In the past decades, in reaction to what has been dubbed “liberal peacebuilding” – Western-driven and characterized by a focus on “problem-solving” rather than understanding the structural drivers of violence and war, more holistic, critical approaches to peace have emerged and gained prominence. Theories around quality peace, everyday peace, and the local turn in peacebuilding continue to gain traction and attention.
At the policy level, following the 2015 Peacebuilding Architecture Review, the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly adopted identical resolutions emphasizing the importance of a broad approach to peacebuilding, encompassing all stages of peace and not only immediate post-conflict reconstruction. This approach, which has been dubbed “Sustaining Peace” within the UN system, defines peace “as a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society.”
Feminist scholars and peace activists have made invaluable contributions to these re-conceptualizations of peace. A careful reflection on how feminist thinkers and activists envision peace – and how they work towards this vision – is crucial in imagining a more feminist future.
Defining “feminist peace”
There is no single definition of feminist peace. On the contrary, feminist peace research has been characterized by “untidiness, complexity and co-existing contradictions”. Perhaps paradoxically, this openness to contestation, multiplicity and a plurality of perspectives can be seen as one of the key tenets of a feminist definition of peace – and a feminist recipe for a more peaceful future.
The tensions and contradictions often come to light in the context of an ongoing armed conflict, such as the war in Ukraine. The Russian invasion has triggered global media coverage dominated by strongly militarized narratives. While some feminists have warned of the danger of such rhetoric and called for de-escalation and broader reflection on the shortcomings of the global system that has allowed the war to happen, others have called for more military support for Ukraine to defend itself. Lifelong feminist peace activists I spoke to since the outbreak of the war have shared with me that while they still believe a feminist future is one with fewer weapons and no wars, the military aggression they face and the failure of the international system to prevent it, has left them without hope, resigned to calling for weapons to defend themselves. At the same time, they are acutely aware of the dangers of further militarization, and the threats that the weapons will create for women when they remain in circulation after the war. Thus, faced with the war and a failure of the international system, they find themselves in a contradictory and contested space. That feminist peace leaves room for such space: for taking diverse voices and often contradictory perspectives seriously, and understanding how they emerge from, and are shaped by, global power dynamics, is – to me – its key feature.
Another belief shared by many feminist peace researchers and peacebuilders is that feminist peace is about more than merely “adding women” or “adding gender” into peacebuilding action and deliberation. The mere presence of women in the room or at the table does not guarantee that feminist ideas will be incorporated into peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction. Similarly, “mainstreaming” gender-equality into peacebuilding and reconstruction programming “rarely transform[s] the structural power asymmetries” in post-conflict contexts. A more transformative approach, that pays careful attention to gender and power dynamics and how they both shape and are shaped by, conflict and post-conflict processes, is thus another key tenet of feminist peace. Feminist peacebuilding should aim to identify, unpack and transform the complex power dynamics that shape the lives of those designing and participating in peacebuilding programs, in order to contribute to a peace that works for everyone – not “women” as a homogenous category, but women in all their diversity, as well as other marginalized groups and persons.
Critically, feminist researchers and activists recognize that – like gender norms and power dynamics – peace is produced and reproduced in everyday spaces and actions. Many have pointed to the fact that, especially for women and sexual and gender minorities, violence experienced during conflict is intimately connected to violence and oppression experienced in the private sphere, and forms a “continuum” that extends from war to peacetime. Moreover, just as violence persists and is reproduced in private and everyday spaces, so too seemingly “mundane practices of caring” contribute to building more peaceful and trusting communities. Paying attention to the everyday practices of peacebuilding requires training one’s eye to peace processes and practices as they happen at the local level – “people’s diverse experiences of conflict and peacebuilding in the context of their communities, beyond the strategizing of governments and insurgents”. In line with these reflections, women that participated in a 2018 study about the meaning of “sustaining peace” I led saw their work within their communities – including creating cooperatives to support each other both psychologically and economically, and caring for those affected by war – as their key contribution to peace.
While there is no single, uncontested definition of “feminist peace”, feminist scholars and practitioners share some important perspectives when it comes to peace. Most feminist understandings of peace are simultaneously broader and more holistic than the liberal peacebuilding approaches, and more intimate and attentive to the everyday. Importantly, feminist visions of peace are built on a commitment to take seriously diverse voices and perspectives and to unpack the power structures that shape war and peacebuilding.
What does a feminist future look like?
So, what does a feminist future look like from the perspective of feminist peacebuilders? Is a feminist future a future without wars? I believe so. Despite the contestation and contradictions emerging within feminist movements, in particular in countries torn by war, feminists share a belief on the need to examine, unpack and transform structures that perpetuate violence along the “continuum” – from the violence in the private realm, through political violence and human trafficking, to war.
At the global level, it means paying more attention to narratives and practices of militarization – not merely in the context of any particular war, where they become particularly pronounced, but more broadly and in societies considered at peace. It also means taking seriously calls to reduce global military spending and instead invest in locally-led movements for peace. Finally, it means paying closer attention to how current international institutions – such as the UN Security Council – influence and perpetuate power imbalances, and becoming more serious about reforming them.
At the national and local level, it means being serious about listening to women and other marginalized groups. It means including them in peace processes and decision-making about reconstruction and peacebuilding programs from the early stages, providing them with resources to continue and amplify their work, and recognizing and challenging underlying power dynamics that often permeate the partnerships between local, national and global actors.
A feminist future, thus, requires commitment to transformation and structural change. Only then can we truly challenge the continuum of violence and imagine a world without wars.