Manal Omar
Women at the negotiating table – the missing piece in peacebuilding
TEDxSanDiego 2017

When people first hear that I’ve been in and out of war zones for 20 years, one of the first questions they ask me is, “What took you to places like that?” Born in Riyadh Saudi Arabia, to Palestinian parents who traveled through four countries before finally landing in the United States. First in Lubbock, Texas, and then Spartanburg, South Carolina. I feel like that background alone explains everything.

From a very early age I got a front row seat to injustices. Fortunately, my mother taught me the concept of a global citizen, to honor my roots as a Palestinian that made me a survivor of protracted conflict, but also to honor my adopted homeland, America, that allowed my branches to grow and my flowers to bloom.

So it was at the very wise age of 21 that I got on a plane and traveled to the Middle East in the 1990s, to work with the United Nations in Baghdad, with the spirit of the expanded American Dream, save the world. What I didn’t know was that peace had taken on a bad name and was a loaded term.

I wasn’t greeted with baklava and hummus like all my dreams at the Middle Eastern hospitality led me to believe. Instead, I was grilled with 100 questions,trying to figure out if I had been recruited by the CIA. And that was just from my family. You see, people question our motives for peacebuilding, as much as they question our motives for going to war.

Billions of dollars are being rushed in to triage massive wounds that need complicated surgery, with simple bandaids. And so now, as conflict is on the rise in a brand new form, it’s important for the peacebuilding community to look at change itself ,drastically. But first, why should we even rush in? Why should we even care about people in conflict?

No matter what statistic you want to look at, from the U.S. Intelligence Council, to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the global trends on conflict do not look promising. There are definitely studies out there, such as Harvard’s linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker, who tries to make the argument that the world is less violent. That only applies if you’re looking at the traditional war lens.

Unfortunately, conflict doesn’t want to comply with what we think it should look like. A new era of violent extremism is being ushered in, where it is individuals that are the primary violators, from the Lord’s Resistance Army, to Al-Qaeda, to the rise of Neo-Nazism in the US and beyond. When it’s non-state actors that are the biggest violators, the laws that govern conflict are not easily enforced. And maybe that alone wouldn’t have me raising the alarm bells.

What concerns me, is that the rise of extremism is happening at the same time as people’s faith and trust in their government is on the decline. According to the Institute for State Effectiveness, among the general population, including decision makers, less than 45 percent of the population trust their governments. When people don’t trust their governments, they start turning to sub-identities like religion, and ethnicity, and economic ties, which leads to fractures and divided communities.

Not a world I want to live in. But don’t worry, I don’t plan to just tell you about how conflict is on the rise and ask us to all hold hands and sing Kumbaya till no one holds a gun. In the 20 years that I’ve worked, I actually think I’ve discovered one of the remedies. Women. No matter where you are in the world, women know violence. You’ve heard a lot of organizations talk about the global war on women, but there was one book that really drove this home for me. It was published in 2012, Sex and World Peace, which goes with a lot of data points in great detail and demonstrates that more women died from violence against women than all the wars combined.

Yeah, you heard that right. When I first read the book I had to keep going back and look at that statistic. That’s more women dying from all the wars, that includes World War 1, World War 2, the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, the Gulf Wars – anything up to 2012. And these aren’t people dying in the wars – dying from violence against women. That’s starvation, rape, honor killings, infanticide. Four million women disappear every year globally. That’s about the size of Los Angeles. Now add on top of that women in war and conflict. We know that women bear the brunt of war and bear the brunt of displacement, and so because of that they are the first to take drastic steps in great risk and peacebuilding.

I remember when I was in Libya, and the Gadhafi regime had just fallen. His hometown, Bani Walid, had been under siege by the opposition militia. All the male political leaders knew that this was collective punishment and not the way that they wanted to form the new Libya. But they also knew, that if they were to speak out and defend his hometown, that people would assume they were defending Gaddafi, which would be a political kiss of death. And so they did nothing. And there was a stalemate, and the violence threatened to erupt. It was a woman who finally stood up and traveled to Bani Walid to negotiate the end of the ceasefire successfully.

We’ve come great strides in beginning to recognize the role of women in conflict. We’ve even gone as far as recognizing that women just aren’t the peacebuilders, they’re just as likely to be the perpetrators as they are to be the peacebuilders. What we’ve begun to realize is that for women to really have an effect, it’s important that we’re able to really empower them, because women know their communities like no other.

