01/24/2014 07:19 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

An Intimate Part of the Conflict

The struggle by South Sudanese women and civil society members to get a seat at the table during the recent signing of the ceasefire agreement between the government of South Sudan and rebels reminded me of an extraordinary event I witnessed nearly three years ago.

I was working at the time as a technical advisor to the government of Abyei, a contested border area between the Sudans. Fighting had recently broken out in Abyei and I had traveled to the United Nations compound there in order to get an update on newly initiated peace talks. As I approached the compound, I noticed a crowd of mostly women. Without a place at the negotiation table, the southern Ngok Dinka women were leading a demonstration protesting the lack of protection of their area. They had recently lost sons, husbands and brothers defending their homeland.

Driven by their loss and outrage, the women stormed the gates. Along with other protesters they destroyed vehicles and property and fought the guards. They lit the surrounding brush on fire and then rushed and threw rocks at the helicopter carrying northern Sudanese officials. This dramatic show of women, on the outside of a critical meeting, fighting back at the injustices suffered by their community, took observers by surprise. Flash forward three years to the eruption of war in South Sudan. Women, who are not seen as essential to the resolution of the current crisis, remain largely absent from key negotiations.

War and security are assumed to be the domain of men, while women are cast as the victims who suffer the consequences of violence, but never retaliate. Power and authority over the military or rebel forces assures participation in peace negotiations. Accordingly, women do not start wars and, by and large, do not fight them. So, if they're not part of the problem, why would they be part of the solution?

The recent violence is a manifestation of underlying problems which are reinforced and contested by both women and men. South Sudanese women are intricately woven into a social and political fabric that has become increasingly more vulnerable to conflict. They are an intimate part of the conflict, and thus have profound insight into what drives it, what triggers violence and what will bring the struggles to an end. Historically, they have played significant roles as combatants and peacemakers.

With the fate of the nation and thousands of families at risk, women's leadership is fundamentally required. Peace and security processes that do not include women are inadequate and undermine prospects for their own success. Though women disproportionately suffer the effects of war, framing their role as solely victims is a terrible mistake.

This moment presents the international community with an opening to implement one of the most important resolutions ever passed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution, namely SCR 1325, which promotes women's leadership in peace negotiations, security and post-conflict recovery.

Since the independence of South Sudan in July of 2011, the aid community has done well in providing much needed services and relief to the country. Yet it has not been as effective in assisting the young nation in its transition and in promoting local initiative. This can be corrected by seizing the opportunity to empower women in order to address the depth of the political, security and humanitarian crisis at hand.

Realizing a vision of women officially taking leadership roles remains a formidable challenge. I recall a dinner I attended once in New York where diplomats were discussing methods for the return of a displaced population back to their home area. They assumed that men would act as the vanguard for the return, securing the way for women and children. What they hadn't realized, being far from the conflict zone, is that women were already pioneering the return.

When I met with a group of these women while on the border of the Sudans, one told me "we returned so that the men would follow." We must ensure that women are not made invisible once more in the current peace negotiations.