Charting a Feminist Present and Future: Young Women’s Leadership in Building Peaceand Promoting Gender Equality

Peace cannot be defined merely as the absence of war or armed conflict. To women’s civil society around the world, human rights and human security, sustainable development, responsible natural resource management, good governance, and a harmonious community relying on non-violent conflict resolution are the foundation of peace.

Today, we face a number of challenges that contribute to the violent conflict experienced in different parts of the world. From violent extremism conducive to terrorism, gender-based violence, state-sponsored genocide and human rights abuses, war, homophobia, and femicide just to mention a few, and it is becoming increasingly unsafe, particularly for women, young women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons, in many parts of the world. According to UN Women, 27.9% of women have experienced gender-based violence in the past 12 months alone. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in many countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gender gaps are widening, especially now with the pandemic and the limited access to social and health services young women and women have in general. We are indeed still far from achieving gender equality. There is an unspoken war being waged on the dreams and aspirations of young women. In many communities, young women are not safe or free to be who they are, and perpetrators of violence against women are not held accountable.

The Encouraging Resilience of Young Women

Despite this bleak situation, the resilience of young women and their leadership in preventing and resolving conflict is encouraging. Young women are engaging in and with their communities to build and sustain peace across the world in various ways. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda serves as an important tool for young women and has become an important aspect of international peace and security following the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000. The resolution, which acknowledged the role women play in building peace and calls for inclusion of women in peace processes, has been followed by ten other resolutions reiterating the call to fund women’s civil society groups, gender transitional justice and quotas for women’s participation in peace processes. In 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS). This resolution acknowledges young people’s important role in preventing violence and as active contributors to peace.

Working to Promote the WPS and YPS Agendas

Our diverse identities are important and need to be reflected in decision-making processes on peace and security in order for such processes to be effective and representative of the realities of women, young women, and girls on the ground in conflict-affected communities. This calls for an intersectional approach to peace and security. Given the overlaps between the WPS and YPS agendas, it is critical to promote their implementation to address the violence of exclusion effectively and inclusively. When “women” refers only to older women and “youth” implies young men, young women’s specific experiences fall through the cracks.

The two agendas also seek to address the prevention of conflict and the need for disarmament by emphasizing the critical role that young women play in peacebuilding and to reiterate the value of including young women in peace processes. Fifty-five countries have developed National Action Plans (NAPs) to implement the WPS agenda — among them I am particularly familiar with those of South Sudan, Uganda, Yemen, and Afghanistan, just to mention a few. In Canada, a national coalition on YPS was established 
in 2020 to support the implementation of the YPS agenda. While these two agendas have yet to be fully implemented, there has been progress toward their institutionalization and realization.

Prior to the adoption of these agendas, young women were engaging in peacebuilding processes in their local communities with little recognition for their contributions. Taking up different roles either as frontline activists, community educators, organizers, and peacebuilders, young women are demonstrating leadership through their actions.

Young Women Leaders for Peace

The Young Women Leaders for Peace (YWL), a program of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), recognizes, amplifies, and invests in young women’s leadership — as cited by the UN secretary-general in his first report on YPS to the Security Council in March 2020. The YWL program supports young women leaders from conflict-affected countries such as Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, and South Sudan. Due to social and cultural norms, young women are usually marginalized and left out of socioeconomic opportunities, and this ultimately impacts how they are affected by conflict. Through activities such as community dialogues, social media campaigns, participatory theatre, and training on peacebuilding, economic empowerment, literacy and protection, young women can enhance their capacities to lead initiatives in their communities.

Examples of Initiatives in the Philippines

Since 2014, the program has supported over 10,000 young women and gender equality allies to become leaders across seven countries. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these young women have been on the frontlines of providing essential support to their communities. For example, Young Women Leaders (YWL) Philippines implemented a gender-sensitive COVID-19 relief operation initiative which provided basic food needs such as rice, canned goods, noodles, and napkins to 80 jeepney bus drivers from Balara-Katipunan Jeepney Operators Drivers Association (BKJODA) in Katipunan, Quezon City, who had suddenly lost their source of income when they were not allowed to drive their jeepneys during the quarantine imposed by the government. In additionally, YWL Philippines distributed dignity kits to internally-displaced mothers in Sagonsongan Transitory Shelters, Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.

The young women peacebuilders in the Philippines also significantly contributed to a peaceful transition in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) after five decades of conflict by encouraging local ownership and support for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which would establish the new Bangsamoro government, and therefore the peace process. The law was ratified after votes were cast in the plebiscite in Mindanao in January and February 2019. Before the plebiscites, there was a distinct lack of awareness of the importance of the BOL among community members. To facilitate non-partisan electoral education ahead of the plebiscites, local young women organized community-focused youth fora to raise awareness of the components of the BOL and its provisions for young women specifically. As a result, over 1,500 young people pledged to vote responsibly in the plebiscites and raise awareness among their local communities to encourage other young voters to do the same. Local ownership of the BOL in the BARMM, led by youth, is crucial to an effective and successful peace process.

