Peace is best established with respect for local traditions and women’s needs

30 January 2019

Portrait of Karen Brounéus photographed outside.

Karen Brounéus, licensed psychologist and researcher in peace and conflict research, studies how peace processes affect people psychologically.

Lasting peace is best created with consideration for local conflict resolution traditions and with great sensitivity for the grassroots perspective, and above all, for the needs of female victims.

“Leaders of the peace process must truly listen to what’s going on in the community. If the perspective from below is ignored, there is significant risk that the peace process will fail,” says Karen Brounéus, senior lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research.

Karen Brounéus is a licensed psychologist and conducts peace and conflict research, including how peace processes affect people psychologically. She has recently released a book on the establishment of peace in the Solomon Islands. The area was at war from 1998–2003, resulting in significant violence including sexual violence. The Solomon Islands is a small country with about 600,000 inhabitants who are ethnically fragmented, with some 70 languages.

“It’s a small society and the traditional reconciliation process after conflicts involves a judgement from the elders, and then never discussing the events again.”

Root the process in tradition

After the war, a truth and reconciliation commission was established on the Solomon Islands to set the stage for long-term peace for the society.

“The commission involved essentially two problems. First, people didn’t trust the commission because it was thought to have emerged from the outside, without consideration for local traditions. Second, the commission opened up wounds for the victims and their families, which was thought to lead to revenge and violence.

“In addition, the state did not guarantee the safety of the former combatants who testified. Some were arrested after giving testimony, which was contrary to the commission’s fundamental principles. Then the former combatants stopped telling the truth in the commission, which was obvious to people, undermining relationship-building between the previous enemies. If the state and police aren’t behind a process of a truth and reconciliation commission, there is a risk that it will undermine the peace process.”

The process risks worsening trauma

Since 1995, one of the most common methods for peace-building after armed conflict has been to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, based on the idea that the truth should be healing for the society. But the process can have a negative impact on victims who testify before the commission.

“My research shows that the risk of post-traumatic stress and depression increases among people who testify in front of truth and reconciliation commissions. When testifying about traumatic experiences like rape, abuse and crimes, victims risk reliving these events so powerfully that the trauma is worsened.”

Karen Brounéus emphasises how important, yet difficult, reconciliation can be after armed conflict in which perpetrators and victims will continue living side by side after violence and abuse.

“Reconciliation and peace-building involve unbelievable pressure and challenges for victims. Women are often victims of sexual violence – as are men, but we know less about that. For victims, the reconciliation process may mean seeing perpetrators pass their homes on a daily basis or going to the same market. Many people are subjected to enormous challenges every day, without access to help.”

Research shows that a strong social network is important for helping people prevent mental illness after traumatic experiences. But often, many close friends and family died in the war, so many people experience loneliness – especially women.

Women’s specific needs must be met

In peace-building processes, it is often forgotten that women have specific needs after war.

“Women and women’s organisations often play vital roles in launching a peace process, but they are not included as often in the peace process itself or in what happens next – in the time after the war. Contrary to the prevalent theory that women are more peace-keeping than men, new research shows that women often view processes establishing peace more negatively – perhaps because their needs are not being met.”

The more negative attitude towards processes establishing peace may be due to the type of violence to which women are subjected during war, which means they also face major challenges in daily life after the war. They must care for their families themselves if their husband died in the war, which in many cultures is a very vulnerable position for a woman, and they must deal with their trauma while the perpetrators are being re-integrated into society.

“Being a widow is also stigmatised in some societies. Widows are shamed. For example, people may say, ‘She must have done something in a previous life to deserve this.’ Despite all this, women possess an incredible power after war, a power to want to make the world a better place for their children. That is very beautiful, and it brings hope.”

Read more

The book "Truth and Reconciliation Processes: Learning from the Salomon Islands"

Research theme: Gender and conflict

Research theme: Psychological dimensions of conflicts

Research theme: Peace, peacebuilding and reconciliation