A Girl’s Place is On the Agenda

Another world is not only possible…She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

(Arundhati Roy)

A young Afghan girl and her classmates paint images of peace on the cement barriers surrounding the ISAF station. Photograph by ‘Afghanistan Matters’.

Why it is that girls tend to be the most often marginalized actors when it comes to participation in peace processes? Research shows that they tend to be forgotten both in youth programs, which are often dominated by boys, and women’s programs, which are usually dominated by older women. Although UNSC Resolution 1325 clearly outlines a role for women and girls, implementation strategies have tended to focus on older women, who have also more frequently used the Resolution in their organizing and advocacy.  Just as participation by both men and women are needed to ensure sustainable peace, the experiences and needs of girls and boys are also essential to take into account.

Conflict often deeply impacts young people, yet they tend to be ignored by scholarship and programs aimed at addressing conflict. Furthermore, when youth are given attention they tend to be stereotyped as perpetrators or victims. These stereotypes ignore the fact that children and young can and do take part in initiatives aimed at building peace. This is not to say that there are three types of youth: the weak, the violent, and the activists. Rather, it is important to understand what might motivate young people in complex environments to get involved in building peace.  Children and youth are a significant part of communities experiencing conflict, yet they are often denied access to participation in formal peacebuilding work. This highlights the need to better implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which includes a number of rights related to empowerment, including, ‘rights that relate to a person being heard on matters that affect his or her life.’ These include children’s right to express views in matters concerning them; to freedom of expression; to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; to privacy; to access information; and to an education. Working toward these aims furthers the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in general and the platforms of prevention and participation in particular.

Although these goals have yet to be reached, many youth already participate in peace work, especially in initiatives aimed at building cultures of peace. Through this work, they can use their skills and knowledge to participate in ways that are relevant to their lives. Likewise, scholars, policy makers, and practitioners need to be paying more attention to how young people can be supported in what they are already doing, how more young people could be involved, and how to make existing initiatives more welcoming and gender-inclusive.

Gender matters a great deal when planning and implementing youth peacebuilding projects, because gender norms significantly influence whether, how, and to what extent boys and girls participate. In particular, girls often face many barriers to participation. Research seeking to uncover the basis for these exclusions points to a certain dominant understanding—placing the burden of responsibility for equal participation on individuals rather than program design or other factors—as a significant factor. While it can be positive for girls to see themselves as unconstrained agents making free choices, difficulties can emerge when this understanding collides with structural and gender-based inequalities.  After all, if girls see victimhood and agency as opposing positions, they may face difficulties in articulating and challenging their experiences of exclusion in constructive and positive ways.

Including the views and knowledge of girls and young women in initiatives aimed at peace and security is crucial for achieving feminist aims of more inclusive, less hierarchical approaches to peace. In doing so, it is important to avoid the trap of thinking of girls as ‘future’ or ‘almost’ women, as youth are so often marginalized as ‘future’ citizens or political actors. Young people in general and girls in particular deserve more credit for the many (often overlooked) ways some of them are already actively involved in working to build cultures of peace in their schools, communities, and countries as well as around the world more broadly. A key part of a feminist agenda then ought to include supporting and encouraging existing efforts by girls as well as examining and pursuing methods for further engaging girls who might not currently participate in peacebuilding.

Girls are important peace and security actors, today and forever. While most public discussion may situate youth as the ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ girls can also be leaders and activists today. Consider the fierce, fearless actions of then 14 year-old Malala Yousafzai last year. Her story reveals that power and persistence don’t only come in packages over the somewhat arbitrary age of 18. Young women like Malala are the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also the leaders of today.

Lesley Pruitt

University of Melbourne