YWL Initiatives in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bangladesh

In Indonesia, members of our Young Women Leaders network, who are from communities described as hotbeds of radicalization, are advocating for inclusive and gender-sensitive measures to prevent violent extremism with key national authorities such as the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection and the National Agency for Combating Terrorism. In addition, in their local communities, YWL members have organized community workshops under a “Peace Goes to School” campaign designed to inform local students about peacebuilding, economic empowerment, and de-radicalization. By securing local buy-in and distinguishing themselves as influential actors in their local communities, the YWL members in Indonesia are creating space in which to meaningfully participate in building sustainable peace and development.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, young women from the North and South Kivu provinces have led the YWL program toward shifting the narrative of sexual violence victims to those of survivors. They produced more than a dozen monthly radio shows focused on sexual violence, family dynamics, and gender norms to raise awareness of the negative impact these had on the lives of women and the overall community. Through this initiative, which reached thousands of audience members, the young women were able to increase community support towards sexual violence prevention and overall stigmas against sexual violence survivors. The young women have also established businesses with the help of microfinancing, selling handicrafts and women’s health products. The fact that they are able to earn income has increased their ability to influence decision-making in their household and community.

In Bangladesh, YWL members are working to improve gendersensitive humanitarian emergency response in the face of an influx of 1.3 million Rohingya refugees. They have conducted gender-sensitive, age-appropriate fundamental literacy and numeracy classes to Rohingya refugees and women and girls from the host community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As a result, 180 Rohingya refugee and Bangladeshi women and girls, who regularly face marginalization, discrimination, and a lack of access to education and other basic social services, have been empowered to read and write, sign their names on legal documents, read important signs within the refugee camps, access information distributed by government, civil society, and UN agencies, and further their pursuit of their rights as well as economic opportunities. The literacy and numeracy classes offered by GNWP’s Young Women Leaders — all members of the Bangladeshi host community — directly addressed the increasing tensions between the Rohingya refugee population and host communities in Cox’s Bazar by creating positive dialogues among the Rohingya and local women.

In addition to local initiatives, YWL also participated in global advocacy processes such as the 25th anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the fifth anniversary of the UNSC Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security. The Generation Equality Forum (GEF), conceived to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+25), provides a unique opportunity to develop transformative commitments to achieve immediate and sustainable progress towards women’s rights and gender equality.

As a key outcome of the GEF, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) and Humanitarian Action (HA) Compact will mark the linkages between the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) and UNSC Resolution 1325 on WPS. It was established as a result of sustained advocacy led by Beijing+25 Women, Peace, and Security Youth, Peace, and Security (WPSYPS) Coalition, a coalition of over 100 women and youth peacebuilders grassroots organizations, national, regional, and global women’s rights and 
feminist groups from around the world. The B+25 WPS-YPS Coalition is coordinated by GNWP.

Global advocacy and processes affect the lives of young women in local communities, hence the need to include them and provide opportunities for them to talk about their experiences and make recommendations on what decision-makers should do to ensure that policies and laws lead to real change. This is why GNWP organized a closed-door briefing on the Rohingya crisis, bringing together young women from all stakeholder groups in the conflict to advocate for localized, youth-led, and gender-responsive interventions with UN member states. It was one of the only meetings where youth voices from all key stakeholders in the crisis were heard!

Young Women are the Leaders of Our Present

Achieving gender equality in the world will take more than just empowering girls and women. It is important to educate and empower young women to take up leadership roles across all sectors. However, the gender inequalities are propagated by the general populations of broader societies. Thus, in order to dismantle the barriers that hinder women’s advancement and development, there needs to be a shift in the mindsets of communities and the leadership that is currently male-dominated. Stakeholders must be 
deliberate about addressing the structural inequalities in societies propagated by the inadequate access to education and empowerment opportunities by young women. Achieving sustainable development by 2030 is pegged on our commitments towards gender equality, peace, security, justice, and inclusion. This can be done by providing quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for young women.

Young women are no longer our future. We are the leaders of our present. In Palestine, where conflict has been ongoing for years and the lives of youth and women are at stake, we must be relentless about advocating for the freedoms of all people. Historically Palestinian women and youth have been active in politics and the struggle for liberation. An example is the convening of the Arab’s Women Congress in 1929, which has paved the way for women’s movements to date.

Despite the difficult situations that they live in, particularly in conflict-affected countries, young women are stepping up to the challenge. They are neither passive victims nor perpetrators of violence. They are organizing in communities, social media, and schools and are taking up leadership roles to change the status quo. The voices of young women will no longer be silenced. They will be heard and included in decision-making processes. Sooner or later, all women, regardless of their race, social status, color, education, religion, or sexuality, will be free.

Until then, we must remember the words of Audre Lorde: 
          Each of us must find our work and do it. Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming. 

          It means doing the unromantic and tedious work necessary to forge meaningful coalitions, and it means recognizing which coalitions are possible and which coalitions are not. It means knowing that coalition, 

          like unity, means the coming together of whole, self-actualized human beings, focused and believing, not fragmented automatons marching to a prescribed step. It means fighting despair.