Lets Hear it for the Girls! Contextualizing female leadership in conflict transformation


In honor of celebrating International Women’s Day this year, let us reflect on the status of women across the world. Considering the pedagogical debate playing out between the various feminoti (i.e. those currently embroiled in a spate over whether modern women should be leaning in, reclining, or throwing in the towel altogether), it appears necessary to step back and reflect on the emblematic resilience women have demonstrated in the face of such adversity.

Whilst many self-proclaimed feminists from the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter to Beyoncé vehemently support the increasing volume of media attention concerned with female equality and leadership—a non-existent conversation as little as five years ago—the primary paradox inherent to these so called “mommy wars”  is the misplaced attention to equity in defining female empowerment for ALL females.

A year since Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “Lean In,” Rosa Brooks has equally fought for women to “Recline.” In the fields of conflict transformation and international development, both points miss the mark. Regardless of how modern executive women and girls perceive themselves in terms of leadership, it remains that the majority of the globe’s females have dispelled little effort in contemplating their new found “empowerment” as a reference point for the broader social evolution of their communities. As of right now, and coinciding with 2014 International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th, women make up nearly 70 percent of the world’s absolute poor where those aged 14 to 44 are as likely to die from violence as from cancer.

At the turn of the century, concerned with the specific needs of adolescent girls, all 189 UN member states and at least 23 international organizations pledged to help achieve a greater commitment toward addressing a series of measurable health and economic livelihoods indicators by the year 2015. Set up by the Millennium Development Committee, The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) defined a new set of global targets to promote mainstreaming gender equality. They have since recognized that equality in expenditure for adolescent females can be a central driver of development success or, the lack thereof, a symptom of its failure. As such, the inclusion of socially marginalized groups like women and girls has spearheaded the conversation of effective programming for inclusive development and peacebuilding efforts across many regions. After years of planning and progression, the human rights and conflict transformation fields have also arrived at a pivotal moment: there is now documented proof that female education, engagement, and leadership has had tangible benefits for transitional communities. Billions of dollars have been funneled into aid agencies over the past fifteen years whose programs have strived to elicit female leadership in order to both meet the targets set up by the MDGs and to promote women’s leadership rights in the face of conflict.

Much to their chagrin, and in defiance of well-researched econometric projections for development in transitional states, many countries will not come close to meeting the targets of the MDGs before 2015. The general understanding of the criteria for evaluating the impact of the MDG on female empowerment remains nebulous and its’ generalizable results are largely mixed. Questions surrounding the returns to scale of such statistical findings indicate the large amount of work still to be done within the field of targeted programming for the most marginalized young female individuals.

Well founded as it is, one should always maintain a critical eye to the ways in which terms are defined. In projecting the conversation of female leadership to a globalized audience (as one should be doing on IWD), is there really any universally exemplified version of female leadership? How much crossover is there between this concept as expressed up by a high-status American CEO to that of young female leading oppositional uprisings in a conflict affected state like Syria? Perhaps very much but, the crux of this philosophical war on, between, within, and among women leaders has yet to address it.

IWD commemorations range from general jubilant celebrations of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a much more contextualized acknowledgement for the economic, political, and social achievement of females. In order to shed some light on the actual lived experiences of contemporary women striving as leaders across the globe’s diverse communities, we must attune our critic’s eye to the received narratives of power, privilege, and exceptionalism amongst women. We must learn and respect how these factors are what actually impact the many ways in which we can talk about women leading change across the world. This is all even before tackling misogyny and patrimony!


The question here is: does it even matter? Taking the exceptional case of women’s leadership in combat such as Syria’s all-female battalion fighting on the front line against President Assad’s government forces, how does one define contemporary feminist ideals of leadership alongside the more radical activities of females making do with what they have inside the lifecycle of protracted hostilities?

In charting a way forward after 2015, it is clear that women and girls must be more clearly classified as valuable stakeholders. Though statistically better off than their mothers and grandmothers because of investments in poverty alleviation, health, and education, much of the world’s female population continue to live in insecure environments. The definitional terms and identities as well as the challenges and barriers to their overall level of civic engagement operate within larger socio-political contexts beyond that of singular individuals. Their experiences are unique and they should be classified in light of their environment and the differences in needs they have from other minority populations. Unfortunately, the overall impact of the MDGs has been exploiting attention to young impoverished females as marginalized and incapacitated victims. Such assumptions are made worse by policies that exist inside toxic social contexts where young women are subjugated to other serious problems like sexism. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that traditional peacebuilding and development programs rarely address the diversity of ways in which females deal with the challenges that impede their activities.

