In October 2000, the UN security council adopted resolution 1325 – the first resolution that acknowledged women’s unique experience of conflict and their vital role in peace negotiations and peacebuilding. Twenty years on, we speak to four women helping keep the peace around the world.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Philippines

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer was the obvious successor when the chief government negotiator in peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) left his post. In a country that has elected two female presidents, having a woman in such a role shouldn’t have been a problem. So it came as a surprise when she learned that her gender could be an issue.

The government was in the final stages of a deal with the rebel group, who had been fighting for autonomy in the southern Mindanao region since 1969, and the president was concerned that they wouldn’t take kindly to a woman.

“I felt the glass ceiling above me,” says Coronel-Ferrer, who was already a member of the peace panel, in charge of disarmament and decommissioning.

A former student activist and an accomplished political science professor at the University of the Philippines, until then she had never found being a woman to be an issue in her work life. She had worked with the Milf before, too, when she was involved in the international campaign to ban landmines, which won the Nobel peace prize.

Coronel-Ferrer was eventually appointed to the chief negotiator post in December 2012, after Milf wrote to the government saying it was willing to work with a chairperson “of any gender or ethnicity”. The rebel group’s determination to close the peace deal proved stronger than any other considerations.

I felt that if I failed my failure might be reflected on all women

It wasn’t plain sailing, though. “It took a long time for them to get used to me. It was very uncomfortable not being looked at [during negotiations] when you know you’re being addressed,” says Ferrer.

During the 15 months of negotiations, Ferrer felt intense pressure to succeed, “more on the responsibility that, if I failed, my failure might be reflected on all women”, she says.

The first resolution to recognise the unique and disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls, and the equal role women should play in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, was unanimously adopted by the UN security council on 31 October 2000.

Resolution 1325 urged the UN to increase the number of women in its peacekeeping missions. It called on armed groups to take special measures to protect women and girls from rape and sexual abuse, and urged governments to prosecute those who committed these crimes.

It also called for more funding for local women’s groups, and for greater protection for women and girls in refugee settings.

The past 20 years has seen slow progress. More women now sit at the negotiating table, but gender parity is a distant dream. Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators and 6% of signatories to major peace agreements. Women constitute fewer than 5% of the 95,000 active UN peacekeepers and about 11% of police in UN missions.

Sexual violence is rife in conflict, but prosecutions are rare. The UN is concerned that Covid-19 will increase the risk of sexual exploitation, abuse, child marriage, and trafficking among displaced women and girls.

Since 2000, the security council has adopted a further nine resolutions on women, peace and security. Another is expected this year.

In moments of doubt, Ferrer leaned on women’s groups for support. “They visited me before a crucial stage in the negotiations. They gave me a pen and said, ‘we hope you will sign something’.”

Ferrer remembers one moment that gave her reassurance. The talks, held in Kuala Lumpur, had been extended and the men on the government panel had flown home for meetings. That left just Ferrer and three other women to negotiate with Milf on contentious issues around revenues from oil, gas and other natural resources. They made a deal that night.

On 27 March 2014, the agreement to create the autonomous region of Bangsamoro was signed, ending four decades of conflict and 17 years of peace talks. Ferrer became the first woman in the world to lead and sign a major peace agreement.

Ferrer’s involvement inspired change for Milf, which brought in a female lawyer – Raissa Jajurie – as a consultant to its negotiating team.

Ferrer says she was happy to see women appointed to the transitional parliament that will shape the laws of the new region. However, she is worried that they will find it difficult to keep their seats at elections in 2022 because Muslim culture still favours men in leadership positions.

“It has to be a struggle of the Bangsamoro women. We can help, but it has to be led by them from the inside,” says Ferrer.

Sandra Vera, Colombia

Sandra Vera, from Colombia’s mountainous province of Tolima, began carrying a rifle at 14, when she joined what was then her country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

“There were no opportunities growing up, especially for the girls,” says Vera, now 35. Her family had been members of the Patriotic Union – a left wing political party with ties to the Farc – and her childhood was marked by moving home on the run from right wing paramilitaries.

At 12, she dropped out of school. Shortly afterwards, when an elderly woman who led the community was murdered by militiamen, Vera joined their leftist enemies. “That moment changed me,” she says.

Vera spent nine years in the Farc, ultimately deserting the guerrilla group in 2010, four years after giving birth to a daughter, fathered by a comrade. Having children was generally forbidden in the rebel group, who could not afford more mouths to feed. Though Vera had managed to secure an exception, most women in her situation risked forced abortion.

Vera gave birth in the capital, Bogotá, but was called back to the jungle to fight a year later. After she was ordered to abandon her child, she began mulling desertion.

When her partner was killed in a military ambush three years later, the decision was made. “There was no way I could stay and risk my daughter becoming an orphan,” she says. Vera was reunited with her daughter in Bogotá, and began to navigate the complex bureaucracy for demobilising combatants.

People need to learn that differences don’t need to be settled at the barrel of a gun

Colombia’s war against the Farc formally ended with a peace deal in 2016, turning the page on a violent chapter of conflict that killed more than 260,000 people over five decades, forcing more than 7 million to flee their homes.

In 2017, Vera started working at the government agency responsible for reintegrating about 10,000 ex-Farc members. Building on her own experience, and her belief that a strong community and network are key to leaving war behind, she enjoyed laying out the options available to former comrades.

