Keepers of the Peace

At the age of 14, Nesreen Barwari was thrown into one of Saddam Hussein's political prisons. At 24, she was a Kurdish refugee, struggling for survival on Iraq's Turkish border. A decade later, in 2003, she became the only woman to hold a cabinet post in Iraq's first post-Saddam government. Unlike the typical Middle Eastern leader's ascent to power, Barwari's journey reads like the life of a charity worker. The Harvard-educated minister headed up the United Nations' Rebuilding Iraq project after the Gulf War; later she led the Kurdistan Regional Government's reconstruction of 3,000 destroyed villages. When she became minister of Municipalities and Public Works, she set out to convince the Governing Council of the vital role women should play in rebuilding the country. "At first they were against it," she says. "They would say, 'We don't have enough qualified women,' and I would say right in their face: 'We are all building the new Iraq!' "

Nowhere are women leaders more essential than in countries devastated by war. Studies from the World Economic Forum and Harvard-based nonprofit the Initiative for Inclusive Security show that women are better at creating and keeping the peace in post-conflict societies because women are--generally--less violent than their male counterparts. Increasingly, citizens in such societies are recognizing that and turning to women for help. In Rwanda's most recent election, women won 49 percent of the seats in Parliament--the highest proportion in the world. The Iraqi Constitution, passed by referendum last month, guarantees women 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. Liberians hoping to secure peace after decades of civil war could become the first African country with a woman president if they elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the final round of balloting on Nov. 8.

Perhaps the greatest hope is that increasing the ranks of women in government will help prevent future wars. Swanee Hunt, head of The Initiative for Inclusive Security, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit supporting the work of women in conflict zones, says: "During the [Bosnian] war, I asked the prime minister of Bosnia, Haris Silajdzic, 'If half of the people around the table at the very beginning had been women, would there have been a war?' And he said, 'No. Women think long and hard before they send their children out to kill other peoples' children'."

Are women actually more peaceful than men? Looking at Cameroon, Bolivia and Malaysia, a recent World Economic Forum study found that when women have a greater say in spending priorities, they spend less on the military. "When women reach 30 or 40 percent of government, you get much more funding for health care and education," says Hunt. And according to Harvard psychologist Rose McDermott's simulated-conflict studies, the more money a country spends on its military, the more likely it is to go to war. Based on 500 hours of interviews, the Initiative for Inclusive Society reports: "Women are particularly adept at bridging the ethnic, religious and political divides."

Countless anecdotes tell the same tale. During the peace talks that led to Northern Ireland's Good Friday agreement in 1998, male negotiators walked out of the sessions in frustration, while women kept the dialogue alive. "Men are stubborn," says Monica McWilliams, a signatory to the agreement. "Women are more comfortable seeking compromise. They see it as a strength, not a weakness."

In the aftermath of war, societies often rely on women to rebuild because many of the men are dead or injured. In Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, women's groups set up centers dedicated to helping rape survivors reclaim their lives. "[After the genocide], the role of women changed from reproduction to production," says Aloisea Inyumba, a Rwandan governor and former head of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, who helped find homes for 500,000 orphans--often persuading survivors to take in their enemies' children. "We were the wives left as widows, the mothers whose children died. We are the owners of the postwar issues." In Iraq, after the Gulf War, Barwari risked death by returning to Baghdad to earn a degree in architecture, then used it to help build housing for refugees. "I felt so victorious, as though I'd taken my degree from the heart of Saddam's regime," she says.

Today the global average of women in parliament is just 16 percent--ranging from as little as 7.7 percent in the Arab states to 39.8 percent in the Nordic countries. According to the World Conference on Women, they should represent at least 30 percent of Parliament--a target adopted in 2000 by the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Reaching that goal certainly won't solve all the world's problems over-night. But it can bring hope for peace in countries once mired in blood.