Women’s participation in peace and security processes is vital for lasting peace. This message has been echoed again and again by the international community and expressed through UN Security Council Resolutions, the Sustainable Development Goals, and countless other declarations and strategic plans. Yet, despite this global consensus, women have remained marginalized in most peace and transition processes to date and constitution-building processes are no exception. Among the 75 countries that undertook constitution reform in the wake of conflict or unrest between 1990 and 2015, women made up only one in five constitution drafters.
If the international community is serious about supporting women in countries emerging from conflict and unrest, organizations and institutions must invest in women’s participation in constitutional negotiations. After all, when women are involved in constitution building, they build bridges across conflict divides, broaden societal participation, and advance constitutional provisions for more equitable, inclusive societies.
In particular, international donors and supporters should prioritize funds and programs that give rise to the five best practices or tactics that have proven effective for women seeking to gain a foothold in constitution building. These tactics were identified in a recent study by Inclusive Security, which drew on lessons learned from across eight case studies including an in-depth study of the 2014 Tunisian constitutional process.
1. Early mobilization
The rules for electing or appointing members to a constitution-reform body are frequently established early in a peace or transition process. Women typically succeed in gaining access when they present a united front and advocate for inclusion long before elections or nominations. Often this evolves out of women’s networks or organizations active prior to the constitutional process, which highlights a particular challenge in contexts where civil society activities are constrained.
In Nepal, the Philippines (Bangsamoro), and South Africa, women’s inclusion campaigns took shape while peace negotiations were ongoing, which occurred years prior to formal constitution building. Women in these contexts demanded guarantees to ensure their continued participation, such as mechanisms in the formal electoral system (e.g., quotas, women-headed PR lists) and commitments from political parties and parties to the conflict.
2. Moving women’s participation beyond tokenism
Quotas and other special measures arguably contribute to higher levels of women’s participation in constitution building; however, in light of these measures, women often have to overcome challenges to their political legitimacy.
While electoral quotas were established in Kenya (2008), Nepal, and Tunisia, women who earned their seat through a quota were often perceived as less credible than their male counterparts. Women were often able to overcome these challenges when they brought subject-matter expertise to the process or successfully asserted their authority and capacity in male-dominated groups.
3. Building political capital through strategic alliances and broad coalitions
In many cases women strengthen their access and influence by building strategic alliances, whether through coordinated coalitions or in cooperation with key political parties and male policymakers. This includes partnering with ‘insiders’ in a constitution-reform body and with ‘outsiders’ in civil society, as well as building relationships across societal divides that underlie sources of conflict or unrest.
Atsango Chesoni, who served as in the Committee of Experts during Kenya’s 2008 constitutional process, concluded that “[constitution drafting] is not a one-woman battle. It requires women to stand together, acknowledge and offer each other sisterhood, acknowledge other women who have previously been involved in [the] process…The biggest lesson is to learn how to listen to each other and work together regardless of party affiliation, ethnic background, and whether or not we like each other.”
In Kenya, as well as in the Philippines (Bangsamoro), Rwanda, and Tunisia, women members of the constitution-reform body and women in civil society worked together to build momentum and mobilize public opinion on areas of shared interest.
4. Framing the debate effectively
Women have repeatedly advocated for issues relating to gender equality and the rights of marginalized groups. Research suggests that when women successfully frame these issues in relationship to overarching goals of peace, reconciliation, and/or democracy, they are more likely to realize their objectives.
Rwandan women couched their advocacy for gender equality firmly within the government’s goals of peace, unity, and reconciliation. Women activists highlighted how housing shortages, limited food production, needs of orphans, and the financial and social challenges facing female-headed households threatened the fragile peace and stability the state had recently accomplished. They further explained how peace, unity, and reconciliation could not be achieved without women’s inclusion and promoted the vital role for women in the state’s social, political, and economic reconstruction plan.
Tunisian women used a similar tactic. Recognizing that the constitutional process was a way to peacefully transition to democracy and to institutionalize principles from the revolution, they framed their demands as foundational aspects of democracy and human rights.
5. Creative thinking in the negotiation context
When women have a clear understanding of the constitution-building process, they frequently find creative ways to overcome obstacles limiting their influence. In South Africa, activists in the Women’s National Coalition forced their way into the negotiation room and blocked the proceedings until negotiators agreed to include women in their delegations. In Kenya, women entered negotiations with the goal of achieving a 30 percent quota, but intentionally began advocating for something much higher, knowing that such a significant ask would be rejected and scaled back. And, in Tunisia, women realized that support from the Ennahda party, which held the majority of seats in the constituent assembly, would be crucial to achieving a provision on women’s participation in the legislature. They won Ennahdha’s support, in part, by presenting the provision as an opportunity for the conservative party to change its reputation of being against women’s rights.
The international community’s role in supporting women’s inclusion
These five tactics have proven to be effective and further investment is needed to mainstream these practices into women’s mobilization across all ongoing and future constitution-building processes. Specifically, international donors and those offering technical assistance should provide flexible funding and support for women’s early mobilization initiatives. They should also increase assistance for training initiatives focused on advocacy and strategic messaging. These should accommodate a range of women’s perspectives while facilitating consensus on shared priorities – not least through trauma-healing and reconciliation activities, where appropriate.
While the ultimate goal should be the ready inclusion of women at every stage of a peace or transitional process, including constitution building, these tactics illustrate just how much progress remains. Until the procedural and normative barriers that prevent women’s engagement can be rectified, the international community must continue to support women as they strategize, mobilize, and fight for their right to equal participation in all aspects of peace and security.
By Nanako Tamaru. Ms Tamaru is a peace and security consultant and a licensed attorney in the US. She co-authored How Women Influence Constitution Making After Conflict and Unrest and Beyond Revolution: How Women Influenced Constitution Making in Tunisia with Marie O’Reilly and Olivia Holt-Ivry of Inclusive Security. Ms. Tamaru works with a variety of non-profit and intergovernmental clients on research projects related to conflict resolution, constitution drafting, statebuilding, and women, peace, and security. She is also a trainer/facilitator and has developed dozens of trainings on women’s participation in peace and security processes. For inquiries, Ms. Tamaru can be reached at email@example.com.