Image credit: DFID

Women’s roles in peacebuilding shape the dynamic of every conflict
The word ‘peacebuilding’ sounds masculine: the sector deals with extremism, social upheaval, societal violence and instability. But in reality, the sector is universal, and transcends walls of gender discrimination and sexual orientation. This should be obvious: conflict and insecurity can affect anyone, irrespective of gender and race.

To confront these issues, women need to step up – in particular in Bangladesh, where women are not only the primary victim of violence and conflict, but also hold the key to the upbringing of children.

Women’s roles in peacebuilding shape the dynamic of every conflict and the interaction between genders has important implications. To understand how women can play a strong role in conflict resolution, we need to understand how conflict issues are addressed in Bangladesh and the ways in which gender norms influence those issues.

Patriarchy rules all?

According to the recent census, Bangladesh is one of the seven countries in the world where men exceed women in terms of number. The population has traditionally been religious, and women are mostly judged on the basis of their adherence to religious rituals. Societal heights are mainly occupied by men in rural areas, whereas in urban areas the scenario is a little better for women.

But a patriarchal society still considers women’s opinions reluctantly, even on trivial matters. Political and societal prestige is allotted to women on the basis of who their father and husband is. This practice is disparaging for women and controls the extent of their influence on decision making both in the home and in the community.

Bangladesh’s constitution actually recognises women’s role as being the same as men. But the patriarchy impedes women's constitutional rights. Around 60% of Bangladeshi women have experienced gender based violence, according to some reports, and many of these victims never seek help. But patriarchy at times makes women think that experiencing violence is God’s will.

Those who suffer can think that their husband or partner has the right to raise their hands. They can also think that legal and social services are not available for them, and in any would not help. They fear that seeking out such help would enrage their husbands and partners, which only worsens the overall scenario.

Women in conflict in Bangladesh

Civil society needs to step up and initiate action to integrate women into decision-making processes
In conflict operations, women are can be manipulated. They are put in the first row of protests, to be used as shields; police are less likely to fire on women. They can also be cajoled or coerced to carry petrol bombs, on the grounds that they may arouse less suspicion.

Recently, a number of women have been arrested by law enforcement for engaging in extremism. Some have even committed suicide to avoid being arrested. And a new tactic for extremists is to spread husband-and-wife ‘units’. These are tough to find, as they can sneak into residential areas under the disguise of being a family. This is becoming an alarming issue.

Encouraging women to lead peacebuilding

To protect women from violence and to safeguard their rights, they should be actively engaged in peacebuilding processes. Women need to earn political leverage on the ground of context based, gender-integrated approaches to resolving peacebuilding issues.

One organisations working to safeguard women's rights amidst political upheaval is the International Foundation for Electoral Systems formed the 'Women Against Violence in Elections' (WAVE) group. This group brings together Bangladeshi women from around the country to work on peace initiatives.

During elections, women in Bangladesh often face abuse. The WAVE group work on women’s safety during elections, and aim to promote violence-free elections through advocacy and national movements. Its members are mainly women, a healthy example of how women on work on peacebuilding despite social stigma and negative gender perceptions.

In 2000, Bangladesh adopted the landmark UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. In the Bangladeshi context women’s participation has been vague, as hardly any community based organisations have stepped up to engage women in different roles. However, this is changing. One EU-sponsored project, for example, has established a number of support centres in the Chittagong Hill Tract.

These programmes aim to ensure women’s civil and legal rights, and promote women’s leadership in dealing with violence. These centres, led mainly by women, have good relations with law enforcement and civil society.

The participation of women in civil society needs to be strengthened, in particular in decision-making processes. At the moment, this is difficult to do through formal structures, so civil society needs to step up and initiate action to integrate women into decision-making processes. Listening to women is the only way to help them and to consolidate peacebuilding processes for a better future.