Power and privilege in civic participation is often granted on the basis of identity; structural inequalities are linked to collective narratives and are also considered to be a starting point for a large portion of organizing and civic engagement activity. Female identities are not monolithic. Young men and women experience differences in equity impacted by their daily environment. They are a diverse group whose dissimilarities and commonalities often reflect the societies and communities in which they thrive. An individual’s quality of life is likely shaped by a multitude of factors including, but not limited by, gender.

Because they tend to be lumped together with other marginalized groups, organically established female leaders and social entrepreneurs are oftentimes snubbed in peacebuilding and diplomacy efforts. Recent measures of increased participation of young women in education and the workforce have demonstrated the existence of new patterns and opportunities for some. However, old patterns of gender division and new developments in gendered patterns are only a snapshot of change.

In making the case for female empowerment during the initiative activities of the MDG committee back in the year 2000, there were no Sheryl Sandberg and Rosa Brooks quarreling over nonsensical definitions of leadership. Today, global leaders have come to the realization that, for one thing, the MDGs must be reissued in terms of feasibility and, therefore, the targets must incorporate the constrictions that civil conflict and war have had on socio-economic development. Though it is highly unlikely that female combatants, political leaders, and business entrepreneurs making strides in the developing world have read anything of the “mommy wars” (occupied themselves with wars of their own), the data show that effective female engagement is a recipe for success. Young girls must be considered throughout project cycles. Understanding girls not as a homogeneous group, but as a diverse population with many needs and issues related to their age and environments depend on the project’s management.


While the impetus of Sandberg’s social movement here is in 1) broadly addressing the various socio-structural roadblocks preventing the meaningful participation of women as leaders and 2) justifying that females can and do manage multiple career and family oriented identities (mother, executive, community organizer, etc), her concepts extend only to those aspirational identities assigned to westernized wealthy women climbing upwardly mobile career trajectories.

Considering this, and in order to implement sustainable peacebuilding plans, perhaps we should first parse out what female leadership even looks like. A mammoth endeavor as it seems, rest assured that it may not be as complex as our assumptive blinders lead us to believe. While the “leaners” and “recliners” spend time debating the level of time, space, and energy women should and should not employ within social spheres typically designated to men, women all over the world are actively addressing adversity, defiantly breaking down archaic and patriarchal social expectations, and collectively organizing to stand up against injustice.

While countless causal factors continue to undermine womens’ ability and inspiration to participate in conflict and/or its resolution, the core take away here is that women are not affected any more negatively by conflict than men. Both Sandberg and Brooks would agree that we should not build up our definition of female leadership in terms of vulnerability and weakness; regardless of gender, females can and do empower themselves to address adversity in their lives.

Adding to that the dimension of protracted civil conflict, development initiatives and international aid aside, our prescriptions for ‘solving’ the issue of female empowerment need to first address the lived experience of females, the perceived narratives and capabilities they already retain, and how we can turn the global conversation away from impractical examinations of “How to Balance the Work/Life Nexus” to, “What can we learn from the resiliency of females in the face of adversity?”

 (Images: Getty Images launched the “Lean In Collection” in partnership withLeanIn.org, featuring more than 2,500 photos of female leadership in contemporary work and life)

About Shayna

Shayna is a second year graduate student of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service concentrating in youth participatory roles in peacebuildng and development. She completed a B.A. in International Relations at the American University of Rome in 2011. Her professional and academic publishing interests focus on thematic issues related to ethnography, youth based grassroots social movements, conflict narratives and identity formation, mechanisms of civic engagement, social inequalities, and structural violence. Her travel and fieldwork experiences have brought her across several countries in the MENA region, the Middle East, Africa, Southern Europe, the Balkans, Haiti, and the US. www.linkedin.com/pub/shayna-mccready/29/a31/83b/
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