Peace mediation is a process in which a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to reach an agreement. Mediation can take place at any time in a conflict. Depending on the political level at which mediation takes place, we speak of Track I, Track II and Track III processes. Track I is the highest level and often includes states and/or the main parties to the conflict. These processes are the ones to receive the most attention, partly because they are often conducted by the United Nations (UN) or regional organisations. 

Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of signatories in major peace processes around the world. The first woman to serve as chief UN mediator, Mary Robinson, was only appointed in March 2013. In the UN context, mediators are nominated by UN Member States or other UN bodies. They are selected by the Secretary-General and referred to as Special Envoys. However, the criteria for this selection are not public. Both the nomination and appointment of Special Envoys are therefore at the discretion of these actors. In the absence of a proper job description, the selection process is easily influenced by conscious and unconscious gender biases.

Research has demonstrated that whilst men tend to get hired or promoted based on what we think they can do, women are selected based on what they have done. When there are no criteria to connect previous accomplishments to, it’s easy to imagine how the abovementioned selection procedure favours candidates who are men. Perhaps this is the reason why, despite the low numbers of chief mediators appointed by the UN, more than 40% of mediation experts at the UN Department for Political Affairs are women. These experts are tasked with giving thematic advice on issues related to the mediation process, such as institution building or human rights.

The absence of a job description also means that our perception of what mediation is can be coloured by conscious and unconscious biases. For instance, if mediation is considered a power game of high politics or security in which the mediator is the power broker, the role of the mediator will continue to be seen as a masculine one. If, on the other hand, relationship-building and inclusion are highlighted as features of mediation, women are more likely to be thought of as mediators. Indeed, at both the Track II and Track III levels women play significant roles in mediation processes. 

Track II processes are often complementary to the first track but tend to be unofficial, with non-state actors acting in their own capacity. Track III processes can be considered local peace initiatives, and happen independently from Track I. It is on this latter level we can find most women active in mediation efforts. A good example of women’s involvement at Track II and III levels is the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. 

When the women of Liberia felt that men were not taking a stand against the persistent violence – either accepting it or continuing fighting – they decided to propel men into action. The movement was able to convince the president at the time to attend peace talks with other leaders of the warring factions. At the talks, which took place in Ghana, a delegation of about 200 Liberian women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace. Dressed in white, the women blocked every entry and exit point, including windows, stopping negotiators from leaving the talks without a resolution. Their actions led to the signing of the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The exclusion of women from high-level mediation roles is a complex issue. Whilst the advantages women are perceived to bring to the mediation table include inclusivity, empathy and the ability to find common ground, this perception can easily become a double-edged sword. If women are perceived to emphasise the softer goals of peacebuilding, then they are less likely to be seen as capable of engaging in hard security issues or the politics of brokering a deal with conflicting parties. A common issue is that women are simply assigned to work on “feminine” topics, despite them holding competencies in other aspects of the conflict. And if they are assigned to women’s issues, these “women’s issues” tend to be purposefully sidelined. 

Want to know more about barriers to women in high-level mediation roles? Check out this graphic by Catherine Turner. Click on a topic to see quotes from women facing some of the issues we have touched upon in this entry.