Analysis - Tuesday, February 18, 2014 0:03 - 0 Comments

Transforming the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: what can we learn from women’s organizations?


I think that women should be aware of everything, they should be educated, well-educated, they should participate in every little thing that happens in their society, and of course if this society is in a conflict situation they one hundred, one million per cent they should be in that negotiation process. (Interview, Baku, 2012)

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, momentum is growing around women’s participation in peacebuilding – part of a global trend in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.[1] However, in spite of the developments taking place at the civil society level, there is a lack of public awareness relating to the women’s peace agenda. In addition, previous research on women’s activism in the two countries has tended to skirt the issue of peacebuilding,[2] leaving us with little understanding of how this field has developed in the face of cultural and political differences, women’s war-time experiences and their search for post-conflict justice.

To help develop our understanding of how women’s organisations become involved in peacebuilding, I am conducting a four year doctoral study (2011 – 2015), sponsored by the Irish Research Council, on women’s peace activism in Armenia and Azerbaijan.[3] Through correspondence, interviews, informal dialogue and participant observation, I am mapping the relationship between women’s activism and peacebuilding, and tracing the development of a women’s peace agenda based on Resolution 1325 and the international Women, Peace and Security framework. The first part of this article provides an overview of women’s peacebuilding, while in the second I raise some critical questions about the obstacles facing peace activists.

An overview of women’s peace initiatives

At a surface glance, women’s peace initiatives are not dissimilar from other kinds of peacebuilding. A small number of women’s organisations have spearheaded a certain kind of project typical for the Caucasus: face-to-face meetings between groups of women (and sometimes youth), usually hosted in Georgia or Turkey, or study visits to other conflict regions (e.g. Cyprus, the Middle East). They can include participants from the entire Caucasus region, or involve Armenians and Azerbaijanis only. They function as peacebuilding projects in several ways: they aim to break the enemy image still widely propagated by state media and national myth-making; they promote concepts that are relevant to peacebuilding, such as tolerance, diversity, and minority rights; and they seek to develop practical skills in communication and conflict resolution among participants.

What separates these initiatives from peacebuilding projects in general is not only that the organisers and participants are all female, but also the fact that they contain a strong gender dimension, emphasising women’s right to participate in decision-making and conflict resolution at all levels and viewing grassroots activism as a step towards greater gender equality. In addition to peacebuilding, projects also usually include discussion of women’s human rights, various forms of discrimination against women and girls, and how this might fit into the international framework on Women, Peace and Security. In the patriarchal Caucasus region, this provides plenty of common ground to stand on, as women encounter similar forms of discrimination, ranging from domestic violence and sexual harassment, to early marriages and restricted reproductive rights, as well as political marginalisation.

To an outsider and academic, the connection between women’s rights and peacebuilding may appear tenuous at first. After all, feminist scholarship has tended to remain ambivalent about the ideology behind women’s peace movements, arguing that the association between women and peace is based on damaging stereotypes that can reinforce women’s political marginalisation.[4] However, it was evident in the interviews I carried out that many activists struggled to separate the concepts of women’s rights and peacebuilding, arguing that they were “one and the same” and that they simply “do not distinguish” between the two spheres of activity. While they identified with other NGOs working on cross-border initiatives in the region, promoting women’s rights was an inalienable part of their own peacebuilding agenda.

One reason for this becomes clear when we consider that many of the participants in peacebuilding projects are women whose lives are deeply affected by the conflict – for example, those living in the border regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the internally displaced and refugee populations, or women currently resident in Nagorno-Karabakh. “Peace” for many of these women means establishing basic social and economic rights upon which cultural and political rights can be founded, but it also means putting an end to the (gendered) insecurity that stems from living in a highly militarised society.[5] Accordingly, the organisations involved in these initiatives are determined to advocate for Resolution 1325 at the national level, as a means of advancing women’s political participation and strengthening women’s human rights protection. The rising popularity of the international Women, Peace and Security agenda is a powerful tool at their disposal.

A critique of peacebuilding in the Caucasus

In spite of such clear-cut objectives, it is difficult to measure the success of these (ongoing) initiatives. A recent report from International Alert on the general state of peacebuilding in the region reminds us of the need for perseverance and increased coordination among civil society.[6] It is no secret that the entrenched political stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh has given rise to widespread public scepticism  about the potential of NGOs to help resolve the conflict. Even those who are closely involved in peacebuilding initiatives occasionally experience doubts about their effectiveness. The optimists tend to say “who knows what would happen without us?”, while the pessimists opt for “well, at least we can say that we tried”. What is the source of this crisis at the heart of peacebuilding, and are women’s organisations exempt from it?

Through fieldwork, it became clear that women’s peacebuilding projects, like other civil society initiatives, were clouded by differences over certain key issues. On two points, return of refugees/IDPs and the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, there was little sign of agreement, and the women I interviewed were for the most part reluctant to discuss these issues, insisting that these were “sensitive” and that they preferred not to talk about them even within the context of long-term peacebuilding programmes. Some explained that their intransigence was due to the top-down nature of the peace process, arguing that it made little sense to seek compromises in isolation from official negotiations, or in the face of Russian influence. This strategy of avoiding confrontation works tolerably well, but allows tensions to remain unresolved – and the status quo to go unchallenged. This is most evident, not at the carefully managed face-to-face meetings, but in the way participants struggle to come to terms with the content of meetings after these have taken place.

