The demand to include women in political negotiations is slowly becoming an international norm. To maximise the impact of inclusion, it is important to learn from women negotiators’ experiences to date, explain Dr Laura McLeod and Dr Rachel Johnson.
There is widespread recognition that women need to be involved in negotiation processes – ranging from peace deals, to constitutional design, to international conventions. One such example is United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), which urges for gender inclusion and consideration in all aspects of the post conflict process, including peace negotiations.
But what is it like to be a woman at the negotiating table? And more than that, what is it like to be a woman who is a feminist and who makes feminist demands?
These are questions that the European Research Council funded project Understanding Institutional Change: A Gender Perspective (UIC), based at the University of Manchester, is asking. The project seeks to understand the gender dynamics of institutional change – how processes by which governmental institutions are designed or reformed are shaped by gender and how such moments of institutional change can be harnessed to advance efforts to achieve more equitable gender relations.
As part of efforts to open the ‘black box’ of political negotiations and understand how they really work we heard at a UIC workshop the experiences of three female academic activists who have sat at the negotiating table: Alice Brown in Scotland during devolution processes in 1997-8 to establish the Scottish Parliament; Shelia Meintjies in South Africa during the mid-1990’s negotiated end to apartheid; and Valerie Oosterveld at the UN, during the drafting of the 1998 Rome Statute that brought the International Criminal Court into being. The conversation is published in full by the International Feminist Journal of Politics.
It feels as though this is an important moment to try and share some of their insights – women are organizing in Bosnia, Syria and Ukraine, pushing for inclusion in processes of institutional change – and whilst the circumstances vary enormously, there is potentially much to be gained from listening to the experiences and reflections of those who have been involved in some of the success stories of feminist intervention from the last 20 years.
Below are the six ‘lessons learnt’ that we have drawn from the conversation between Alice, Sheila and Valerie.
- Early networks matter, even if they are informal, in building up relationships, trust and developing clearer ideas about desired outcomes. Do not underestimate the value of this. These networks can develop in all sorts of spaces – from the Scottish communes of the 1970s to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. When formal negotiations begin, these informal relationships can be vital.
- Rapid responses matter. When opportunities for institutional changes occur, it is never too early to think about gender. Seize formal structures, for example Alice’s inclusion in the steering group designing the Scottish Parliament and Valerie’s inclusion in a Canadian delegation at the UN. Use whatever you can, be it invoking International Conventions or using the language of mainstream political discussions.
- Taking account of the starting point of negotiations and knowing how the process will be organized can be vital for developing a strategy. If the negotiations are being conducted on the basis of consensus – then ask for more than you want! There can be real advantages to having a limited but coherent set of demands, well-worked-through in advance and backed by broad coalitions.
- There are strengths and challenges that come with working in broad coalitions. Academic activists and research can play an important role here. As ‘straddling’ figures who might posses ‘expert status’ within formal negotiation processes, academic activists can provide a point of entry for activist groups. Research can provide a basis for making demands and lend groups the legitimacy to make them – for example, the Women’s National Coalition in South Africa conducted a huge research project, speaking to women all over the country to write a Women’s Charter. This process demonstrated the strength of the link between the WNC and the constituency they spoke for.
- It is hard work to ensure that gender stays on agenda. For those at the table, representing feminist demands is often an additional responsibility to their official role. While this is tremendously exciting, it can be emotionally exhausting. This is where informal relationships and trust can be crucial in sustaining efforts.
- Changes are fragile. In the midst of fast-paced negotiations there is often little time to reflect on the organizing that might be needed in the future to support the changes that are being won today. However, if changes are to be sustainable then some energy needs to be kept in store for thinking beyond the negotiation process.
We have no doubt that there are other lessons that different readers will find within the conversation. We offer our interpretation in the hope that it will prompt others to read and share their own experiences. What can women, and men, who have pushed – or are pushing – feminist demands within other processes of institutional change tell us?