As civil wars in Syria and its neighbouring countries send millions fleeing for safety, and governments from France to the United States unleash their military might – where are the women in these war rooms and negotiation tables?

Their pictures are all over the news: they’re casualties of war, displaced and distraught survivors fleeing with their children. But from command centres to peacekeeping missions – or anywhere decisions are being made at the highest level – women are largely and noticeably absent.

It has been 15 years since the United Nations called upon countries “to increase representation of women at all decision-making levels” via its Resolution 1325. And despite a few steps towards gender equality in that time, progress has been sporadic.

The figures speak volumes. A UN study of 31 major peace negotiations between 1992 and 2011 showed that few women had been involved in any way. In that period, less than 4% of all peace-talk participants were female, while women made up less than 4% of the signatories to peace agreements. In several cases, none were involved at all. In Afghanistan, not a single Afghan woman was found to have taken part in talks between the international community and the Taliban, for instance.

UN women in peace talks

So where are we now?

Kofi Annan called Resolution 1325 a “promise to women across the globe that their rights will be protected and that barriers to their equal participation and full involvement in the maintenance and promotion of sustainable peace will be removed”. Fifteen years later, how has that promise been upheld?

There have been some positive developments, with 49 states publishing National Action Plans to promote women’s participation and protection. In 2014, the African Union Commission launched its five-year Gender, Peace and Security Programme.

As recently as this week, the Scottish government announced plans to offer peace-process training to Syrian women. In Syria, women and children comprise over 70% of the refugee population and continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. The UN special envoy collaborating on the initiative, Steffan De Mistura, said: “Women’s leadership and participation in conflict resolution are critical for sustainable solutions. The engagement of women in shaping the future of Syria is more important now than ever before.”

Interestingly, the countries that have performed best in terms of giving women a seat at the negotiating table are those recovering from conflict. Take Rwanda: two decades after the genocide, the nation has the highest ratio of female parliamentarians (64%) in the world. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the country’s first female president not long after the end of the civil war. And 14 years ago in Afghanistan, it was unheard of for a woman to hold a seat in parliament; now there are 69 female MPs.

All these developments are bold steps towards a better, fairer future for women in times of war. But, in the words of Womankind Worldwide’s Glenys Kinnock, they’re steps that must be “heeded, copied and extended” if they are to become real and enforceable all around the world.

Have you read?
Which countries have most women in parliament?
Why women need a bigger role in peace talks
How to train a peacebuilder

Author: Anna Bruce-Lockhart is an editor at the World Economic Forum

Image: Turkish Kurdish women mourn during the funeral of Kurdish fighters killed during clashes against Islamic State in Syrian town of Kobani. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach