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The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan is exploring the role of women in the peace building process

Maria Antonia Montes
Maria Antonia Montes

WGVU spoke with Tonis Montes, Senior Program Officer for the Gandhi-King Global Academy and the Nonviolent Action team at the United States Institute of Peace.

Tonis Montes: I am here with a colleague from the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is based in Washington, DC. And we're invited here through the World Affairs Council. We're here to talk about what peace building looks like in conflict zones around the world. Particularly, I'm here to talk about Latin America because that's my region of expertise. And so, I think my main message being here is to share what I know and exchange with others about how they see peace building as a part of their communities and what that means practically. Peace feels really nebulous sometimes and it can mean different things to different people. So, I think that's one message for me and to connect with the U.S. audience. I think that's a really important part of why we're here as well.

Patrick Center: Can you provide us with Peace Building 101? What does that look like?

Tonis Montes: Peace Building 101. We talk about peace building kind of with three different tools, or at least I think about three different tools when I think of peace building. It's dialogue, how we use dialogue to really transform relationships that have been harmed or, you know, mistrust for many years. We also talk about mediation as a tool for peace building, how we need to mediate different types of conflicts at different levels. And then we also talk about negotiation, which are like really formal peace processes where there are warring parties that need to find political solutions to their issues. So those are kind of three main peace building tools that we think about at USIP when we're talking about peace building.

Patrick Center: And your focus is South America. I would imagine most North Americans aren't familiar with all of the dynamics of issues that face different communities across South America, but this is your area of expertise. Are there areas in particular that you focus on, and how do they impact North Americans?

Tonis Montes: When we think about peace building in Latin America, I think the one that is most relevant is Colombia. Colombia has been in an armed conflict for 70 years now, and probably most North Americans or U.S. citizens know Columbia for the implications it has to drugs and cocaine and what that means for public health here. But in Columbia, we deal with a lot of issues related to exclusion of people who are marginalized, a lot of inequity. And so, I work mostly with women and youth in Columbia to make sure that their positions and there are opportunities for them to participate in important decision-making spaces.

Patrick Center: Let's focus in on that. Women in particular, when it comes to peace building, over time there's a track record of success.

Tonis Montes: That's right.

Patrick Center: What have we been seeing over the decades when women are introduced into the process?

Tonis Montes: Yeah, I think that women have historically been underrepresented in political spaces. Women traditionally are in the private spheres of family life. And so, over the past 20 years, the U.N. has put forth resolution 1325, to be a part of peace and security, and that is a framework used around the globe. And so, what we've seen is that when women are included in peace processes, those outcomes are 50% more durable in the long-term. So really inclusion is not just for the sake of inclusion, it's because there are real impacts. Because women are thinking about other things that aren't just ceasefires or security arrangements, they're thinking about education and healthcare and markets and things that really change the livelihoods of all citizens.

Patrick Center: You use Columbia as an example. What is the power structure in Columbia and how do women find their voice there?

Tonis Montes: I mean, Columbia has had a really…because precisely because of the conflict, 70 years of, of internal armed conflict, Columbia has developed a really robust civil society. And so people have had it with the way in which they've been governed with corruption, um, with unequal access to goods and services. And women have largely played a role in nonviolent movements, protests, strikes, those sorts of kind of processes. And so, they've really demanded for their participation to be recognized. And so, we're talking about probably a 30 year process of women participating actively in civil society that have really pushed the levers for their participation in really elite spaces, really political spaces that traditionally they aren't a part of. And that's changed the tide in Colombia, certainly. Even within the national government and local government, you see women in cabinet level positions. The vice president in Colombia is a woman, an Afro woman. And so, I think that is really symbolic for a lot of reasons, but also really important in advancing the women's agenda.

Patrick Center: You mentioned a three-decade time span typically for that type of peacemaking to take hold with female involvement. There are other places around the world that are also seeking that type of a transition. I can think of Afghanistan as one of those places.

Tonis Montes: Certainly.

Patrick Center: Where are some of the areas around the globe that could use truly the leadership of women to move the peace process along?

Tonis Montes: Yeah, you point out Afghanistan that had a similar trajectory. Unfortunately, we all know how that ended a few years ago with the takeover of the Taliban in Kabul. USIP was working on that issue precisely and we actually brought women from Colombia to meet with Afghan women to really share and exchange what that experience is like to be lead negotiators in a peace process. For me, that was fascinating to see that although culturally, contextually so different, there is a similarity in which women know that. there are solidarity networks that there are still strategies that can be transferred across cultures and used effectively. So, I think. Afghanistan is an incredible example of that. We're seeing this also in Venezuela. There's a massive political and humanitarian crisis ongoing in Venezuela right now. And women are really taking an important strategy to participate more actively in nonviolent action and in peace building efforts in a way that we hadn't seen previously. So maybe I would cite those two countries and contexts as areas where we see these transitions happening.

Patrick Center: In your years of experience, is there one characteristic that you find in most of these nations where there is inequality or political polarization that turns the tide? That gets women involved? What is it? Is there an “it?”

Tonis Montes: That's a good question. I don't know if there is an “it.” Maybe it's a combination of factors. But I think that social movements, independent social movements that are really pushing and pressuring warring parties to sit down at A, a table, and B, include a women's agenda in that is really effective. We know that social movements can apply that sort of pressure. In Liberia, that was an incredible example of women particularly having an important role into negotiating a peace process. And so, I think social movements and civil society writ large have an important role to play.

Patrick Center: Is there a situation right now where you say a female needs to parachute in and get the ball rolling.

Tonis Montes: I mean, I think Venezuela is one example of that. It's just been such a closed space where it's mostly men in political parties, mostly men in positions of power and leadership where there is not much space for women to participate. And I think that could change the tide certainly if someone could take on that leadership role, a Venezuelan women, to really change up the paradigm of what negotiations should look like.

Patrick Center: Every situation is unique. Every process is also unique, depending on the location, demographics,

Tonis Montes: Absolutely.

Patrick Center: Whatever it might be.

Tonis Montes: Yeah, the context matters. And so again, particularly in Columbia, the conflict has affected places so differently with different armed actors. There's such a diversity in Columbia with Afro-descendant populations, indigenous populations, that each place has such a different set of problems that they need to resolve and find solutions for that there's no one way of doing it and if everyone's involved and really feel like they have a voice in that process, then they really feel like they are advocating for themselves in a way that puts them in the driver's seat. We have a project on participatory action research, which is a method of really involving communities to be in charge of collecting and generating knowledge at the local level. Usually, research is done from the outside, coming in, really extractive processes. There's no feedback loops and it often comes from an ivory tower. And so, we're really looking to shift again, the paradigm, of how research is done at the community level. These people know their needs much better than, you know, an academic institution or someone coming from outside. And so, if they can be the generators of this knowledge, then also find the solutions at the local level then they can really kind of advocate and make changes and recommendations to local level issues at the policy level. And so, in Columbia, we're doing this with 20 young researchers from around the country, majority of whom are very rural and Afro-descendant population. And so really providing capacities for research to happen and for them to feel like they are the researchers that have the knowledge to be able to do this engaging with so many different sectors of their community, private sector, the local officials, with the religious sector, with education, with social leaders. And so, we're really trying to promote participatory action research as another tool for peace building because we also know through research that participation and having a diversity of representation and processes also changes the way in which policies and decisions are shaped.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.