Including Religious Women in the Mediation Process
Date: September 21, 2018
By Cora Alder – August 10, 2018
Religious women often face a double discrimination as regards inclusion into political mediation processes: They are not only discriminated against as women but also as religious actors. While there is an increasing consensus that effective, legitimate and sustainable agreements require the inclusion of both women and religious actors in the contexts where they play a role, the nexus between the two – i.e. religious women – is often neglected. Existing mediation guidelines rarely offer insights on how to better include this actor group in mediation processes. This blog argues that the role of religious women needs to be carefully considered and offers four key reflections for including religious women in mediation processes.
Overcoming the Double Discrimination
Religious women typically suffer from a double discrimination due to their gender and their religiosity, which can cause hesitancy among secular and religious actors to include them in political mediation processes. There have been efforts to overcome the two types of discrimination as well as to improve the inclusion of women and of religious actors. However, these efforts are rarely pursued together.
Including women: The launch of eight UN Resolutions on women in conflict – kicked off by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in 2000 – has increased international attention on the need to include women in mediation processes for more just, sustainable and lasting results. In the last twenty years, the peacebuilding community has moved away from its focus on simply “adding women and stir”. Indeed, no single woman can speak for all women, or their different socio-economic classes, nationalities, ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations. Today, the inclusion of women is more often performed through an inter- or cross-sectional approach, which pays attention to the variety of roles, experiences and needs of different women. Nonetheless, religion is rarely cited as one of the contributing factors.
Including religious actors: The trend of increasing the involvement of religious actors is a response to the rising number of armed conflicts with religious dimensions worldwide. Indeed, mediators are now often faced with conflicts where they need the awareness, skills and tools to include religious actors and perspectives. The UNDP Guidelines on engaging with faith-based organizations and religious leaders, released in 2014, underlines this trend. One key lesson regarding such efforts is to respect the values and worldviews of religiously inspired political actors. However, this can result in difficult situations, such as religious actors calling for gender-segregated meetings, challenging certain approaches regarding the inclusion of women.
Including religious women: The points above reveal a potential dilemma: We cannot simply combine approaches to the inclusion of women with those on religious actors as some seem to contradict each other. For instance, some Western mediators primarily tend to include secular women due to their assumed advocacy position for human rights and gender equality, and their apparent similarity to the mediators’ own backgrounds. Third parties pushing for greater inclusion of religious leaders, on the contrary, often focus on formal religious hierarchies to determine influential key persons within the conflict parties. This can preclude women of faith from involvement as formal spaces of power are frequently occupied by men.
Dynamics stirred by the conflicting parties can also make it difficult to include female and religious actors simultaneously. Secular conflict actors may refrain from involving religious actors as they may see religion as inherently opposed to women’s progress. Moreover, religious and traditional actors can create complications for the inclusion of women, sometimes rejecting the notion of including women altogether.
A scan through the numerous guides on women’s inclusion and on religion in mediation  highlights the extent to which these two issues are seen as separate categories. Almost none of the guides mention the inclusion of women and of religious actors as parameters that have to be taken into consideration simultaneously when working in mediation processes. While the determining factors “women” and “religious actors” already steer prejudice, when these two actor types overlap the problem is multiplied. As most guides do not offer sufficient assistance, the question remains as to how to encourage the participation of religious women in mediation processes. This blog offers four key avenues that may serve as starting points for action and further reflection.
- Opening up analysis and goal setting
The need to take a close look at the nexus between women and religious actors in mediation processes arises during the initial conflict analysis. In some cases, the analysis might show that religious women do not play a key role in the conflict. In many other cases, however, the analysis can reveal that religious women are highly important. For instance, it can be wise to include religious women as conflict party negotiators when they are key actors in the conflict and affect its outcome. An example of this can be found in Morocco, where moral concepts and conflicting religious and secular worldviews on the role of women in society recently constituted a highly contested political issue. Secondly, it might be beneficial to involve religious women as mediators even when a conflict’s issues have no religious dimensions. Religious women were important agents of change as mediators, for example, in Wajir in Northern Kenya. They were highly influential in creating peace and religious leaders cooperated with them from the beginning, inter alia because the women’s religiosity presumably made them appear more credible, legitimate, non-threatening and trustworthy.
