Women’s role in waging peace: It cannot simply be thrown out


‘It’s even hard to imagine that in the 21st century, I’m so far the only woman who led a negotiating party and has signed a (peace) agreement’. A portrait of Miriam Coronel-Ferrer.

Portrait Miriam Coronel-Ferrer

This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".

You may say it’s not a full glass, that it’s a half-empty glass. But it cannot simply be thrown out.” That is how Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, who led peace negotiations for the Philippine government that ended a long-running conflict in that Southeast Asian country, describes women’s participation in peace processes and discussions of conflict today. “You have to give a good reason why you’re not including women in (peace) talks. We’ve moved the agenda forward,” she said.

This shift has played out in the two decades since the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This was the first landmark UNSC resolution that addressed the impact of war on women and equal participation in conflict resolution, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction.

While women are now more ‘seen’ in issues of conflict and peace, Coronel-Ferrer says it is time to convert these norms – set by legal instruments and through precedents in conflicts around the world – into everyday reality.

Coronel-Ferrer, after all, knows these first-hand. She was, and is, the first woman to have led a negotiating party (the Philippine government) and signed a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. For decades, it had been fighting for autonomy for the Muslim communities in the southern Mindanao region of the Philippines, a majority-Catholic country.

It’s even hard to imagine that in the 21st century, I’m so far the only woman who led a negotiating party and has signed a (peace) agreement’, said Coronel-Ferrer, one of four women in the eight-member Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisers for the United Nations. ‘What does this tell you about the state of affairs?’

In short, the rarity of her role also lays bare the spaces that women in the arena of peacemaking need to claim, again and again.

In terms of a legal norm, an international norm, it’s there’, she explained. ‘You have national legislation. You have declarations already made in support of what the UN Security Council resolutions have already advocated as well as affirmed, and further developed, in succeeding resolutions. But it’s in the reality where these could really be judged.’

She came face to face with these not-so-easy realities as chief negotiator in the talks with the MILF. ‘It was very difficult in the beginning for the other party (MILF) to accept the fact that you have a woman chairing the negotiation in the government’, she recalled.

Blind Spot

At that time, the biggest gender-related challenge she saw was the blind spot on gender issues. ‘When it came to the gender issue, the bulk of the leadership of the MILF and also the general society remained very conservative.’

These days, Coronel-Ferrer takes heart from seeing that there are more peace agreements with more, and stronger, provisions on gender and women, peace and security, such as in the 2016 agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). ‘In other agreements that followed, in South Sudan and so on, we already find these, and the participation of women, already very much integrated into the process and in the outcome.’

Yet peace pacts do not by themselves make for gender-empowered societies in the post-conflict era. The transition process toward the creation of a Bangsamoro autonomous region in Mindanao is underway, but ‘unfortunately it continues to be a male-dominated transition’, said Coronel-Ferrer.

Her experience in the Philippines has served her well since putting on a UN mediator’s hat in 2018. Mediation advisers – she is the only one from Asia – are deployed by the UN to give advice on issues around mediation and preventive diplomacy, to UN envoys, peace operations and teams.

The mediators do not lead the way, the (negotiating) parties do. So, mediators have to play a role by helping remove some of the obstacles, and also be some kind of a bridge, and sometimes also a sounding board for the negotiators’, she stressed.

Different Roles, Same Skills

They (mediators and negotiators) are different roles, but there are some common diplomatic skills required. Negotiators need diplomatic skills because without those, nothing can really move forward. Mediators also need the same toolbox’, said Coronel-Ferrer, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines who says she is ‘assertive, but not combative’.

Asked which conflicts in Southeast Asia are most complicated, she replied: ‘Each conflict has its complexity.’ In southern Thailand, part of the challenge lies in understanding the nature of different rebel groups in that country’s Muslim communities, she explains. Myanmar, which has come under fire for its treatment of the Rohingya minority, has a mix of ethnic groups with long histories of war against the state.

Waging peace entails diving into details such as how rebel groups make decisions, their lines of command, as well as knowing state parties’ degrees of openness to the devolution of political power, and beyond that, all parties’ view towards involving international actors. Likewise, ‘any good conflict analysis and strategizing for peace must not forget gender’, said Coronel-Ferrer, who started working in conflict issues, doing research and peace advocacy after the ‘People Power’ Revolution in 1986

Redefining Security

Negotiations need to go far beyond the conventional scope of ‘security’. States may be averse to taking any step that may be seen as giving legitimacy to the other party, she says, but ‘that’s the kind of rethinking we need to see, especially from the security sector’. She continued: ‘Civilian leaderships probably would be calculating more in terms of what will be the economic losses, the political capital that might be lost if they are not able to solve the problem. But in those (countries) where the military continues to play very significant political roles like in Myanmar, or Thailand, that kind of thinking is harder to break.’

What is the biggest single ingredient that can lead to conflict resolution? ‘It’s the pressure (on) the parties to reconsider their positioning (towards a settlement) that is the biggest factor, and that pressure can come from different sources, including the public, their own public in fact’, she said.

Are there times when a solution is not in the cards? ‘There can be peace talks fatigue’, conceded Coronel-Ferrer. ‘That might have something to do with whether a paradigm shift has actually happened – meaning that kind of negotiation where some kind of victory can be achieved through peaceful means and not just military means.’ The bigger this shift, the better the prospects for a settlement.

The Coronavirus Hasn’t Stopped Conflict

One may wonder if the coronavirus pandemic can motivate opposing parties to opt for reaping the peace dividend.

Coronel-Ferrer says there has been talk of temporary halt in fighting, due to humanitarian issues too, during the pandemic. ‘But it's not enough to create that kind of complete paradigm shift that we need to see on the part of these parties’, she said. ‘It's a condition that can create some recalculation of strategies, but it’s not necessarily the condition itself.’

At various points in the interview, she referred to the need to ‘try and try’, to find and open channels of dialogue in conflict situations.

While she ‘always looks at the positive side’ of things, Coronel-Ferrer says she does lose her temper – but that she prefers not to latch on to anger. She said: ‘I also get angry, but I can pull back easier. The feeling of hate is something I don’t relish.’