International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates women’s worldwide social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. Furthermore, it sets a call to action for accelerating gender equality.
This year, IWD is set around the theme #EmbraceEquality, raising questions such as “why equal opportunities aren’t enough?” and looking into true inclusion and equitable action. We can all embrace equality through grassroots actions to wide-scale projects. Driven by this topic, YPI asked Rhea Mahanta, Civil Affairs Officer at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Founder of the Peacebuilding Project and winner of the 2021 Youth Carnegie Peace Prize; and Lyra Sennes, Educational and empowerment speaker and 2019 YPI Israeli alumni, about their experiences as women in the peacebuilding and conflict field, and with equality.
1. What are the advantages/disadvantages you have experienced due to your gender when working in the field?
Rhea: I have been fortunate to work in environments where I have been well accepted and respected by the communities I work with, especially in South Sudan, where I have been based for the last three and a half years. When I’ve been on field missions, the local community has always been receptive and welcoming of a woman leading an integrated field mission team. Even while advocating for gender equality, which sometimes challenges traditional norms and invites pushback, I have to give due credit to the communities that have made strides to adapt to changing realities. One example I can share is that when I first arrived in Jonglei State, South Sudan, in 2019, there were no women chiefs in any of the counties in the State. More than 3 years later, in 2023, it brings me joy to say that there were six women chiefs represented in the Traditional Leaders Conference organized by UNMISS Civil Affairs Division and our partners. One of the greatest advantages is when you are invested in gender equality and get to see such positive changes in the field.
There are universal challenges that women in almost every corner of the world face in any field, such as gender discrimination, exclusion, and sexual harassment. Furthermore, discrimination based on gender can often get compounded by factors such as age, language, race, and other identities we hold. As a young woman, I have at times had to assert my position as an equal stakeholder and had to work doubly hard to prove myself. However, I have been fortunate to have an education and support system that has always encouraged me to stand up for my rights and be able to defend them. We still have a long way to go in terms of changing mindsets, and one of the best ways I have seen that happen is by inviting people into the conversation as partners.
Lyra: As a young woman, I have work experience primarily in the public sector. And I experienced the glass ceiling a few times in my professional career.
Even when I was praised for my professionalism and hard work, I was not allowed to grow because I was ‘too good at my job‘ When I saw an opportunity to apply for a higher position with more say in decision-making, My supervisor told me they needed me and depended on my abilities. I felt I was unnoticed and without a space at the table.
I do believe gender played a part since the senior managers were white 50-year-olds. Young professional women have to work twice as hard to impress and to grow in the field, often left in lower positions.
2. What role do gender, and the inclusion of women, have within your field? How has that impacted your work?
Rhea: It plays a big role in the field of conflict resolution because how political and public decisions are made in the community is dependent upon how gender and gender roles are perceived in different societies. In my work where I see a lot of inter-communal conflicts, violence against women and girls are a common feature in the form of killings, abductions, and CRSV. Women and girls are most vulnerable because they are seen as primary targets of abductions, yet at the same time, it is not traditional to have them formally included in the peace processes and negotiations to resolve those very conflicts. It has impacted my work very much by making me mindful to prioritize gender sensitivity and gender inclusion in my role as a Civil Affairs Officer because I must ensure gender mainstreaming and gender inclusion, and doing it in a way that the community is also aware and accepting of the process. Community perceptions are slowly changing, and women are now encouraged to become agents of peace.
Lyra: I believe women’s core behavior is communal, taking care of their surroundings with empathy. This premise impacts my work as I am a community leader nowadays, and therefore have to practice the balance between seeing the bigger picture without losing the empathy of the self and one.
3. Since you began your professional or even academic career, what progress, or lack thereof, have you observed when dealing with the inclusion and equality of women in your field?
Rhea: It is not enough to increase the number of women in the field, but crucial to see what positions and access to decision-making they have. So even if the number of women in my profession is slowly increasing, we have to ask how many of them are actually in managerial or supervisory roles with decision-making powers. Are women in such positions there to tick a box, or do they in reality have any leeway to make changes, systemically, and do impactful work? That’s where I am generally cognizant of finding gaps, that’s why it’s important to delve deeper into the concept of ‘meaningful’ participation of women.
Lyra: I feel we lack programs that have a conversation on the matter and open doors for young professional females as a track for managers and high-ranking positions.
4. This year, the UN Thematic for the 2023 International Women’s Day is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. This theme highlights the importance of equal access to technological advancements and education for women and girls. What are your thoughts on the relevance of equal access to high-tech tools and educational support for women and its importance within your work’s context, field, or interests?
Rhea: It is often thought that Innovation and Technology are only related to the digital space and STEM, but in reality access to technology, information, and communications determines the degree to which women can advance in any respective field. The digital gender gap has resulted in a widening of socio-economic inequalities whether it be in STEM, finance, social entrepreneurship, or others. In my field, i.e. peace and security, in addition to traditional notions of security, digital- and cyber-security is closely linked to international peace and stability. To illustrate a basic picture, the very foundations of any nation are built on energy and resources, which only become a usable product once harnessed by technology. The Electrical Grid systems that provide electricity in a nation, for example, are controlled by those who can access and operate them.
Any breach in the circuits could therefore critically affect the security of the country, including defense, economic, health, and other sectors. So barriers that stand in the way of women’s access to technological fields mean that women are not a part of the systems on which the very skeletons of a secure and developing/ developed society are designed. We must invest in equal access to technological advancements and education for women and girls to change the way these sectors have been run.
