Women peace-builders ‘under-utilised’ in advancing NI peace process

All-Island Women’s Forum seeks to bring female voices to peace, reconciliation efforts

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw


Women peace-builders remain an “under-utilised resource” in advancing the Northern Ireland peace process and should be playing a leading role in “tackling institutionalised sectarianism”, citizens’ rights activist Emma DeSouza has said.

Speaking following the inaugural meeting of the All-Island Women’s Forum, which was held on Thursday, Ms DeSouza told The Irish Times that women had only made up “10 per cent of the Good Friday Agreement negotiating team”.

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was established in the 1990s to give women a voice in the North’s peace negotiations, brought forward a lot of provisions around social cohesion, yet most of these proposals were never properly implemented, said Ms DeSouza.

“They brought in specific language around education, victims rights, shared housing, all elements aimed at embedding reconciliation. But we’re still seeing our education system is 93 per cent segregated.

“Many of the rights based provisions that were the brainchild of women in 1998 have not been implemented. That’s why it’s important now that women come into this space and bring their values and expertise to make real the concept of a rights based society.”

Chair of the new forum, Ms DeSouza said Thursday’s inaugural meeting had been “incredibly inspiring” and that the 28 participants brought “ambition, creativity and a real appetite for historic and meaningful change” in advancing women’s rights and equality on an all-island basis.

The cross-Border forum aims to address the under-representation of women in peace-building initiatives and met this week as part of a year-long pilot programme to help build sustainable North-South links.

Thursday’s meeting, which was led by the National Women’s Council (NWC), brought together 14 women from the Republic and 14 women from the North to discuss how female peace-builders can advance the Northern Irish peace process.

Female experts will appear before the virtual monthly meetings to present on issues relating to peace and reconciliation, similar to the style of the Citizens’ Assembly. These will be live streamed from September via the National Women’s Council platform.

“Female peace-builders remain an under-utilised resource in advancing the peace process and tackling institutionalised sectarianism,” said Ms DeSouza. “The forum will seek to act as a conduit for greater co-operation and a catalyst for the inclusion of women’s voices in these spaces.”

NWC director Orla O’Connor said the forum would also include the voices of groups too-often left out of decision-making spaces including LGBT+, women from minority ethnic groups, Traveller women, disabled women, rural women and young women.

“Reflecting the diversity of women’s voices and experiences on our shared island, the forum will create a space for greater cross-Border collaboration on key issues affecting women,” she said.

The forum, which will also discuss the impact of Covid-19 on women, ethnic minority groups in political participation, climate action and violence against women, is part of the Government’s Shared Island initiative.