Peace talks need women

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Peace talks need women

Women in war zones are the best peace-makers, but they almost never have a place at negotiations. It is mostly men in negotiations. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini is an Iranian gender activist and senior adviser to the UN. She is working to change all of that.


Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini (bottom, centre, in the white top) with women peacemakers from war zones around the world at ICAN's 2018 Annual Forum in Sri Lanka. Credit: ICAN

Sanam’s grandfather had 36 children, He advised his children not to go into politics. He knew what he was talking about. He was an important person in the government. In 1925 the Pahlavis took over that government. And Shah Reza Pahlavi assassinated Sanam’s eldest uncle.

But, as Sanam says, ‘Politics always has something to do with you.’ Especially if you are Iranian. Aged 11 in 1978, she and her family left the country as it moved quickly to a religious fundamentalist revolution. ‘I had a suitcase full of skiing clothes and homework that our school gave us because it was closed because of the demonstrations.’

Then in 1994, Sanam was working as an intern at CNN in London. She remembers, ‘There were television screens in the newsroom. I remember these two pictures: one was of Nelson Mandela becoming President and the celebrations in South Africa; the other was of men with machetes attacking people. That was the Rwandan genocide. I was thinking, how is it possible to have a camera showing this and no-one is stopping it? That was when I changed from wanting to be a journalist, and watching events, to thinking: how do you get in and stop these things happening?’

She joined International Alert, an NGO that works on conflict issues. And in 1998, she was helping to organize a conference in London to bring together women from different war zones around the world.

‘It was really amazing… Suddenly there were women coming from Guatemala, Afghanistan, Israel, Rwanda, with their stories and how they were women in the middle of war and how they were trying to stop it.’

One Rwandan woman spoke about the need for peace. ‘This was four years after the genocide and I realized she lost 100 relatives. I thought, “I’m not sure that I would be strong enough to do what she’s doing if that happened to my family; to look forward and to think about reconciliation and forgiveness”.’

Sanam also realized, ‘These people are doing the work; I want to support these people because they’re practical. They get things done. They have clear ideas and they are practical.’

So positive

She and her International Alert colleagues decided to start a campaign called ‘Women Building Peace from the Village Council to the Negotiating Table’. The plan was to include women in peace-making in the UN Security Council, the EU Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Sanam’s job was ‘to get a Security Council resolution’. She started with young optimism: ‘‘Honestly, I think it helped not to know what it actually meant.’

She was strong and very positive. ‘I wanted to say that the situation is not that wars happen and terrible things happen to women, because wars happen and terrible things happen to everybody. I wanted to say that wars happen and wars have changed; we have civil wars now. You, the Security Council, cannot do much about civil wars. You cannot because of sovereignty issues. So, hey, look at who can help. And look at who’s doing the work.’

It worked. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on women in peace-making on 31 October 2000.

The UN asked Sanam to do a study on violent masculinity, with a tour of 10 countries including Kingston, Jamaica, where she met gang members. ‘There were about 40 guys around us. Some of them didn’t have shirts on and I could see the bullet wounds. They were smoking their joints. Their little kids came and sat on their laps.’

So she asked the gangsters what they wanted for their children. The answer – ‘I want my children to be polite, to speak well, and to go to school and have good lives.’ This is what she wanted for her children.

And when she was looking at the problem of young men involved in violence in Somalia, a village leader told her that gender-based violence was their main concern, too. Sanam says, ‘People think this is something for women’s rights organizations and nobody else wants to talk about it. But I found that men do care about what is happening where they live.’

Touch hearts

Very often, Sanam saw that involving women leads to better results in peace-making. For example, the UN in Yemen had to help negotiate freeing prisoners, but it was doing very little. A group of local Yemeni women, the mothers of prisoners, helped to free over 600 prisoners. ‘These women care because it’s their kids and their husbands. How do you say ‘no’ to a mum? And they’re going to try hard day after day.’

But women are often not involved in negotiations. It’s the militia leaders. They often live abroad and they are invited to the negotiations.

She feels very strongly about this. ‘If you think about Yemen right now, who is suffering? Is it the Saudis? Is it the Americans? Is it the UAE? Is it the Yemeni government? They’re sitting in a hotel in Riyadh. Who is paying for the war they are fighting amongst themselves? It’s Yemeni women and children and old men. We must have them and their voices at the peace talks. We must not give the Saudi government and the Yemeni government, sitting in Riyadh, more power than women risking their lives to do Covid relief, risking their lives to negotiate a ceasefire or safe passage for sick people. It’s completely wrong.’

She also disagrees with the technical approaches to peace-making that do not think about emotion. ‘I think that negotiations must touch people’s hearts to get to their heads. I don’t think that you start with a head and go to the heart. When the emotions of war are involved in negotiations, it makes a very big difference in the talks.’

She gives the example of Colombia’s 2012-16 peace talks. The talks included victims and the families of the disappeared. They spoke directly of their personal experiences to the people around the negotiating table.

Since 2006, Sanam has been the CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), an NGO that she started to fund, support, and bring together women peace-makers.

‘Wars bring out the worst in people and they bring out the best. The women I work with are extraordinary. I want the world to know them. I want the world to listen to them.’

The women of ICAN meet every year. During the pandemic the meetings were on weekly Zoom calls.

‘When we are all together, I see much more peace than war in human nature. But we allow psychopaths to tell us how to understand Yemen or Syria.’


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)