A sole woman at the negotiating table for peace

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Shadia Marhaban, President of the Aceh Women’s League (LINA), speaks to reporters after participating in a closed, informal (known as “Arria Formula”) meeting of the Security Council commemorating International Women’s Day, on the role of women in mediation and conflict resolution. 8 March 2012. Photo: United Nations

Dialogue, mediation and negotiation are elegant words to describe ways to resolve conflicts. I was part of such a peace process that produced an agreement to end a 30 year bloody conflict between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). That was almost ten years ago.

Then and now, women are rarely seen in this peace negotiation arena, often because they are not typically part of the parties in conflict. They are also not perceived as adequately prepared for tackling "tough" issues like peace and security. Despite recent international obligations to include women in peace processes, reality has not kept pace with rhetoric.

My own presence, as a lone woman among "tough" men who had been at the helm of the struggle for independence for decades was unique. As a woman, and a mother of two children, one of whom is severely autistic; I did not push to go to Helsinki for the peace talks, as it meant leaving my two small children. As fate would have it, the official negotiators were arrested on the way to the airport and sentenced to jail and exiled to the prison island of Nusakambangan off Java.

By default, I then became formally part of the negotiations. I was treated with high respect by the top leadership and as "one of the backroom boys" of the four-member support team. I presented myself not as a woman on the team, but rather as a field expert whose expertise was important to the peace process. I debated with the men on critical issues of peace and security, which took them by surprise as I had spent much time in the jungle with armed fighters. I was the sole "flower among the thorns" but after establishing myself as someone with knowledge and experience to bring to the table, I did not face much resistance.

My difficulties came from the Indonesian side. Very simply put, I was not taken seriously and I did not count. When I was invited to speak to the negotiators and the future head of the Aceh Monitoring Mission, I was able to point out why some of his plans were not workable. However, I was soon called out and informed that the Indonesian side objected to my presence, claiming that I had not been part of the team from the beginning. I felt solidarity when the GAM leadership told the mediator that if I were expelled, the peace talk would end there. The Indonesian side withdrew their demand.

Such was the nature of my presence in the Helsinki peace talks, mired in biases. My own experience strengthens my believe that lack of women's participation in negotiations and in managing peace processes translates into neglect of women's priorities being reflected in the talks. As an example, while during the conflict in Aceh, women were very active in supporting roles in intelligence sharing, medical and logistic services, and a few were trained in real armed fighting units; but after the conflict had ended and peace was restored, these women were deprived of meaningful assistance in the reintegration programs. We have a long way to go until women will be respected for their knowledge, capacity and experience on par with men.

Based on my experience, I have become a global advocate for inclusive and broader participation in peace processes as vital approaches for effective and sustainable peace. My role in Helsinki was not an act of "inclusion." I was a member of the armed group fighting for the independence of Aceh from Indonesia, a struggle that had lasted three decades and cost tens of thousands of lives. Looking back with the knowledge that I have gained now, this role had nothing to do with me being a woman, which on one hand was perhaps a good thing, but on the other, it meant that important issues pertaining to and issues specific to women remained neglected. The peace negotiations had focused on political and security arrangements only, without considering the position and rights of women in the eventual agreement that was signed on August 15, 2005. This lack of inclusion and consideration of women's roles and rights in the Aceh peace process is playing out today into denial of women's rights and radicalization of religious views.

In the final analysis, meaningful participation of women requires a change in the mindset of the society itself. It is with this conviction that I have made myself useful and active in advocacy not only for rights of women but also on creating networks of women mediators in the region so that they are equipped to take on new responsibilities with forceful confidence. Only when women become mediators in the fullest meaning of the word that the dynamics of the peace process would translate into "justice and dignity for all," as proudly mentioned in the preamble of the Helsinki Memorandum for Peace in Aceh.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the United Nations Development Programme (the N-Peace initiative), to promote the leadership that women demonstrate in resolving conflicts and building peace. Learn more about N-Peace.