Examining the gender politics of war and peace

Colleague spotlight | Dr Maria O'Reilly


Maria O'Reilly with book

I am Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations and have over a decade of experience working in the area of gender, peace and security. I hold a PhD in War Studies from Kings College London (UK), having written a thesis on women’s activism around transitional justice in post-war Bosnia & Herzegovina. 

Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with Leeds School of Social Sciences

I have a longstanding interest in understanding the gendered nature and impact of war and post-war peacebuilding interventions. A key challenge that communities face following periods of armed conflict is the question of how to address legacies of violence. In recent years, a range of justice mechanisms – including criminal tribunals, truth commissions, reparations programmes, memorials and other tools such as art and drama – have been used to help societies recover from war or authoritarian rule. I have written extensively about how these tools hold the potential to create positive social change, including in my book Gendered Agency in War & Peace.  I joined Leeds School of Social Sciences in 2017, having been attracted to the School’s excellent tradition of teaching and research on peace, conflict, non-violence, and human rights.

In our teaching and research, we take real life problems of inequality, violence, and conflict, and think critically about how we can tackle these issues and create a more peaceful world for all. 

What makes you passionate about your work and why is it important?

My research explores questions of gender, justice, and agency in contexts of conflict and peacebuilding activities. I have worked with female ex-combatants, relatives of missing persons, survivors of wartime violence, to document their experiences of war and peacebuilding interventions. Only by listening to people living in communities affected by armed conflict can peace workers and peace researchers help build more just and durable forms of peace. 

I am a feminist qualitative researcher, and use a mixture of fieldwork interviews, participant observation, and textual analysis to examine the gender politics of war and peace. I enjoy the challenge of weaving in evidence gathered from different standpoints, to capture the complexity of conflict. A key focus has been to reach out to people who are overlooked by peacebuilding agencies – their knowledge and experience often challenges simplistic narratives about the success of post-war reconstruction.

How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?

Building peace and challenging war demands collaboration – between activists, practitioners, researchers, and groups of people who are working to prevent violence and build sustainable forms of peace. We need collaboration to build better frameworks for understanding and responding to conflict, and to develop approaches to building peace that address the interests and needs of communities affected by violent conflict. Only by building strong, trusting relationships and by bringing together people with diverse experiences and different skills can we meet the challenges of violence and conflict.

At Leeds Beckett, I co-lead the Peace, Conflict and Human Rights programme, within the Centre for Applied Social Research. The Programme brings together staff whose research explores themes such as militarism, local agency in peacebuilding, and lived experiences of conflict/war. We share an interest in understanding the role of civil society, activists, practitioners and ordinary people in creating positive change in their communities, in challenging militarism, and in standing up for human rights. 

Outside the university, I collaborate with the Feminist Peace Research Network. This international, interdisciplinary network brings together feminist peace researchers and practitioners from around the world – to engage in conflict analysis (using a gender/feminist lens) and to find ways of building just and equitable forms of peace in sites of conflict.

Recently, I worked with Dr Laura McLeod (Manchester University) to provide a feminist intervention in the field of Critical Peace and Conflict Studies. Our Special Issue of Peacebuilding journal ‘Critical Peace and Conflict Studies: Feminist Interventions’ features articles by feminist researchers from Leeds Beckett, from Europe, the United States and India. We were delighted to have this Special Issue published as an edited volume in 2021, Feminist Interventions in Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.


Feminist Interventions in Critical Peace and Conflict Studies In this video, Laura McLeod and I introduce our recent book, Feminist Interventions in Critical Peace & Conflict Studies. This book demonstrates why feminist approaches matter to theories and practices of resolving conflict and building peace.

What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in Leeds School of Social Sciences?

One of the most rewarding aspects of researching and teaching in Peace Studies, is the opportunity it provides to translate ideas from theory into practice. In recent years, my research has garnered interest from a wide range of practitioners, international organisations, and civil society groups in UK and in the region of the Western Balkans. For example, I was invited by OSCE Mission to Serbia to present my research at a workshop on Gender and Extremism in the Western Balkans. The workshop was attended by policymakers, and by researchers from across the former Yugoslavia and beyond. Drawing on several years of fieldwork in Bosnia & Herzegovina, I shared insights into women’s motivations for enlisting in armed groups during the Bosnian war. It was great to see the ongoing relevance of my research to present-day discussions of peacebuilding.  

Centre for Applied Social Research (CeASR)

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