As a long-time advocate for the leadership, empowerment and protection of marginalized people in global peace and security issues, I have often reflected on my status as a partner, ally and supporter of this agenda.  As a white, straight, older, upper-middle-class American man, I do not have the lived experience of exclusion and prejudice faced on a daily basis by women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities, displaced persons, people in poverty, and indigenous populations. Thus, my role has always been that of an outsider. Similarly, despite having pressed for disability rights for decades, it was only when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago that one of my colleagues said to me with an insider’s tone: “Welcome to the community.”

The special role of partners and allies in such campaigns came to the fore for me in late 2017, when I joined with women and men from diplomatic, defense, academic, and civil society arenas worldwide to form the initiative, “Mobilizing Men as Partners for Women, Peace and Security” (MAWPS), supported by the Denver-based non-profit, Our Secure Future.

Looking out at the failure of male-dominated conflict resolution processes from Afghanistan and South Sudan to Venezuela and Burma, this seemed to be an obvious and straightforward enterprise. It proved to be anything but that. The ways we sought to resolve our differences brought lessons relevant to those navigating similar national security challenges.

Building the Coalition

The common goal of the MAWPS coalition members was to promote the full and meaningful engagement of women in international security structures, and, in particular, in peace negotiations, peace operations, and post-conflict reconstruction. Our common belief was that women’s leadership and engagement is essential to preventing and resolving deadly conflict; building stable, just and prosperous societies; and creating a peaceful global security order.  And our common commitment was to use our connections with other government and institutional leaders – predominantly men — to reinforce, amplify and open doors for the voices of women activists, especially grassroots advocates who speak with unique authority and authenticity.

We quickly engaged some 80 individuals and organizations, with an equal number of women and men. Settling on a four-point work program proved relatively simple. We agreed to: (a) facilitate access for women to the male-dominated corridors of power; (b) serve as watchdogs and monitors on the actions of governments and international organizations; (c) mobilize financial and other support for grassroots women’s organizations; and (d) strengthen the community of practice focused on women, peace and security by enlarging the circle and sharing best practices.

But throughout this process, tensions and disagreements emerged that suggested deeper divisions. We came to see these as reflecting the differing experiences, motivations and perspectives of those who had been personally impacted by gender-based marginalization, violence and/or discrimination and those who had not.

As a result, we delayed the initiative’s launch for more than a year while we held dozens of group discussions, stakeholder consultations, and one-on-one interviews. It was not until March 2019 that we formally launched the coalition at the International Peace Institute in New York and then at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Differing Motivations

Our first challenge was to align our individual motivations.

Most male partners were driven by the utilitarian arguments that have become so common in the push to involve women in international security: women should lead and engage in peace processes because this produces better results, provides new and different insights and ground truth that prevent the mistakes of “group think,” and builds community ownership needed to negotiate and implement peace agreements. Advocates frequently cited empirical evidence showing that peace operations that engage women are up to two-thirds more likely to succeed over a decade than those that don’t.

But by and large, those who had experienced direct discrimination tended to view women’s leadership and engagement as an inherent human right, one reflected in numerous international conventions and United Nations resolutions. If not, what were the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1995 Beijing Women’s Summit and the foundational U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 at the turn of this century all about? Further, they saw the WPS issue as a broader question of gender equality, addressed ultimately by changing the power dynamics of gender through political, socio-economic and security empowerment, and confronting issues like toxic masculinity.

Goals and Metrics

In turn, the difference between the utilitarian and rights-based approaches was reflected in objectives. Those adopting the former approach narrowly defined their goals as time-bound metrics such as boosting the percentage of women leading and engaging in U.N. peace operations, decreasing the rates of sexual abuse and domestic abuse, and increasing the number of prosecutions for crimes committed under the fog of war. They also sought to tie our objectives to concrete commitments in U.N. resolutions and peacekeeping mandates, and in national laws, regulations and practices, such as the U.S. Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 and the National Action Plans that each country was called upon to adopt to implement Resolution 1325.

While endorsing the need for clear metrics, those impacted by marginalization saw the goals more broadly — related to power dynamics and root causes, including the link to sexual harassment and abuse in the global #MeToo movement. They sought broader social progress, including expanding the numbers of women and girls who have access to health care, education, land ownership, water and sanitation, and other services. Those with experience of discrimination also inherently understood the concept that women are also affected by other prejudices in society, referred to as “intersectionality.” As a result, they pushed us to support women who also were marginalized by disability, displacement, indigenous identity, racial and religious affiliation, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Internal Dynamics: “It’s Not About You”

In these internal discussions, most of the men stressed the importance of creating a teaching dynamic. They wanted grass-roots women to “educate” them on the realities of their countries to help them be better advocates.  Alternatively, they sought to “educate” these women on the arcane realities of the world of global security, as if to say, “Here’s what men really talk about behind closed doors in the backrooms of power.” Mansplaining was a prominent feature at the early stage.

Women rejected the teacher-student dynamic. Having spent their lives facing and fighting discrimination, was it now their burden also to raise the consciousness of their male allies and partners? Similarly, they knew their own capabilities, and wanted their allies to unlock the doors and then get out of the way. They prioritized mobilizing financial resources for issues and training defined by women’s groups for themselves, and ensuring their physical security, especially in the context of growing repression and shrinking civil society space globally.