Lyra: In Israel, women are highly educated; I believe it is not the lack of access to education as much as a traditional Society that believes in the value of family and puts women one step back as they are responsible for ‘Having children, raising them and take care of the household’. Even though it is now illegal to ask about your marital status and if you have children, it is clear enough to see how recruiters, mostly male managers, will choose another male candidate for a manager position.
5. In the peacekeeping field, dialogue, and conflict resolution, women’s inclusion has become progressively accepted as pivotal to the success of any long-lasting efforts. However, there is still much work to be done. Why do you think women might play such a crucial role in peace and its sustainability?
Rhea: At the outset, I want to stress that women should be included not just because they bring in a unique perspective and have proven to lead more successful peace negotiations, but more importantly because they simply have a right to. Irrespective of what they bring to the table, women have a right to have their interests and needs represented politically.
At the same time, it is well-proven by research that peace processes that are inclusive of women are more sustainable, long-lasting, and successful. Women’s participation in peace processes contributes not only to the likelihood of reaching a peace agreement but also to its successful implementation. There have also been studies to prove that there is a robust correlation between women’s participation in peace negotiations and the quality and durability of peace. Agreements with women signatories show higher rates of implementation of provisions of peace agreements. One of the reasons is that women groups have far-reaching networks of linkages between formal and informal structures in societies, whether it be civil society groups, peace signatories, armed groups, or other actors. Although one must be cautious of the ‘soft power’ paraphernalia not to essentialize the qualities of women, women have proven to be effective mediators with powerful channels of the network. There are plenty of examples, including from Liberia and Kosovo, to show that women’s participation in peace processes has also acted as a catalyst for the recognition of women’s rights in post-conflict contexts. I believe that women’s greatest strengths come from their shared experiences, and it is reflected in the wide range of central topics brought to the discussion at negotiation tables which women are a part of.
Lyra: Unfortunately, in the last couple of months, we have seen how easy it is to take a step back in including women in different spaces -from the public street to government positions in leading roles. We have seen how fast girls and women are stripped of their rights in Iran. We have also seen a more settled way of this stepping backward in the last elections in Israel, with the new Israeli Knesset only having 29 female MKs when the previous government had 36.
Representation matters, women’s voices matter! Especially when it comes to law and decision-making. We have also seen this year in the U.S., with women being prevented in many states from having access to legal and safe abortions.
Women’s voices should be heard. Girls should have access to education and be a part of the workforce in leading roles, not only in the background, whether it is in the government, nonprofit, or private sectors.
6. What role or action (if any) do you feel that the male sex can take in supporting and uplifting the global movement for the inclusion and equity of women worldwide?
Rhea: Men who already have a seat at the table and are involved in the process design can set the scene to ensure that the parameters of the conversation are fair and inclusive. They must first adopt a gender-sensitive analysis- Are women represented at the table? How meaningful is their participation? Are the women who are represented as equal stakeholders or have they just been brought in to check a box? Are women mere participants, or are they also occupying positions of Mediators, Advisors, and Chief Negotiators? Men who believe in gender equality cause should take steps to ensure that the criteria allow for an equal conversation and that women have direct participation at the negotiation table.
Recognizing the historical realities and status quo, those in managerial positions should give opportunities to women to develop professionally and be promoted to positions where they can become leaders of mediation processes. In the process, one should aim to focus on gender equality instead of gender parity. Finally, our male allies can advocate proactively for the meaningful participation of women at all levels of decision-making. Mainstream gender issues in your work, and don’t be apologetic about addressing the issue of gender inclusivity within teams and with external partners. It is only by bringing on board all stakeholders that gender equality can progressively permeate all spheres of life.
Lyra: The male sex should stop labeling us as “raging feminists” and understand that this is a social problem, not a gender problem, as we are all human. Men should look at their female co-workers, managers, and leaders as capable just as much as they are (if not more since, for several years, we had to prove ourselves and work twice as hard in the workforce and life). Women bring a softer approach, a greater understanding, and an expanded point of view. Our “soft skill” is no less important than men’s hard skills.
7. Lastly, the UN has declared “Gender Equality” as one of its Sustainable Development Goals. What does Gender Equality mean to you? Personally and professionally.
Rhea: In its most basic sense, Gender Equality to me personally means the agency to be able to exercise my own choices and direct my own life. However, there is a second component to that, because the quality of my life will be incumbent upon what kind of society we live in. More often than not, there are structural, cultural, and institutional barriers that prevent us from designing our own life. Even if I have the freedom to decide what I want to wear or eat, gender equality for me means having a say in what kind of society we are designing, which is key to its relation to SDGs- Do we have the freedom to participate in public, political and civic life? To have equal access to influence decision-making in all spheres of life, be in public or private, is crucial for gender equality in the truest sense.
Lyra: For me, gender equality means equal opportunity, I feel that women in different fields are very welcome to participate in several, such as education, nursing, and so on. Nonetheless, when it comes to leadership and innovation, professional females are left behind for desk duties. It pains me to see how, yet again, the world is shaped for menç We should be alarmed by how easy it is to take a step back instead of a step forward for the whole of society.
Civil Affairs Officer, United Nations Mission in South Sudan
Founder of the Peacebuilding Project;
winner of the 2021 Youth Carnegie Peace Prize.
Educational and empowerment speaker.
2019 YPI Israeli alumni, with a B.A in sociology and anthropology from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Community and Event Manager at the Jewish agency in Spain.