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Pushing for Peace: Why Congo's Women Need a Seat at the Table

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As the world celebrates International Women's Day this year, women in one of the most conflict-plagued corners of the world continue to push for stability and peace on behalf of their families, their communities and their region. The courageous women of eastern Congo are fighting an uphill battle within a society entrenched in patriarchal norms, which has been slow to recognize the added value that an inclusive process can bring to ensure lasting peace.

The women of Congo are not alone in their struggle to take part in decisions impacting their country and communities. Over the past two decades, there has been a slow yet significant shift among many African nations toward recognizing women's rights and representing women in government. The largest gains for African women have been in countries experiencing post-conflict transition -- such as South Africa, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- which has allowed for restructuring of the government and constitution following an extended disruption in traditional gender norms. In these cases, women's rights groups, the international community and local women have recognized post-conflict opportunities to incorporate gendered interests and needs into the peacebuilding processes.

The regional and national implementation of the recently agreed upon Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region, as well as subsequent internationally-led negotiations, offer a strategic opportunity for Congolese women to push for a more prominent role in the negotiations and peacebuilding process. The Framework was signed on February 24 by leaders and envoys from 11 African nations, the African Union, United Nations and two regional bodies. Out of the thirteen signatories only one -- Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma -- was female.

This unbalanced gender ratio in the negotiations process has helped to perpetuate a cycle of violence in eastern Congo over the past two decades. Women have been at the center of the conflict as mothers, wives and victims, yet they have lacked a leading role in resolving the crisis. To ensure a lasting peace that provides stability and security for all civilians in the region, women must be a fundamental part of the peacebuilding process from the beginning.

Neema Namadamu, a Congolese activist and founder of Maman Shujaa of Congo -- a group of grassroots women leaders in South Kivu Province -- has been at the forefront of the women's movement in eastern Congo pushing for an inclusive peace process. Neema and other grassroots Congolese leaders authored a petition that received more than 100,000 signatures calling on the women leaders in the White House to help bring real peace to Congo. The petition promised, "We [the women of Congo] will not be quiet until real peace is upon us."

But this notion of "real peace" begs the question, how can the women of Congo help bring about peace if they are not even a central part of the process?

"If women in Congo had a seat at the negotiating table, the priority would be on Congo and its people; not what those at the table want for themselves or their party," Namadamu explained in an email. "It would also lead to a different outcome that would focus on achieving a lasting peace versus a bargained peace."

In 2000, the U.N. Security Council adopted the landmark Resolution 1325, which recognized for the first time that women have a role to play in maintaining international peace and security. The resolution stresses the importance of women's equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for maintaining and promoting peace and security, including: peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction.

Congo's Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework has established a skeleton of commitments for the nation's government, other governments in the region and the international community, but the input and support from the people and women of eastern Congo is essential to transforming a peace agreement into meaningful change. The U.N. and international community should pressure the Congolese government to put Resolution 1325 into practice and appoint female representatives to participate in internationally-led follow-up negotiations. In particular, Congo should encourage women's groups to provide input and guidance for the agreement's national oversight mechanism.

The women of Congo have borne the brunt of the conflict in eastern Congo for the past two decades. As they stand up for and work toward lasting peace in their communities and region, they deserve -- at the very least -- a seat at the table.

Tracy Fehr serves as Communications Manager at the Enough Project, an organization dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity.