Yakin Erturk - 17 April 2013


Turkey’s agenda for peace aims to overcome the decades-old Kurdish question and raise democratic standards. While welcoming this initiative, Yakin Ertürk questions whether the end of conflict will bring peace to women if gender equality issues are not adequately addressed

Turkey has entered a political point in time with a strong drive for peace. This historic moment not only means ending the three decades of armed conflict that has hijacked efforts towards democracy, but it also means embracing a new social contract that transcends the current deadlock concerning particular Kurdish demands, and more general issues of national identity. While the prospect for peace is understandably received with a general enthusiasm and cautious anticipation by the public at large, a constructive dialogue within the parliament has not yet been forthcoming.

On the other hand, it is not at all clear as to what the peace process actually entails.  The government has carefully avoided using the term “peace”; instead it refers to “solution” or “settlement”, implying that the problem is primarily perceived within a security paradigm that focuses on withdrawal of armed groups of the illegal Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A comprehensive strategy for conflict resolution and reconciliation to address the sufferings endured by different segments of society, and the deep rooted problems that continue to incite hostility and mistrust among communities, has not yet been revealed. It is also not clear whether the modus operandi will assent to an inclusive participation, including that of women.

The most concrete measure taken so far has been the establishment of seven regional commissions composed of “wise persons” with a mandate to create awareness and consent among the populous about the government’s “solution” process. These commissions, which are not envisaged as decision making bodies, have started touring the country and meeting with different stake holders in their respective regions. The fact that only 12 of the 63 “wise persons” are women is a ratio that clearly falls short of the principle of equitable representation and expectations based on international standards that call for the full integration of women and gender concerns into all phases of the transition to peace.

International Norms

Development of international norms on matters related to women, conflict and peace have resulted from the growing awareness of the gendered dimensions of such phenomena. In this respect, the wars in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1990’s were eye openers.

The deliberate use of sexual violence as a war strategy in these wars provoked public outcry. After these atrocities, sexual violence against women during times of conflict finally became a public policy concern, and defined as crimes against humanity by the 1998 Rome Statute, making them punishable in the international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted its landmark Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution recognizes women’s victimization and their agency in times of conflict, as well as their potential to contribute to conflict prevention and reconciliation and peace. Thus, it not only calls on states to integrate a gender perspective into post-conflict reconstruction and to ensure women’s active participation in all phases of peace initiatives, but also mandates the security sector agents to adopt a gender perspective in their work.

Over the past decades, feminist scholarship has paid increasingly more attention to the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace, a subject which has historically been hidden from view and absent in conflict analysis and peace initiatives. It has also drawn attention to the prioritization of the security discourse which militarizes societies at large. Militarist and patriarchal discourses converge in promoting particular notions of femininity and masculinity that support nationalist narratives and reinforce sexist, homophobic and xenophobic state agendas. On the one hand, they legitimize bloated military budgets, and on the other, uphold authoritarian familial values. Such environments strongly tend towards repressive and dictatorial practices.  

The good news is that they also provoke resistance and opposition, and lead to mobilizations among women and men across disparate groups.

Women’s Mobilization in Turkey

The organizing of Kurdish women in southeastern Turkey in the late 1990’s was largely linked to the conflict between the security forces and the PKK, a process which normalized public and private sphere violence in the region.  Women in general became politicized as they encountered the arrest and/or loss of their husbands and other male kin, as well as the disruption of everyday life due to terror and military operations. They invariably found themselves at the centre of the conflict and became increasingly active agents within their households and communities. As the Kurdish demands moved to the mainstream of Turkish politics, Kurdish women - compared to their Turkish counterparts - captured greater space in local administration and in BDP, the predominantly Kurdish political party represented in the Parliament.

The non-traditional experience Kurdish women acquired in organizing in reaction to the conflict also connected them to a feminist agenda, and thus led them to question private violence as well.  Today, there are numerous women’s organizations in the region providing legal counseling, accommodation and hands-on support to women victims of private sphere violence. Increased solidarity among these women in the region made it possible to link with women’s organizations in other parts of the country and establish operative networks around common concerns. Women’s activism, organizing and research in areas ranging from domestic violence to conflict and peace have shown a steady growth over the years, making women a recognizable force in Turkish public discourse and an effective partner in bringing about social change. 

It is important that Turkey’s transition to peace benefits from this experience in order that gender based discrimination is not neglected in societal restructuring. Conflicts are themselves sparked by major class, ethnic and gender inequalities, and in turn they create new dislocations that may deepen these disparities further or generate new ones. Many of the conflicts in the post-cold war era have shown that war on women continues in peace time when women’s access to justice, physical security and political and socio-economic rights are not sufficiently addressed.

The Cases of El Salvador and Guatemala

A comparative look at the roles played by women in combat, peace negotiations, and the post-conflict period in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, which I visited in 2004 in my capacity as the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, help illustrate the linkages between gender equality and peace prospects.

