A sole woman at the negotiating table for peace

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SHADIA MARHABAN SPEAKS TO REPORTERS AFTER PARTICIPATING IN A CLOSED, MEETING OF THE SECURITY COUNCIL ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN MEDIATION AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION. PHOTO: UN

Almost ten years ago, I was part of a peace process that produced an agreement to end a 30-year bloody conflict between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Then and now, women are rarely seen in this peace negotiation arena. They are not perceived as adequately prepared for tackling "tough" issues like peace and security. Despite recent international obligations to include women in peace processes, reality has not kept pace with rhetoric.

My own presence, as a lone woman among "tough" men, who had been at the helm of the struggle for independence for decades, was unique.

As a woman, and a mother of two children, I did not push to go to Helsinki for the peace talks, since it meant leaving my two small children. But as fate would have it, the official negotiators were arrested on the way to the airport and exiled to prison. By default, I then became formally part of the negotiations, as I was a field expert.

I was treated with respect by the top leadership. I presented myself not as a woman on the team, but rather as a field expert whose expertise was important to the peace process. I debated with the men on critical issues of peace and security, and they were surprised that I had spent much time in the jungle with armed fighters. After establishing myself as someone with knowledge and experience, I did not face much resistance.

The challenge came from the Indonesian side. Very simply put, I was not taken seriously. Early into the negotiation, I was called out and informed that the Indonesian side objected to my presence, claiming that I had not been part of the team from the beginning. When the GAM leadership told the mediator that if I were expelled, the peace talks would end there, the Indonesian side withdrew their demand.

This experience strengthens my belief that women's absence from negotiations and peace processes translates into neglect of women's priorities in the talks.

In Aceh, women were very active in intelligence sharing, medical and logistic services, and a few were trained in real armed fighting units. But after the conflict had ended and peace was restored, these women were deprived of meaningful assistance in the reintegration programs. The peace negotiations had focused on political and security arrangements only, without considering the position of women. This exclusion is playing out today into denial of women's rights and radicalization of religious views. Meaningful participation of women requires a change in the mindset of the society itself. With this conviction I became an advocate not only for rights of women but also for the creation of mediator networks for women in the region.

Only when women become mediators in the fullest meaning of the word, the dynamics of the peace processes would translate into "justice and dignity for all," as proudly mentioned in the preamble of the Helsinki Memorandum for Peace in Aceh. We have a long way to go until women are respected for their knowledge, capacity and experience on par with men.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the United Nations Development Programme (the N-Peace initiative), to promote the leadership that women demonstrate in resolving conflicts and building peace. Learn more about N-Peace.