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To Participate or Not to Participate?

From Conflict-Related Sexual Violence to Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding


Survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) are often portrayed as passive and trauma-ridden individuals whose participation in social, political and economic life and community reintegration are hindered by stigma, shame and trauma (Josse, pp. 178-179). However, recent literature highlights the relationship between personal experience of CRSV and heightened political participation of survivors, especially in peacebuilding processes and post-conflict reconstruction. In this vein, this blog post evinces that despite experiences of CRSV, women were mobilised and participated in the Guatemalan peace process. Understanding this relationship between personal experiences and enhanced participation could serve to shape policies empowering survivors and fostering more inclusive and resilient post-conflict societies by leveraging the unique window of opportunity and transformation opened by violence.

Lingering Scars: Trauma, Mobilisation, and Women’s Participation

Starting from UN Security Council Resolution 1325(2000), CRSV has been flagged as a tactic of warfare and as a serious threat to international peace and security. At the same time, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda seeks to ensure women’s full and equal participation in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction. However, peacebuilding processes continue to be dominated by men, while arguably the WPS Agenda may inadvertently hinder agency by focusing on protection rather than recognising victims as fully autonomous beings (Fiske and Shackel, p. 131). The impact of CRSV on women’s participation is largely under-researched (Kreft, p. 221) and neglects exploiting the potential of conflicts as windows of opportunity for empowerment, to cope with trauma and address grievances, and ultimately shape post-conflict societies (Bakken and Buhaug, p. 923). Notwithstanding, literature suggests that CRSV experiences incentivises higher political participation among survivors. Experiences of individual and/or collective victimisation can be transformed into powerful catalysts for mobilisation and enhanced participation in political, economic, decision-making, and community responsibilities. Rapid and transformational change fuelled by conflict can allow women to reshape societal structures and advance their rights, suggesting that their gains in agency are often the direct result of the violence that they endured (González and Traunmüller, p. 2).

From Suffering to Empowerment: Women’s Mobilisation in Response to CRSV in Guatemala

Guatemala provides an enthralling case study to explore the profound impact of CRSV on women’s mobilisation and involvement in peacebuilding. Despite having endured 36 years of conflict-related sexual violence, imprisonment, torture, targeted attacks, forced displacement or migration, also as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of disappeared and killed male relatives, the inclusion of women and of women’s issues in the country’s formal peace negotiations was derisory. Women’s inclusion and participation was mainly channelled through civil society organisations, especially after the creation of the Asamblea de la Sociedad Civil (ASC) and its Women’s Sector (Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security report, pp. 55-58). For the first time, war-torn Guatemala had the opportunity to publicly discuss gender issues, however women’s meaningful engagement was far from straightforward, remarking that inclusion alone is not sufficient. The Women’s Sector faced several barriers in advancing their agenda, including misogynistic attitudes within the same ASC, the working mechanisms of the Sector and the Asamblea, and the profound inner fragmentation, with the result that women’s proposals were heavily diluted in the final peace agreements (Ibid., pp. 68-69).

Some elements distinguish women’s participation in Guatemala (Ibid., pp. 61-69). Women’s organisations advocated for a general peacebuilding agenda focused on topics such as land ownership, labour and socio-economic rights, discrimination, reconciliation, and justice, among others. They made inclusion and capitalisation of each other’s differences and competences their landmark, transforming the Women’s Sector into a safe space and allowing for the creation of an actual gender network in Guatemala. However, specific topics were excluded altogether from the draft proposals and the final ASC’s recommendations to the negotiating parties. Topics such as sexual and reproductive rights or sexual violence were not covered despite their relevance for Mayan women, given their remarkable individual and collective harm and trauma experiences during the conflict. Conveniently, the Women’s Sector formed cross-cutting alliances with other Sectors and their members on an ad hoc basis, crucially influencing the negotiations and the inclusion, even if limited, of gender provisions in the final accords. Nevertheless, due to the fact that gender equality was not a priority for negotiating parties, ‘the burden of advocacy rested on the Women’s Sector to make the convincing case from outside the negotiations room’ (Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security report, p. 65). This additional mediation layer (to be added to both the internal and ASC negotiations, as well as to the actual negotiations between warring parties) heightened consistently the strength of some of the Women’s Sector proposals in the final agreements.

