Peace talks need women
Sanam’s grandfather advised his children – and there were 36 of them – not to go into politics. He knew whereof he spoke. He himself had been a prominent figure in the regime that was ousted by the Pahlavis in 1925; Sanam’s eldest uncle was to be assassinated by Shah Reza Pahlavi.
You may not seek politics but, as Sanam puts it, ‘Politics always has something to do with you.’ Especially if you are Iranian. Aged 11 in 1978, she and her close family fled the country as it careered towards a religious fundamentalist revolution. ‘I had a suitcase full of skiing clothes and contingency homework that our school had given us because it was closed due to the demonstrations.’
Fast-forward to 1994 and Sanam was working as an intern at CNN in London. She recalls: ‘There were television screens in the newsroom. I remember these two images: one was of Nelson Mandela becoming President and the celebrations in South Africa; the other was of men with machetes attacking people. That was the Rwandan genocide. I was thinking, how is it possible to have a camera actually documenting this event and no-one stopping it? That was a moment where I went from wanting to be a journalist, an observer of events, to thinking: how do you get in and prevent these things happening?’
She joined International Alert, an NGO that works on conflict issues, and in 1998 came another turning point in her life. She was helping to organize a conference in London that would bring together women from different conflict zones around the world.
‘It was a really extraordinary experience… All of a sudden there were these women coming from Guatemala, Afghanistan, Israel, Rwanda, with their stories and their reality of being women in the middle of conflict and what they were trying to do to stop it.’
There was one Rwandan woman who spoke about the need for reconciliation. ‘This was four years after the genocide and I realized she’d lost 100 relatives. I thought: “I’m not sure that I would be able to have the strength to do what she’s doing if that had happened to my family; to look forward and to think about reconciliation and forgiveness”.’
Sanam also realized: ‘These are the people that are doing the work; this is who I want to support and advocate for because they’re practical. They get it done. They have a vision and they have their feet on the ground.’
She and her International Alert colleagues decided to start a campaign called ‘Women Building Peace from the Village Council to the Negotiating Table’. A policy pillar was to get resolutions to include women in peace-making processes in the UN Security Council, the EU Parliament and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Sanam was tasked to ‘go get a Security Council resolution’. She set about it with youthful optimism: ‘‘Honestly, I think it helped not to know what it actually meant.’
She was persistent and her approach disarmingly positive. ‘It wasn’t “wars happen and terrible things happen to women”, because wars happen and terrible things happen to everybody. I wanted to say: “Wars happen and wars have changed; we have civil wars now. You, the Security Council, are actually slightly restricted in how you can engage in civil wars because you’re not meant to intervene because of sovereignty issues. So, hey, look at who can help. And look at who’s doing the work on the ground.”’
It worked. The landmark Resolution 1325 on the inclusion of women in peace-making was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council on 31 October 2000.
Sanam was commissioned by the UN to do a study on violent masculinity, embarking on a 10-country tour that included Kingston, Jamaica, where she met with gang members. ‘There were about 40 guys surrounding us. Some of them didn’t have shirts on and I could see the bullet wounds. They were smoking their joints. Their little kids came and sat on their laps.’
So she turned to the conversation to what the gangsters wanted for their children. The answer – ‘I want my children to have good table manners, to speak well and go to school and have good lives’ – resonated with her own personal values and wishes.
Similarly, when she was looking at the question of young men getting involved in violence in Somalia, a village elder told her that gender-based violence was their core concern too. Sanam remarks: ‘The assumption is this is a niche area for women’s rights organizations and nobody else wants to talk about it. What I found was that men at the local level do care about their own constituencies and structures disintegrating from within.’
Skin in the game
Time and again, Sanam saw evidence that involving women leads to better outcomes in conflict resolution. For example, as a key confidence-building measure, the UN in Yemen was meant to help negotiate the release of prisoners, but was actually achieving little. It was a group of local Yemeni women, organizing as mothers of detainees, who managed to secure the release of over 600 prisoners. ‘These women care because it’s their kids and their husbands. How do you say ‘no’ to a mom? And they’re going to persist day in, day out.’
Yet still women are often left out of the negotiations. Instead, it’s militia leaders, often living abroad and with ‘no skin in the game’ who are invited to the negotiating table.
She clearly feels passionately about this. ‘If you think about Yemen right now, who is hurting? Is it the Saudis? Is it the Americans? Is it the UAE? Is it the Yemeni government? They’re sitting in a hotel in Riyadh. Who is paying for the war that these guys are fighting amongst themselves? It’s Yemeni women and children and old men. How dare we not have their representatives, their voice at the peace talks? How dare we give the Saudi government and the Yemeni government, sitting in Riyadh, more say than women on the ground who are risking their lives to do Covid relief, risking their lives to negotiate a ceasefire or safe passage for sick people? It’s completely upside down.’
She also takes issue with the dominant, primarily technical approaches to peace-making that undervalue emotion. ‘I think that negotiations and mediation processes have to touch people in their heart to be able to get to their head. I don’t think that you start with a head and go to the heart. When that emotional reality of the war has been brought to the negotiating spaces, it has made a significant difference in the quality and the trajectory of the talks.’
She cites the example of Colombia’s 2012-16 peace talks, which included delegations of victims and the families of the disappeared, speaking directly of their personal experiences to the warring parties around the negotiating table.
Since 2006, Sanam has been the CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), an NGO that she set up to fund, support and connect women peacebuilders.
‘Wars bring out the worst in humanity and they bring out the best. The women I work with are extraordinary. I just wish the world knew them. I wish that the world was listening to them. I think they should be the sounding board of how we do peace processes.’
The women of ICAN get together every year for an annual conference. During the pandemic those meetings have been replaced by a weekly zoom call.
‘When we are all together, what I see is how much more peace is inherent to human nature than war is. And yet we’ve allowed the odd psychopath to define how we understand Yemen or Syria. We’ve elevated the worst elements and we ignore the best elements and the majority element.’
In partnership with the Oslo Forum. This article was adapted by Vanessa Baird from an interview by Adam Cooper in The Mediator’s Studio, an Oslo Forum podcast from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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