No woman, no peace

Including women in peace processes is still not a given, despite the fact that it increases the chances of long-lasting peace and better the protection of vulnerable groups. Media has an important role to play by putting women’s voices and perspectives in the forefront

(this article was originally published in our 2019 annual report. Read the full report here.)

In 2012, when the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP) began peace talks with government negotiators, not a single woman was present. “Twenty men and no women. It was a shocking image of exclusion”, Laura Gil, IMS’ Colombia adviser, remembers.

Three years later this had changed so that one in five of the government negotiat-ing team were female and close to half of the FARC delegates. The women on both sides worked intensely and strategically with the media to make their voices heard. However, change didn’t come easy, Victoria Sandino, at the time a FARC commander and one of the first guerilla peace negotiators, recalls: “The media frequently asked intrusive and insensitive questions such as ‘were you raped?’ or ‘were you forced to undergo abortion?’ Little or no attention was given to their experience as FARC combatants or their political agenda”.

The exclusion of women was not limited to the negotiation tables, but also manifested itself in and by media. Even today – and despite women being essential to achiev-ing long-lasting peace – their experiences as active agents and survivors in conflicts are not pronounced publicly, their roles as experts and decision-makers go unnoticed and their needs remain overlooked.

But with the right support and guidance, media has a chance to lead in the devel-opments towards gender equal representation, according to Laura Gil: “Media has the power to amplify the voices of women, portray their active roles in peacebuilding, support their participation in public debate, challenge gender stereotypes and hold decision-makers accountable for women rights. But they need a push to realise this major potential”.

Training, awareness raising and media development

Enter IMS’ 1325 programme, launched in 2019. It is named after UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) which seek to increase women’s participation and representation in peace processes, and it runs simultaneously in Colombia, Myanmar and Syria – three countries which are all torn by lengthy, brutal armed conflicts and which in different ways strive to find peaceful solutions. IMS’ programme focus on increasing the number of women journalists reporting on peace processes and conflicts as well as making stories from women in excluded groups known to the public and decision makers.

“The goal of the IMS programme in Myanmar is a greater inclusion of women in the media and more news content on conflict and peace building that reflect women’s perspective”, says Maw Day Myar, IMS’ Myanmar adviser. “We do that through training journalists on how to add a gender perspective to conflict reporting and how to interview survivors of, for example, sexual violence and trafficking in a sensitive and respectful way. The training is done jointly with Women’s League of Burma and other women’s rights organisations, who will also be involved in developing editorial guidelines for Myanmar media on gender and conflict sensitive journalism.”

Women stepping into the limelight

Media’s responsibility is two-fold when it comes to supporting the UNSCR 1325: to make sure that women’s active participation in the conflict and peace processes is reflected in the news and assure that both women and men report on these issues. The latter is one of the challenges that IMS’ partner Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN) has worked strategically to solve, and it’s important because women might have other views on which stories are important. In Syria, as in many other counties, many women also prefer to talk to other women, especially on sensitive topics.

Approximately one third of all Syria’s journalists are women. Radio hosts, documentarists, reporters – many women had a visible and important presence at the time of the peaceful protests in 2011 and in the first years of conflict. However, as the security situation deteriorated, only a few stayed inside Syria to report on the frontline while many fled to neighboring countries or to Europe.

For those who remained in Syria, reporting became practically impossible. The rise of warlords and exclusionary ideologies asserted preexisting authoritarian and patriarchal structures. Many Syrian media outlets were harassed or threatened if they wrote about women’s issues or featured a woman’s image on their cover. In response to this external pressure, women were no longer allowed to have leading roles in the newsrooms and had their work taken over by male colleagues, for example when male sources would ask for male reporters.

“Gender equality is often accused of being a Western concept forced upon us, but what we do is to connect Syrian women with Syrian media”

Due to the circumstances of the conflict, most news from inside Syria from the first years of uprisings and until today has been covered by citizen journalists. Hayma Alyosufi, SFJN’s Coordinator on Women, Peace and Security, explains that “Women, and men, without journalist training and with mobile phones as their only equipment, have become the new reporters. SFJN provide trainings in basic journalistic skills as well as courses on how to report on gender equality and peace in a responsible manner. Our hopes are that we will get to hear more stories by and about women, and that these women citizen journalists in time will get access to work in media houses”.

Professionalism and expertise will protect survivors

Another responsibility of media when it comes to covering violent conflicts is to put focus on the inordinate impact on women and girls, not least from the use of rape and other forms of sexualised violence.

Covering these types of crimes is a delicate matter, and it demands a certain level of resources and knowledge. Otherwise media risk accentuating the shame and stigma that surrounds sexual abuse and retraumatise the survivors.

“The general lack of sensitivity is attributed to a lack of awareness and training in ethical reporting”, says Maw Day Myar. “When journalists interview survivors, there is a carelessness in the line of questioning, such as asking the survivor up front to give specific details of the case or persisting with insensitive questions regardless of how the survivor responds emotionally. However, a carefully conducted interview – handled professionally with sensitivity and respect – could even be an important part of the individual healing process and societal reconciliation. This is the type of interview we teach in our trainings”.

