Young and female: the future mediators in conflicts?

In this blog post Lara Sievers argues young women have a unique contribution to make as mediators.


By Lara Sievers

As a pioneer in mediation, Dag Hammarskjöld crisscrossed the globe and successfully negotiated conflicts from China to Egypt. His steadfast belief in quiet diplomacy and ability to achieve agreement between conflicting parties was heralded when he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But if I am female and young, can I follow in his daunting footsteps?

Well there seems to be some evidence that says I should. In fact, research shows that while female and male mediators are both equally effective at reaching an initial settlement, female mediators are considerably more effective at obtaining binding settlements. This underlines that mediator gender and style do matter in the development of sustainable agreements and they favour women. Well what about young women? Let’s break this down.

According to mediation literature, in any conflict resolution process mediators hold different powers, identities and status. When assessing the competences of intermediaries to mediate in conflicts, academics generally identify these mediator attributes:

  • Impartiality, or leverage/resources, or leverage/power
  • Mediator interest
  • Intelligence and tact

Gender matters

Let’s look at this first attribute: leverage. Women as well as men can hold various sources of leverage through their ability to provide expert advice/opinions, to represent a certain organisation/group, and their prestige/reputation. But in a situation of power imbalance, women also tend to have a greater tendency to succumb, putting them at a disadvantage as mediators. Academics argue nonetheless that these power imbalances could be diminished or removed in a mediation context that focuses on informed consent, fairness and self-determination rather than on power dynamics.

In gender theory of conflict resolution mediator interest is often linked to ‘motivation’. The gender of a mediator can impact a mediator’s motivation by influencing preference for, for example, splitting resources. As research shows, women are generally concerned with the relationship aspect of the negotiation and are as a result more likely to allocate resources more equally compared to men. In a conflict context, focus on fairness in allocation is an important characteristic for obtaining durable peace.

Regarding intelligence and tact, women are usually known to use styles of conflict management such as collaborating, compromising or avoiding. Men on the other hand tend to use competing as well as avoiding strategies more often in conflict situations. In the conflict context, the compromising or collaborative style can be more productive: cooperative expectations can lead to more cooperative actions by the parties in the conflict. This approach to conflict, more common in women, can as such positively affect the effectiveness of the female mediator.

Knowledge of the value of female mediators has grown over time, as demonstrated by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the more recent Swedish initiative to start a network of female mediators, but a gap in the theory and practice of young mediators remains. This is a significant drawback for the mediation community, as I believe young mediators could positively challenge the field and transform mediation if given a chance.

The nature of young mediators

The lack of sound theory and research on young mediators is a shortcoming but if we take a general look at these mediator attributes from a youth perspective, it would seem that they can exhibit all of them and do so at an advantage.

In terms of the first attribute, legitimate power would be the strongest source of leverage for young mediators. They can exercise legitimate power by representing the next generation and the population most affected by conflict in the longer term, giving the young mediators both influence and leverage. According to mediation literature, the mediator must also have  a strong interest in mediating outcomes satisfactory for both disputants rather than mediating merely for altruistic reasons. This applies also to young mediators and in this role, young mediators may challenge conventional means and processes and seek innovation in the tradition of mediation. Often greatly affected by conflict, young mediators may also have a longer-term interest in establishing a peaceful society.

Finally, the ability to make both sides feel comfortable and ensure that both disputants feel that they are not only heard, but also understood, is crucial for a mediator. This skill is not linked to age but rather to intelligence, tact and diplomacy and can therefore of course also be observed in young mediators.

Now this short analysis only considers the inherent attributes of young mediators and there are undeniably both social and political obstacles to overcome if young mediators are to be effective. The patriarchal structure that many societies enforce, where youth are expected to obey their parents and elders and are not actors in their own right, is certainly one of the more crucial ones. More research on ways to overcomes these hurdles is undoubtedly needed to empower youth.

Recognition of young mediators

While the theory and research surrounding young mediators may be scant, at least there has been growing recognition of the importance of including youth in formal peace processes. UN Security Council Resolution 2250 of December 2015 on youth, peace and security has been hailed as a breakthrough by calling for the inclusion of youth in formal decision making processes, including peace negotiations. But what is being done to move from words to action?

There are some countries and organisations that encourage the inclusion of youth in mediation. In Denmark for instance, student-to-student mediation is one of several ways that the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has pioneered the field of youth and conflict. Meanwhile, Search for Common Ground has implemented projects in Colombia, Nepal and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where youth have successfully mediated critical conflicts such as land disputes.

Young female mediators

So where does that leave young female mediators? Well in a world where conflicts continue to change and greater emphasis is placed on inclusivity and innovative approaches, the competencies of young and female intermediaries to mediate in conflicts are ever more valuable. In combining their strengths as women and youth they are, as mediators, more likely to obtain binding settlements and to think strategically about the long-term implications. They are also more likely to inject new perspectives into traditional mediation theories and practices, while implementing compromising or collaborative styles.

Support for young women to become mediators accordingly seems like a good investment for the international community, and the gap in the theory and practice of young female mediators must be addressed. Research should be funded, advocacy campaigns should be introduced and capacity building programmes should be launched.

Universities, NGOs and private as well as public institutions all have a role to play in initiating these conversations around the utility of young, female mediators and funding their success. With his ever practical and steadfast mediation approach, I am certain that Dag Hammarskjöld would have been one of the first to do so were he still alive today.