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Support the Peacemakers Too

This op-ed by Ambassador (ret.) Mary Ann Peters was published in The Huffington Post.

President Obama has asked the Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to counter the threat from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The threat posed by this group is obvious and force will be necessary to halt and reverse their territorial gains. But we know that military means alone will not achieve our goals of peace and security in the Middle East. In addition to passing the AUMF, the Congress should take the far-sighted step of passing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Act at the same time.

This bipartisan bill, introduced in the House of Representatives in 2013 and in the Senate just last month, will prompt U.S. government agencies to support women peacemakers by bringing their issues and concerns into foreign assistance planning and programs. Bringing women into peacemaking is not only the right thing to do; it is also the best way to achieve lasting peace.

Last week, The Carter Center hosted its annual Human Rights Defenders Forum, devoted this year to exploring strategies for advancing the rights of women and girls and preventing, resolving and recovering from conflict and violent extremism. We heard from frontline peacemakers like Fatima Kadim Al-Bahadly and others who would benefit from the passage of the Women, Peace and Security Act.

Fatima has single-handedly disarmed 500 militia members and put them to work rebuilding the community. After working for many years in Southern Iraq with widows and families left destitute by ongoing war in her country, she shifted her attention to peacemaking. Last summer, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on families in the region to arm themselves after Sunni-led insurgents seized many nearby towns. Realizing that militias were proliferating, Fatima worried about the potentially dangerous consequences of adding more armed groups to the already volatile mix. As a trusted figure in the community, Fatima was able to raise $5,000 locally for food and clothing for these men, and she hired them to repair schools, buildings and roads. This kind of demobilization and reconstruction is the basis for lasting peace and cannot be achieved by outside actors, in Iraq or in Syria.

Women leaders from Nigeria told us that the threat of Boko Haram is growing, despite efforts by that country’s military with substantial support from the United States. One reason recruitment into Boko Haram has increased is because parents are giving or selling their children to the group, often because they need money to support their other children. Meanwhile, women-led peacemaking and community development efforts that have shown real results in preventing recruitment into terrorist groups have received far too little moral and financial support. The Women, Peace and Security Act would address this gap.

Mubin Shaikh explained to us how non-violent methods can be used to reverse the trend of young people becoming extremists. A former radical, now a counter-terrorism expert, Mubin works closely with military and national security agencies to understand and de-radicalize terrorists. Mubin emphasized that we must address the enabling environments and grievances that produce violent extremists. He stressed that women peacemakers are crucial in reducing extremism because they are trusted, understand complex community dynamics and realities, and can act as “counter-terrorism operatives” from within.

Sanam Anderlini, co-Founder of International Action Network, has worked with women peacemakers for many years in various countries. She pointed out that 90 percent of casualties in today’s wars are civilian but their voices are not taken into account when peace talks are held. She and others gave examples of women who care for their families and communities when the men go to fight. They do relief work, educate the children, and mediate between and even disarm belligerents, as in Fatima’s case. Anderlini said, “Whereas armed groups and politicians focus on sharing power, women from civil society focus on responsibility for the recovery of their societies. And while we need the men with arms in peace talks to get them to stop fighting, we also need those who offer solutions — the women.”

The Congress and the president can take action immediately to support the role of women in peacemaking, and in so doing, they will balance the near-term use of force with long-term strategies and community-based initiatives.

The Women, Peace and Security Act will give peacemakers the support they need to win the peace we all seek.

Ambassador (Ret.) Mary Ann Peters is chief executive officer of The Carter Center.

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