It was the women in Chalaka, Baghdad who came to warn me that the neighborhood was no longer safe. You see, women are canaries in the mines. They know their streets, they know their communities like no other. The women recognized that there was is an influx of foreign fighters, and they followed that the youth were creating militias. They also noticed that during the Friday prayers there was a lot of incitement towards violence. The first thing they did was come to warn me – it was time to move.

Women also have a fresh perspective. Oftentimes they’re not tied to any formal government position. So they’re the first to cross religious and ethnic boundaries. I happened to be in the Arab Spring squares across the region, and from Tahrir Square, to Yemen’s Change Square, to outside the courthouse in Benghazi. It was the women that were on the front lines, and many researchers say the Arab Spring and the revolutions would not have taken place without women.

I remember when one very powerful tribal leader in Misrata told me it was the women that shamed us. When we saw how they stood in strength to come up against Gadhafi, we had no other option but to join them. So when I’m talking about bringing women in, we’re not doing anyone any favors. This isn’t something that’s nice to do, it’s absolutely necessary, our future depends on it.

According to studies from UN Women, when women are at the peace process table it is more likely to be sustainable, for up to two years by 20 per cent, and for up to 15 years by 35 percent. Despite that outstanding statistic, less than 4 percent of signatures for peace agreements are women, and less than 10 percent of negotiators are women. And if you don’t want to take UN Women’s word for it, let’s hear some global leaders who just happened to be men.

According to UN General Counsel Kofi Annan, the single most ingredient to peacebuilding is women’s participation, and former President Carter, who has now dedicated his life to women’s rights through through faith lens, says that the more gender equity in the country, the less likely the country is to go to war.

So we need women at the peace negotiation table. And it can’t just be any woman. It needs to be a fully integrated ,empowered women leader. One of the most exciting parts of my work after 20 years, is connecting women leaders to knowledge about their bodies through an understanding of their sexuality. This is particularly difficult and faith-based communities.

But wait, how did I move from talking about women and conflict to go into talking about women and sexuality? I didn’t. I truly believe the two are intertwined. For us to really see women as the remedy, to really unleash their full potential, we cannot do it in bits and pieces. We need a fully integrated woman who knows her leadership, understands her life energy force, through understanding of her sexuality.

It still surprises me how much the topic of sex comes up in war zones. Whether it’s sex exploitation, or sex violations, or sex as a recruitment strategy, or just a woman traveling alone and people assuming she’s promiscuous. No matter how far we’ve come in thinking about women’s leadership that red line still exists.

Even in our public campaigns it’s usually about exploitation and abuse, and sex education in the U.S. is about preventing teenage pregnancy. The time has come to view women’s sexuality as a source of power, and it’s an important part of her journey towards understanding her leadership. And here’s why.

Almost every leadership training says you have to know yourself fully. And for women that includes knowing that they’re sexual beings, understanding that life force energy within them. Tons of research shows that the body is a compass towards decision making. When we shut women out of their sexuality, what we’re doing is shutting down their God-given GPS system. When we’re not having these conversations, it ends up draining women’s batteries and leading to a slower development in their leadership development. Just like when you have too many apps running on the background of your phone.

Now let me be clear I’m not saying to be a good women leader you have to have good sex. I’m also not saying you have to have sex at all. Just look at Mother Teresa for power and change. What I’m saying is that we need to understand that life energy force, so that we integrate it into our leadership style, so that we’re not performing in a fractured way. That life energy literally produces the power of life.

I’m also not saying let’s replace men with women. This is all about bringing people together through divine union where the masculine and feminine energies can co-create positive change in whatever physical form it looks like. It’s time we stop fighting fire with fire, and fight fire with water. Wherever I’ve served, I aways get some rendition of the same line ,from U.S. generals, to Libya militias, to Afghan religious leaders, “As soon as this war is over we can talk about your women.”

And I always have the same response. This war isn’t going to be over, until you include the women. So yes, conflict is on the rise. So yes conflict is on the rise in many new forms, but we have our remedy – the re-emergence of female leadership, and the good news is, there is no lack of women in the world.

I’m told that there are 1,800 people in this audience, and I’m sure at least 50 percent are women. I know some powerful women showed up for me today. So take a look around you because you’re literally surrounded by them. The only question in my mind, is do we have the courage to cultivate and unleash this transformative power.