This need for an examination of the nexus between women and religious actors must be mainstreamed. These efforts will hopefully result in an entrenchment of such examinations. While a conflict analysis has a significant impact on the process and may start at the early stages of the mediation process, it continues throughout. Indeed, the analysis and the goals set out for the process decide if one works with or without religious women, and how. As a result, it is vital to reevaluate the analysis, and resulting steps taken, throughout the entire mediation process.
- Becoming religiously literate
If the initial analysis has shown the need to include religious women in the mediation process, whether as mediators or negotiators, it is still necessary to “assess how culture or local traditions affect opportunities for women’s participation in mediation processes”. Simply acting on the assumption that male (religious) actors are opposed to women’s inclusion is counterproductive. Each conflict case is different and it is important to consult the respective actors beforehand and to understand the motives underlying their positions. Carefully listening to local actors builds mutual trust and understanding. It also counteracts the tendency for mediators to enter into the conflict field with a biased position. By being culturally, religiously and gender sensitive, and understanding the local context, mediators may see more culturally sustainable options to include religious women in the mediation process.
- Using different discourses
In many conflict contexts, the wish to include women in mediation processes is framed under the concept of gender – which is sometimes perceived as Western and foreign to local culture. Agendas based on strong terms and advocacy-driven mandates may not be received well by conflict parties, as they may perceive the attempted implementation of certain concepts as imperialism or efforts at Westernization. Rather than merely translating the terms behind the inclusion of women into culturally acceptable words, one should invest in exploring genuine local terms, language and narratives with insiders who can shed new light on the same issues. In other words, it is not about “selling ideas” to another culture, but exploring and finding similar ideas that already exist in the context one is engaging with. This enhances the chances that conflict parties will see the benefit and logic of including religious women in a mediation process. Combining discourses in a mutually respectful manner and counting on insiders to act as “go-betweens” is vital to avert the possibility that the conflict parties feel that Western ideas on gender are being imposed upon them.
- Enlarging the understanding of engagement
Due to both religious and secular actors, it is sometimes difficult to include religious women at the main negotiation table. Applying quotas is a means of encouraging the inclusion of religious women in the visible space of the negotiation table. However, this is not the only possible mechanism, nor is it always the most effective. Thinking of the main negotiation table as just one of many spaces – formal or informal, private or public, visible or invisible – where negotiations can take place opens up many more options to include religious women in a mediation process. Indeed, if we look at existing guides and combine their methodological suggestions, we can see that these include informal talks on the side of the main negotiation table, gender-based breakout sessions, or even an accompanying side processes. A parallel, women-only process may create a space that taps into the potential of women as change agents, something that may not happen in mixed, male-dominated or male-only formats. Women can also bring in their expertise on conflict and gender issues in expert commissions, as observers, insiders or as facilitators. Not all of the available mechanisms and formats are useful in every context. But by being context-sensitive, those that are likely to be successfully implemented can be selected.
Religious women are at a double disadvantage as secular and religious actors and third parties can be hesitant to engage with them in mediation processes. Yet, as religious women can be central figures in a conflict, either because the conflict content concerns them directly or because they are agents of change, analyzing their role in conflict is a must. The initial conflict analysis stage’s determination of whether and how religious women are important for a mediation process needs to be mainstreamed. Analyses may find that the inclusion of religious women could be important, but this may be met with dismissal. If this occurs, mediators need to work out and try to understand the underlying motives why secular or religious actors reject the idea of including women. Adapting the discourse to the given cultural and religious setting will help them engage in discussion on women’s inclusion. Further, broadening one’s own understanding of women’s engagement might open up new opportunities to engage religious women, whether as negotiators or as mediators.
While the notions of including women and religious actors have received increasing attention from international and local peacemakers, there is very little data and guidance on the nexus of including women and religious actors in mediation. To learn from one another, mediators must be encouraged to share their experiences of addressing this nexus and including female religious actors in their respective mediation processes with the public. Recording and spreading lessons learned will hopefully help further develop good practice on the nexus of religion, women and mediation.