It is difficult to put an interpretation on this state of affairs. The politics of avoidance is a strategy which has been, at times, employed by cross-community coalitions in other cases, such as the women’s moment in Northern Ireland.[7] Arguably, however, it only works when a majority of participants buy in to it as a political practice. When unresolved issues tend to keep bubbling up to the surface, as they appear to do in Armenia and Azerbaijan, this calls into question the nature of the enterprise. We may be tempted to ask whether some participants view peacebuilding as a platform for articulating preconceived interests, rather than seeking compromise. Should we see peacebuilders as dissidents and outliers, going against the nationalist policies of their governments, or as unofficial cultural ambassadors, each aiming to persuade the other to forgive and forget? Is it possible for them to be both at the same time?

One way of explaining the recurring crisis is to focus on the lack of breathing space for civil society organisations across the region, and their consequent inability to articulate bold alternatives to the accepted political narratives. Another is to look deeper – towards personal or perhaps cultural traits, which could be at the roots of reticence in dealing with past or present injustices, and the emotional scars of conflict. Some international advocates of the Women, Peace and Security agenda argue that women’s social positioning, particularly their role as mothers, gives them a distinct advantage in overcoming both personal and political barriers to peace and reconciliation.[8] However, there is also abundant research questioning the capacity of some women’s peace movements and criticising the paradox of relying on gender stereotypes to promote women’s rights.[9] Participants in my research were generally doubtful that a women’s peace movement could be achieved in the Caucasus, and many felt that they were facing additional obstacles as women seeking a public role in peacebuilding. This was neatly summarised by an interviewee from Armenia, who said:

…we are speaking, communicating, working with people from Turkey, from Azerbaijan, which are perceived to be our enemies, and if we have friends there, if we have colleagues there, so we are not real Armenians and we destroy […] everything and our nation first of all. And if you are a woman and doing so, you have like double discrimination because you not only are communicating with enemies but you are also a woman, you should be in the kitchen. (Interview, Yerevan, September 2013)


Women’s organisations are not exempt from the difficulties that beset other peacebuilding initiatives in the divided Caucasus. They are both a strong indicator of the potential for peace, and hostages to the political realities of their home countries. The international Women, Peace and Security framework provides a useful tool for carving out greater legitimacy within their communities and developing a broader base for conflict transformation by enlarging the pool of women who are considered ‘experts’ in peacebuilding. Yet international actors would do well to bear in mind that women’s ability to act is constrained by corruption, human rights violations and other undemocratic tendencies, including gender inequality.[10] The danger of the Women, Peace and Security agenda is that it requires state cooperation – which renders activists vulnerable to being co-opted by the state. The necessary corollary to this is to strengthen civil society and alternative media, and to engage as many people as possible in their  projects. Women’s peacebuilding is a experimental enterprise: we will learn the most from it – and have more right to criticise it – if we experience it as participants and not observers.

[1] Part of the Resolution states that “an understanding of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection and full participation in the peace process can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.” Resolution 1325 has been used by women’s organisations around the world to promote women’s participation in peace processes, for example in current efforts to ensure Syrian women’s attendance at the Geneva II Conference. The Resolution is available in different languages on the website

[2] A typical example of this would be the chapters on Armenia and Azerbaijan, by Armine Ishkanian and Nayereh Tohidi respectively, in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition: Nation Building, Economic Survival, and Civic Activism, eds. Kathleen Kuehnast and Carol Nechemias (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004).

[3] I would like to take the opportunity to extend my sincere thanks to all those who have participated in the research to date, whether by being interviewed or facilitating the various other aspects of the fieldwork. They and their organisations are being kept anonymous in this article out of ethical considerations.

Thanks also to the readers who provided helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

[4] See for example the chapter “Some Dangers in Merging Feminist and Peace Projects” in Christine Sylvester, Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[5] This bears many similarities to the relationship between peace and women’s rights explored in publications such as The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation, ed. Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay and Meredeth Turshen (London: Zed Books, 2002), and Gendered Peace: Women’s Struggles for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation, ed. Donna Pankhurst (London: Routledge, 2008).

[6] International Alert, Advancing the Prospects of Peace: 20 Years of Civil Society Peacebuilding in the Context of the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict. London, August 2013

[7] Not without controversy – see for example the account given in Adrian Little, “Feminism and the Politics of Difference in Northern Ireland,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 7:2 (2002), pp. 163-177.

[8] Sanam Anderlini, Women Building Peace: What They Do, Why It Matters (Boulder, CO.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), 81-83; Elisabeth Porter, Peacebuilding: Women in International Perspective (London: Routledge, 2007), 76

[9] Carol Cohn, “Mainstreaming Gender in UN Security Policy: A Path to Political Transformation?” in Global Governance: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Shirin M. Rai and Georgina Waylen, (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 185-206, and Judy El Bushra, “Feminism, Gender and Women’s Peace Activism,” Development and Change 38:1 (2007), 131–147. For specific case study analyses, see Elissa Helms, “The Gender of Coffee: Women and Reconciliation Initiatives in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, 57 (2010), 17-32; Dorothea Hilhorst and Mathijs van Leeuwen, “Global Peace Builders and Local Conflict: The Feminization of Peace in Southern Sudan,” in The Gender Question in Globalization: Changing Perspectives and Practices, ed. Davids Tines and Francien van Driel  (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 93-108.

[10] These issues are highlighted in the 2011 report Equal Power, Lasting Peace, carried out by the Swedish Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation, which works with women’s organisations in the region.  

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