In El Salvador, women were an integral part of the Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) during the Salvadorian civil war which took place from 1979 to 1992. Despite the fact that women comprised 30% of FMLN combatants and over 40% of the revolutionary leadership in the early years of the conflict, their rights were not central to the struggle, which instead revolved around the long standing grievances related to the yawning chasm between the rich and the poor. Consequently, despite the prominent role played by women as combatants and in the negotiations leading to the peace accords, the agreements did not contain gender equality provisions. Instead, when the FMLN sat at the negotiation table, military and political issues were the primary items on their agenda.

The return to peace, therefore, left the machismo culture largely intact. However, since FMLN acquired a legitimate political space in the post-conflict period, this enabled women in their ranks to participate more broadly in political parties, the parliament, trade unions and the like. Furthermore, women’s frustration with the discriminatory treatment they received in the reintegration programmes gave rise to a feminist consciousness, which became instrumental in challenging gender discrimination within the FMLN, as well as within the wider society. The effort women invested in building political coalitions and common platforms for change in the post-conflict era has generated considerable achievements in gender equality, particularly at the legislative level. However, the gender equality agenda and democracy continue to be hindered by the conservative forces that are well established in the Salvadorian society.

In Guatemala, women also took part in the war against the government in the ranks of Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) which began in 1961 and ended in 1996. Although the exact number of women combatants is not certain, they reportedly comprised roughly 15% of the officially demobilized forces. The relatively lower level of women’s participation, compared to the Salvadorian case, may be because the war in Guatemala started nearly two decades earlier when war activism among women was less conventional. Another factor may be the fragmentary nature of UNRG, where 80% of the rank and file came from 21 indigenous groups, speaking different languages and representing the most marginalized sectors of society.

The Guatemalan peace accords, signed six years after the Salvadorian one, benefited from lessons learned from the El Salvador experience, the impact of the UN conferences of the 1990’s, which created an international momentum around women’s human rights, and the greater involvement of civil society, including women’s groups - who by then had developed a relatively strong gender awareness. As a result, there were a number of significant provisions on women’s rights in the accords, including protection of families headed by women; rights of indigenous people with particular focus on indigenous women; commitment to the principle of positive discrimination to increase women’s participation in the public sphere. In this sense, the Guatemalan peace accord was more progressive than the Salvadorian.

A major drawback in the Guatemalan case, however, was the lack of political will and capacity to implement the provisions of the agreements, and a fragmented opposition that could not force the issue. Women, particularly in the indigenous communities, continue to experience multiple layers of discrimination and suffer from the pains of the war, which have been left unaddressed. Insecurity and widespread street violence terrorize all women in Guatemala, and subject them to the risk of brutal femicides.

Lessons Learned

The El Salvador and Guatemala peace processes, notwithstanding their limitations discussed above, have been acclaimed as models on their own ground. From a gender perspective, they offer a number of lessons learned: the voices of the opposition in the conflict must gain legitimate space in peace; involvement of women and recognition of gender equality as an integral component of peace strategy must be ensured; forging strategic alliances among civil society with a strong gender and human rights consciousness to demand state compliance with the provisions of the agreements is essential; political will and commitment to an inclusive and non-discriminatory application of human rights norms must be demonstrated; last but not least, there must be functional state apparatuses to maintain human security and rule of law.

Other peace initiatives since the signing of the El Salvador and Guatemala peace agreements nearly two decades ago have repeatedly highlighted the importance of a gender competent approach. They have also demonstrated that due to a general tendency of peace processes to be reformist and conservative, some of the most contentious issues of inequality, particularly those marginal to the reconfiguration of inter-elite politics - such as gender relations - remain unresolved. The particular insight gained by those subjected to systematic exclusion and subordination can be a powerful force in challenging such shortcomings. It is within this context that there is a merit in including women’s participation in the different phases of the peace process, as their experiences within gendered hierarchies can help expose the taken for granted gendered values and norms that sustain a system of inequality between women and men.  It is well known that, while some women may be agents of conflicts, it has generally been grieving women who have made public demands for justice and an end to the violence and impunity in conflict zones around the world. 

Will Turkey build on these lessons learned and comply with its international obligations in engendering its peace process? So far, the process has been discussed in a gender neutral manner by all parties concerned. There is no indication as to whether gender concerns will be addressed, or if women of different sectors of society will be consulted and included in the various phases of the process. Women’s groups have been forging alliances to develop their own road map towards peace, but have not yet made strong public appeals.

Despite the uncertainty and ambivalence surrounding Turkey’s peace process, one cannot but welcome the possibility of peace. How the country will get there (i.e. the process itself), and with whom, will no doubt determine whether sufferings can come to an end and the society can move forward towards an inclusive and just social contract.  In this respect, there is an urgent need for a broad based public dialogue, and a transparent strategy that takes into account the insights and choices of civil actors who have experienced the conflict and its root causes in varied ways.