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Womens Leadership at the nexus of health, conflict and peacebuilding

Kristen Meagher

Co-leader of the Womens Leaders in Health and Conflict Initative (WLHC), Programme Manager and Research Associate within the Conflict and Health Research Group, King's College London

08 March 2022

On International Women's Day, Kristen Meagher, co-leader of the Womens Leaders in Health and Conflict Initative, discusses their research on the link between gender, peace and health and why women's leadership is essential in strengthening health systems in conflict settings.

Women’s leadership has increasingly been at the forefront of many global and development agendas, touching on areas related to health, gender equality, and peacebuilding. Women are actively challenging archaic patriarchal structures in tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues and demonstrating their effectiveness as leaders across sectors and systems, particularly in light of COVID, in turn promoting a global cultural shift.

Late last year, the Women Leaders in Health and Conflict Initiative (WLHC), co-led by Professor Preeti Patel and me in the Conflict and Health Research Group, was awarded a £62,000 grant from the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as part of the FCDO’s Global Security Rapid Analysis fund. WLHC went on to publish a call for organisational reform and for donors to fund programmes on women’s leadership in conflict-affected areas. Despite the recent momentum across these agendas and programmes, the evidence base exploring how these are interconnected does not exist.

There has been a recent revival on the ‘Health for Peace’ programmes, a policy framework adopted by the World Health Organisation with the premise that the role of healthcare workers would extend to the preservation and promotion of peace. Yet the evidence base to support, implement and evaluate ‘Health for Peace’ programmes remains limited and policymakers in conflict settings do not consider peace when developing and implementing interventions and health policies. What is often missed is the role of women's leadership in health in conflict-affected settings, in which gender inequities and inequalities are exacerbated.

It is well evidenced that women’s participation in peace negotiations with voice and influence leads to better peace accord content, higher agreement implementation rates, and longer lasting peace. The inclusion of women in leadership positions may be more likely, therefore, to allow for women’s political participation and generally support norms of gender equality, which can have an independent effect on the durability of peace. It has been argued that rebuilding health services can play an essential role in promoting social cohesion in a nation’s post-conflict recovery stage. Building on this, strengthening health systems in conflict settings through women’s leadership may support dismantling the entrenched practice of gender-blind social institutions. Taking a health systems approach reinforces the value of incorporating gender as an essential component; women are disadvantaged by the structures that influence health systems in conflict and are frequently excluded from decision-making in not only health, but across systems and society.

The WLHC’s research therefore seeks to further empirical evidence on the nexus between health, conflict, and peacebuilding by employing a gender lens specifically through the role of women’s leadership. Preliminary findings in our forthcoming paper as part of the BMJ Global Health special issue on Peace for Health, demonstrate that this vital nexus may support the development of effective policies and interventions that adequately address the complexity and diversity of health in humanitarian crises and ultimately support peacebuilding. This research explores how health systems strengthening is beginning to incorporate a gender lens although there is significant room for improvement, particularly in complex and protracted conflicts.

The paper focuses on two case studies: northwest Syria and Afghanistan. These case studies highlight that an all-encompassing health systems focus may provide an opportunity for further understanding the link between gender, peace and health in active conflict and advocate for long-term investment in systems impacted by conflict. This approach may enable women and gender minorities to have a voice in the decision-making of health programmes and interventions that supports systems, and enables the community led and context specific knowledge and action required to address the root causes of inequalities and inequities across both systems and societies.

With funding from the FCDO, this research project has enabled the WLHC initiative to contract three additional researchers, Mariana Rodo, Mouna Khaity and Sali Hafez, to support the next phase of this project; gathering empirical evidence from regions and countries affected by conflict across the globe.

The empirical evidence will engage individuals working at the nexus of health and conflict to firstly understand how profound the gender gap is; and, secondly, understand how effective including women or individuals of gender minorities equally in leadership and governance in health systems to support sustainable peace building or sustainable efforts is.

In this story

Kristen Meagher

Kristen Meagher

Programme Manager

Preeti Patel

Preeti Patel

Professor of Global Health and Conflict and Co-Director of the Centre for Conflict & Health Research

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