Language and Bias

One of the first principles we adopted for our internal workings was that we would “ally with, listen to, and learn from each other under the watchwords, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”  This led most partners and allies to display a welcome humility and keep their interruptions to a minimum. Still, many of the men believed that their past engagement on women’s empowerment and gender equality, as well as their participation in the MAWPS process, had “punched their ticket” and gave them a special status and immunity. They saw the initiative as a “safe space” where they no longer needed to gauge the impact of their language and check their biases at the door.

The results were often divisive and potentially destructive. We did not want to silence useful observations or impose “group-think” on ourselves. But we rejected the very concept of safe spaces as tantamount to protecting the espousers of malign views from criticism under the guise of rejecting political correctness.

Yes, we accepted that each of us came to this issue for our own reasons based on our relevant experiences. But we also acknowledged that the issues of sexism and misogyny at the core of our challenge are sufficiently “charged” so as to easily result in misunderstandings and distraction. We frequently reminded each other that the perception of words and actions depends on the degree of trust that exists, and that trust that must be earned over an extended period and can be easily destroyed through careless speech. We also acknowledged the extraordinary power of the words, “I misspoke” or “I’m sorry.”

Blurring the Lines

Finally, we acknowledged that there aren’t clear lines among our identities as allies, partners, supporters, advocates, victims and survivors.  Sometimes it’s hard to categorize. This realization was brought home to a group of us in 2012 when we visited a rural community in Nebaj, Guatemala, where the U.S. Agency for International Development was supporting women survivors of domestic violence who had come together to advocate for their rights.  These courageous women were successfully pressuring local authorities, religious leaders and the business community to end the impunity, enforce new legislation and provide assistance to survivors.  Toward the end of our meeting, one man in the back stood up to tell his story.  He said:

“When I was a young boy, my father would frequently get drunk and beat my mother.  I was powerless to stop him and I thought that this was how a man was supposed to act.  And so, when I grew up and got married, I did the same thing. Two years ago, I started coming to these meetings and I realized the pain and torture I was inflicting on my wife.  Last year, she gave birth to a son, and when I first held him in my arms, I whispered: ‘Enough is enough.  This stops with me.’  I will never again bring violence into my home.’”

Is this man a perpetrator, a victim, a survivor, or an ally?  Or is he just a person trying to do the next right thing?

The Principles

The accomplishments of the MAWPS initiative since its formal launch has been modest but gratifying. Our coalition has facilitated high-level contacts for women advocates from Afghanistan, Kurdish Syria, South Sudan, and other crisis regions. We have provided support to grassroots women’s peace organizations in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia. The coalition has grown to nearly 200 groups and individuals, many of whom have participated in national and U.N. review processes.

The consultation process described above proved so fundamental to our efforts that we elected to draft a full list of principles.  Examples of the principles include:

  • The rationale and motivation for our work comes both from a rights-based and gender-equality approach — including changing gender-power dynamics through political, socio-economic and security empowerment — and from a pragmatic/utilitarian goal of providing additional capacity to create stable, equitable, and just peace processes and post-conflict societies.
  • Advocacy goals will be time-bound, measurable, outcome-oriented, and tied to implementation of UNSC Resolutions and National Action Plans; U.N. and regional peace missions; and national laws, regulations and practices, such as U.S. Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.
  • Our actions are rooted in the ground truth brought to the table by activists and advocates from conflict-affected countries, especially young people, with advocacy coalition members frequently exposed to a bottom-up process based on the concept, “Nothing about us without us.”
  • We will strengthen grassroots organizations by facilitating their contact with donors, promoting training, and attending to their security concerns, especially in the context of shrinking civil society space.
  • There is scope within our work for many advocacy efforts, including organizing men to align with women in their advocacy in the corridors of power, men facilitating access for previously marginalized women advocates, and men engaging in direct advocacy with their counterparts. In all cases, male partners will convey agreed-upon messages, acknowledge the leadership of women and women’s institutions, acknowledge their “ally” status, support women’s leadership, and avoid “mansplaining.”
  • We will promote healthier and more just gender identities — e.g., addressing concepts of “toxic masculinity” and “hyper-masculinity” — as they relate to the peace and security agenda.
  • We will connect to actions and advocacy to address sexual harassment and abuse reflected in the global #MeToo movement, especially as they relate to male/female power dynamics. While we seek to cast a broad net, individuals with past records of abuse will not participate.
  • Our participants will come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including defense, diplomacy, development, civil society, foundations, international organizations, corporate sector, academia, faith-based organizations, and others. We will be international, inter-generational, non-elitist, gender-balanced, inter-denominational, and non-partisan.
  • We recognize that the same principles that apply to marginalized women also apply to other marginalized communities. Thus, we support prominent, meaningful roles for individuals/groups marginalized because of disability, displacement, indigenous identity, racial and religious affiliation, age, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other factors. We will recognize and address the magnification of marginalization based on the intersectionality among these identities.
IMAGE: A Syrian Kurdish woman flashes the v-sign during a demonstration against Turkish threats in Ras al-Ain town in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. – Syrian Kurds called on Damascus ally Moscow to facilitate “dialogue” with the regime, following threats of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)