One aspect of the trainings is to prepare the journalists to be patient and set aside as much time as the survivor needs to conduct an interview; just to build rap-port might take several sessions in itself. Another is to encourage them to show empathy and let the survivor talk about the assault without interference – but that this does not mean that they should not fact-check. A third is to teach them what information they need from the survivors and what they can leave out if the survivor wishes to avoid sharing certain parts or details. Finally, there is the safety element: “Media frequently put survivors in danger by not protecting their identity. A few years ago, IMS conducted a media monitoring which found that one in four stories on gender-based violence gave away the identity of the survivor, either by sharing their name, photo, address or names of family members – or all of it. We teach journalists to handle all of their sources’ information with exceptional care”, Maw Day Myar states.

In Colombia, Laura Gil recognises the problems. Here, popular tabloid media reporting on gender-based violence continues to be direct and crude. They will report on violence against women, but as a crime of passion instead of as a serious societal problem and violation of women’s human rights. According to media monitoring experts, stories of domestic violence and abuse are framed in the tabloid media as a dramatic soap opera. There is a lack of serious journalism around this theme, as well as a lack of editorial policy.

“One of the women’s shelters told us that they have stopped referring journalists to survivors of violence because of their bad experiences. For example, reporters would specifically ask to interview a “voluptuous woman” who has been a victim of domestic violence, with the aim of attracting as many readers as possible”, says Laura Gil. “Hopefully, with our training and the editorial guidelines on gender-sensitive conflict reporting that we work to get in place in Colombian media, this behavior will stop”.

Learning along the way

The IMS initiatives are still in an initial phase. Up until now, 37 Syrian and 24 Colombian journalists have completed the training course in gender and conflict sensitive journalism, which takes about a week. Laura Gil conducted a training for journalists in Colombia with both the media organisation Consejo de Redacion and Colombian women’s organisations. “The level of recrimination from both sides took me by surprise. The session emphasized how much the general issues in media affect a field of coverage like gender and conflict – the shortage of resources and the high number of articles each journalist must produce during a day make it hard for them to cover a case of sexualised violence properly”, she says and continues:

“Sometimes I think that when it goes wrong, it’s due to fatigue more than lack of sensibility. You can’t require from journalists who struggle to publish ten articles a day to be able to set aside the time that dealing with a survivor of sexualised violence requires. Their management must be supportive and help create the conditions for them. We have to take all these business-related challenges into consideration in our programme so we can provide ideas for sustainable solutions.”

Joining forces to promote gender equality

One of the major strengths of IMS’ 1325 project is that it brings together media and women’s organisations to jointly define how to report on conflict from women’s perspective.

Hayma Alyousfi, SFJN’s Coordinator on Women, Peace and Security, confirms how important the cooperation between media and women’s organisations has been in Syria. “Building alliances with women’s organisations has really strengthened women journalists. Women’s organisations give access to their stories so media can cover the social justice work that is done in different communities. Based on this access, Syria-based female reporters have been able to cover more humanitarian angles of the conflict and peacebuilding efforts; the stories and struggles of women and children.”

In this project, it is also important that women’s organisations get a say in how women and their issues are portrayed. Hayma Alyousfi explains: “Gender equal-ity is often accused of being a Western concept forced upon us, but what we do is to connect Syrian women with Syrian media”.

Laura Gil is also hopeful. “Social change is a slow process, and there’s still much to be done. But I think increasing the collaboration between media and civil society organisations is a significant step. I believe that we can create some important changes that can support the development so we in the future will have a lot more women in peace processes – both around the negotiation tables and portrayed in media – and a lot more women involved in the implementation of peace agreements,” she concludes.

Women in peace process

• Between 1992-2018, women made up only 13% of negotiators, 3% of mediators and 4% of signatories in major peace processes UN Women Facts and Figures: Peace and Security (
• In global media, just 31% of political stories were reported by women journalists, and as little as 9% of the sources in stories related to politics are women. (Global Media Monitoring Project, Who makes the news?, 2015).
• National defense, peace negotiations and war are all at the bottom 10 of stories containing women (Who makes the news, page 34).
• Only 24% of all persons heard, read about or seen in media are women (Global Media Monitoring Project, Who makes the news?, 2015).
• Women belonging to excluded groups such as ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, lesbian and transgender communities etc. are even more absent from the news, due to the double discrimination they face as women and members of a minority group.

UNSCR Resolution 1325

• Resolution 1325 urges an increase of women participation and incorporation of gender perspectives in all peace and security efforts. It also recognizes the different experiences of women and men, and it calls for special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.
• If women are included in peace processes, evidence indicates that women participants in peace processes are usually less focused on the spoils of war, and more on reconciliation, economic development, education and transitional justice – all critical elements of a sustained peace.
(“The essential role of women in peacebuilding”, United States Institute of Peacebuilding)

IMS’ 1325 programme (2019-2021 is implemented by IMS’ Global Response department in three countries and is financed by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).