It is unquestionable that victimisation – either direct or indirect – played a pivotal role for women’s participation and engagement in the peace negotiations leading up to the 1996 peace accords. Women created and came together in several organisations, both in Guatemala and abroad, calling for justice on specific issues, such as the fate of their disappeared relatives or the right to return. In this sense, the role of civil society organisations is to not be underestimated. In the face of individual and collective victimisation, mobilisation and activism are seen as a way to seek policy changes and mitigate the emotional consequences of victimisation, also through solidaristic ties with other victims (Bateson, p. 572). Civil society organisations often represent an alternative pathway to the official male-dominated political realm. Through civil society organisations, women can exert pressure from below on governments and demand greater political influence and representation, with tangible impacts also on post-conflict societies (Agerberg and Kreft, pp. 297-299). In addition, organisations operate as mediators between the experience of sexual violence and political participation, by providing participants with sufficient skills, resources and information for effective political action and thus increasing also their likelihood of being recruited and mobilised for formal political participation (González and Traunmüller, p. 3).

Against all odds and common beliefs, survivors of wartime sexual violence are not only passive and trauma-ridden socially isolated individuals, but often become active political participants, also through social networks and organisations. Notwithstanding, CRSV cannot be identified as the main driver for women’s mobilisation in Guatemala, possibly stemming from the unique existing victimisation pattern, as violence was mainly directed towards indigenous people. In many cultures, sexual violence is often rendered invisible and treated as a taboo topic hampering any healing and acknowledgment of the violence suffered in the public sphere and within their own collectivity for fear of being stigmatised, marginalised or of further victimisation and reprisals, thus also impeding mass mobilisation around this specific issue (Duggan, Bailey and Guillerot, p. 195). In addition, for indigenous women, the new windows of opportunity created by the conflict’s impact on the male population were often accompanied by ‘marginalisation, unemployment, discrimination, loss of identity and extreme poverty’ (Ibid., p. 196). Finally, mobilisation can add an additional layer of victimisation, in terms of heightened vulnerability to discrimination and further violence. We are faced with a relational concept of agency that highlights how CRSV can drive victims to resist and engage with their experiences of harm and trauma against armed actors, gendered hierarchies and patriarchy, to victimisation itself or other forms of vulnerabilities (Kreft and Schulz, p. 10).

Navigating Post-Conflict Landscapes

The aftermath of conflict can represent a transformative period for women, not only as victims but as resilient agents capable of mobilising for political change. Guatemalan women were able to mobilise collectively, especially after the creation of the ASC, to promote a general peacebuilding agenda, rather than to formalise gender roles and relations changed by conflict in the peace agreements. At the same time, the inner fragmentation and strong intersectionality of the group, as well as internal differences in terms of competences, literacy, and geographical origin, may have thwarted the strength of this section of the population in presenting issues of gender equality and deeper change in society. In addition, it is crucial to highlight the twofold role of the international community and the dilemma of external assistance (Nakaya, pp. 470-471). While favoured by external support, women’s participation can consequently lack local ownership, necessitating long-term commitment from domestic society for meaningful gender equality. In addition, Brett contends that the international pressure shaped the trajectory of the country’s peace process, pushing civil society organisations to align with liberal peace portfolios in order to receive external fundings and thus side-lining radical agendas (p. 59).

Guatemala’s case underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of local contexts and sustained efforts to address the multifaceted challenges hindering women’s meaningful inclusion and participation in peacebuilding processes, also as a result of CRSV. Cultural and social taboos around sexual violence in Guatemalan society contributed to its underreporting and the muted nature of women’s mobilisation around this issue. The case study nevertheless explores the crucial role played by both civil society organisations and international backing to the peace process and the inclusion of women and women’s issues. In particular, this underscores the need for continued study on the intricacies of the relationship between civil society organisations, international backing, and instruments such as the Resolution 1325(2000). In conclusion, comprehending how women navigate post-conflict landscapes, engage with formal and informal peace processes, and interact with international interventions is essential for developing targeted and effective strategies to enhance women’s meaningful participation and contribution and foster lasting gender equality.


The author would like to thank Professor Keith Krause (Geneva Graduate Institute) for the feedback on the first version of this blog post.

Alessia Mandaglio

Alessia Mandaglio (she/her) is a second-year Master’s candidate in International and Development Studies at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Currently, Alessia isdeeply engaged in critical areas such as transitional justice, WPS agenda, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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