IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Women in the peace panels? By Ayesah Abubakar

PENANG, Malaysia (MindaNews/20 July) — The mainstreaming of gender issues, specifically women’s issues, has not captivated me until recently, in the process of my work. I admit, I am one of those few who perceived that the discussions on the role of women in the context of the peace process is often given a token representation and usually ending up as a meaningless battle cry of feminist politics.

As a woman, I have always felt that my issues should be regarded in terms of merit. Also, I would want to be valued for my contributions and potentials regardless of gender. Now, don’t I sound like a feminist somehow? Anyway, the point remains that my bone of contention against token women’s issues and representation is on the fact that I have yet to witness the empowerment and leadership of women in the Mindanao peace process. If a peace panel does appoint a female negotiator, I wish to see her articulating and working very hard to bring more impact on women and children’s issues — as part of any peace talks or agreement.

It is my introduction to the world of motherhood that has led me to understand women’s issues more profoundly. In the last months, while studying two conflict communities in Maguindanao as part of my research work, I have had the discovery of how lives are for women and children in these areas. While these communities are marginalized in many ways — e.g. access to health, education, security, general welfare, etc. — they have also impressed on me their resilience and courage in facing and surviving life’s challenges. At one time, sitting with three women and mothers, I was shocked to find out that they bore 11-12 children but out of these, half of them die due to “abas” or measles. I cannot even imagine how these mothers must have felt watching, helplessly, their babies die from an ordinary illness that can be easily prevented. And much more for some mothers who have lost their child as victims of stray bullets in the midst of an armed conflict. Such circumstances are easily forgotten by those who only watch the news from afar. Worse, peace negotiators and conflict parties themselves can only regard them as the inevitable casualties of war.

While it is true that the new International Monitoring Team (since the reconstitution of IMT in February 2010) is supposed to ensure the protection of women and children as part of the ongoing ceasefire, it remains to be seen how much of this mandate is actually being carried out and monitored? How is IMT ensuring that the voices of this sector (those who are IDPs and still living in vulnerable communities), will they be heard and responded to? Should we then put women in the Joint CCCH just to address this task?

The need for women representation in the ongoing GRP-MILF peace process had been asked for a long time. This wish is based on five compelling reasons: (1) Cliché as it may sound … they are key stakeholders in this peace process. (2) Women and children’s issues must be clearly highlighted in the peace talks. (3) Women should be given the venue to articulate the issues that are important to them as girls, young adults, wives, mothers, and widows. (4) There should be a more conscious effort to lay the foundations to their development as an important sector of the community. And that (5) women deserve to be given opportunities for leadership.

The new life of the GRP-MILF peace process under President Noynoy Aquino presents new possibilities. Should this peace process want to restart for the better, it should give way to a more substantive participation of women’s voices. If women can be welcomed in the peace panels, these development should be regarded as a meaningful contributions to the attainment of sustainable peace. Most importantly, the integrity of women’s representation also lay on the relevant work experience and capabilities of a potential lady negotiator/s in the GRP-MILF peace talks.

I earnestly hope to see women in the peace panels, and I am sure many more women and men also feel the same. It is about time to do this peace process right.

(Ayesah is the coordinator of the Mindanao Peace Program at the Research & Education for Peace Universiti Sains Malaysia or REPUSM in Penang, Malaysia. You may email her at [email protected])

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