully rallied members around their shared identities as mothers or as women, sidelining many previously divisive identities in the process.

These are not new insights. Most are recognised by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on "Women and Peace and Security", which marked its tenth anniversary last year. What is perhaps yet to be fully appreciated, however, is that including women in the process of reconstruction and reconciliation is not first and foremost an issue of women's rights and so of benefit primarily to women. It is a practical necessity of benefit to all. The architects of post-war reconstruction would therefore do well to ensure women spend less time lobbying for inclusion, and more time leading the process of reconciliation.