“Making peace is about providing genuine alternatives to violence,” Vera says of her work at the agency. “People need to know what economic opportunities they have, how to seek them out, and they need to learn that differences don’t need to be settled at the barrel of a gun.”

Vera believes Colombia’s peace process is made stronger by the involvement of women like her at the grassroots level.

Vera also runs a small foundation that works with local businesses to empower vulnerable people in her community in Soacha, an impoverished satellite city on the edge of the capital.

“Building peace isn’t only something that is done with accords, but with people on the ground, and of course women are key to that,” she says. “Helping mothers raise their daughters to believe in themselves, to believe they can achieve what they want, will empower a generation of women to not be drawn into conflict.”

Unaisi Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa, South Sudan

Becoming a police officer was a decision based more on pragmatism than passion for Unaisi Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa.

“You undergo six months of training,” she says. The more traditional career paths for women in Fiji at that time, teaching and nursing, meant two years of study. “That attracted me,” she And she’s “never looked back”.

Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa is now head of police at the UN mission in South Sudan (UNmiss). Appointed in 2018, she became the first woman to hold the post, one of only three women leading police operations at UN missions around the world.

She ensures the safety of people living at UN civilian protection sites, where around 13% of South Sudan’s displaced 1.6 million people are sheltering.

In 2016, UNmiss was severely criticised for its failure to keep people living at its sites safe from violence. Since then, more UN police have patrolled the sites, and a “gender-responsive approach” has been introduced to tackle the different protection needs.

“We know this approach has contributed to the changes that we have seen over time, particularly in cases dealing with women,” says Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa.

National police forces have been trained in dealing with gender-based violence and child protection and there is closer collaboration between local and UN police.

Last year, Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa was involved in launching the national police force’s action plan for conflict-related sexual violence, which the UN secretary-general said “remained of serious concern”. In 2019, UNmiss documented 224 cases of sexual violence; 133 involving women, 66 girls, 19 men and six boys.

If as a woman you are there at the top, you really need to support those coming after you

Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa, who was previously in charge of a Fijian sexual offences unit, believes the new measures have resulted in more arrests and prosecutions. But getting more women into national police forces, and UN missions, is crucial to improve protection for women and children, she says. Of the more than 1,700 police officers stationed at the mission in August, 400 were women.

The commissioner wants to create an environment where women can excel. This includes decent accommodation – and other things that make women feel more supported.

She believes countries should actively do more to recruit women police officers. “We know that if the number increased in member states, then there will be more women recruited in UN missions.”

She hopes she can be a role model as a woman in a leadership position.

“Some women are not supportive of other women. They feel they are there by their own efforts, so they don’t have any responsibility to support them,” she says. “But I see it differently. As women, if you are there at the top, you really need to support those coming after you. It’s incumbent on women to do that, and inspire those who will be following us, so one day they could be in that position.”

Rasha Jarhum, Yemen

Rasha Jarhum experienced her first lessons in activism as a child in the family home. Her mother, the leading women’s and human rights campaigner, Hooria Mashhour, became Yemen’s first human rights minister after the 2011 uprising that wrested power from President Abdullah Saleh.

In a country that routinely ranks at the bottom of global gender equality indices, Jarhum grew up in a household that celebrated women and their advancement in Yemeni society.

“We had no babysitter, so me and my siblings would join my mum at work when she was doing things like staff training on gender sensitisation,” says Jarhum from her home in Ottawa, Canada, where she is now based.

“It was really inspiring. Her activism, and that of her colleagues, has done a lot for women’s rights in Yemen. Today, the women’s movement has never been more organised or more demanding, and the feminist movement has really progressed.”

Jarhum began her own activist career in 2008, when she began working for Amal Basha, at the Sisters’ Arab Forum for Human Rights.

In 2016, she was among seven women invited by the UN special envoy to Yemen to support the peace talks held in Kuwait and later briefed the UN security council on Yemen and women’s rights to push for peace. She has gone on to co-found the Peace Track Initiative, which promotes peacebuilding through women, youth and civil society groups in Yemen and the Middle East, as well as the Women’s Solidarity Network, a coalition of 250 Yemeni women and women-led organisations working on the protection of women and peacebuilding.

Humanitarian agencies portray Yemeni women as passive victims … but women on the ground are so active

Jarhum says the turning point for gender rights in Yemen was the quota-led inclusion of women in the 2013 national dialogue conference, which brought together 500 representatives from civil society and politics to lay down the foundations of a “new Yemen”, post-revolution. The quota demanded that women comprise one-third of the participants.

But then war broke out in 2014, and women in Yemen have since been largely excluded from the UN-led peace process, says Jarhum. “Only one woman was part of the 2018 peace delegation to Stockholm, and there were no female advisers in the opening or closing ceremonies, or even in the negotiations.”

Undeterred, the Women’s Solidarity Network has held consultations on issues such as child recruitment, arms sales and disarmament, drafting national agendas, which they share with the UN security council, says Jarhum. Their point is to make women’s views heard even if, formally, no such views have been sought.

“Humanitarian agencies portray Yemeni women as passive victims waiting for someone on a white horse to come and save them. But women on the ground are so active. Mothers of abductees were able to facilitate the release of 940 people, and women in Taiz are tiptoeing on mines to bring food to trapped families in the firing lines.”

Jarhum wants gender quotas imposed on the UN peace processes. “It’s not about what women bring to the table. It’s our basic right to be at the table.”

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