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What is the Relationship Between Closing Space for Civil Society, Gender, and Peace?

A few weeks ago, while everyone in D.C. was enjoying the cherry blossoms and the first days of true Spring weather, I was receiving winter storm warnings in Madison, Wisconsin. I won’t complain too much, though, as I was in Madison to present research at and attend the 4W Summit on Women, Gender, and Well-Being: Voice, Violence, and Peacemaking.

I landed in Madison and made my way through the April blizzard just in time to catch May Sabe Phyu’s keynote address. Sabe Phyu, a Burmese activist, director of the Gender Equality Network, and co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network (KPN), focused her speech on internal conflict in Myanmar and the centrality of civil society and women to realizing a sustainable transition to peace.

She opened with a set of statistics that I have often drawn upon in my work at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and which informed the research I was presenting at the conference. There is an empirical link between women’s security and state security. Furthermore, when women participate in peace negotiations, an agreement is 60 percent more likely to be reached, 20 percent more likely to last at least two years, and 35 percent more likely to last more than fifteen years.

She went on to touch on three dynamics within Myanmar I was less familiar with, and which struck me especially. First, though the international community has largely focused on the conflict in Rakhine State and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, violent conflict pervades other areas of Myanmar, including Kachin State. The conflict landscape of Myanmar is complex, with the persecution and grievances of various ethnic groups driving distinct conflicts and contributing to the volatility of the national political system at large. Second, under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, space for civil society has become increasingly restricted and reserved for NLD affiliated organizations. Third, there is immense reluctance among the NLD and the Myanmar Army to open spaces for women to contribute to the peace process and hold positions of power in their communities and in political institutions. Perhaps paradoxically, the position of Aung San Suu Kyi’s position as de-facto head of state has fomented opposition to women’s participation in shaping Myanmar’s peace and governance architecture. The notion that her influence is sufficient to represent all women’s voices is pervasive.

While concerning individually, these three realities taken together are particularly hostile to peace. The intricate web of Myanmar’s various conflicts highlights the need for diverse voices to be included in the peace process, yet those in power believe that all Burmese women can be represented by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the face of exclusion from formal peace processes, civil society is the remaining avenue for women to participate in shaping post-conflict governance, yet civil society’s operating space is getting smaller and smaller.

I thought about the fact that the ability of civil society to operate freely is diminishing around the globe. I also thought about the research I was presenting at the conference, which examines the conditions under which civil war facilitates women’s entrance into the formal political sphere and how the regime women enter influences their ability to make significant legislative and policy contributions. One of the central conclusions of that work was that the “formal” political sphere may not be the best measure of women’s political power in a post-conflict context. Civil society organizations (CSOs) allow for citizen participation in political spaces where institutions of governance otherwise appear closed to the majority of people, women especially. Limits on CSOs endanger political agency. For example, without a seat in the Accra Peace Process, Muslim and Christian Liberian women created several large-scale women’s peace initiatives, which worked in tandem with one another to bring the major militant opposition groups and President Charles Taylor to the negotiating table, ultimately ending the war in their country. Women in Liberia sustained their civil society growth in the post-conflict period and were able to permeate the political sphere, making significant policy contributions as the country entered a period of democratization post-conflict.

So what does it mean that in 2017, the majority of countries showed “serious systemic problems with civic space” and “attacks on civic space came even in countries where they were rarely seen before.” For one, it means that women, already underrepresented and undervalued in conversations of peace and security, will be further excluded from the discussion. Subsequently, our prospects for a sustainably peaceful world will diminish.

When we talk about the ramifications of a growing democracy deficit and increasingly stringent restrictions on civic space, we don’t often talk explicitly about gender equality or women’s representation. But the two are interlinked. Closing space for civil society around the globe inhibits peace, in large part because of the impact it will have on women’s political agency.

Emily Myers is a Fall 2017 Scoville Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.