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Protection and Participation: Women and Armed Conflict
Protection and Participation: Women and Armed Conflict
Peacemaking in Yemen Needs Women's Voices
Peacemaking in Yemen Needs Women's Voices
Speech / Global

Protection and Participation: Women and Armed Conflict

Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, Presentation to the Salzburg Global Seminar, September 10, 2008.

It is a great honor to be here today to present the first in a series of lectures on thematic issues in conflict resolution by senior officials of the International Crisis Group.  These lectures will draw on a decade and a half of Crisis Group’s experience in some 60 countries facing conflict, and span geographical and historical boundaries to present lessons and recommendations for practitioners and policymakers alike.  Other topics in this series will include transitional justice and reconciliation, security sector reform, the concept of responsibility to protect, the use of sanctions and incentives, and the negotiation of power sharing arrangements.    

I would like to begin by discussing the dual goals of protecting women during periods of conflict and supporting their full participation in the process of peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction.  In three decades of public service in the U.S. State Department, the White House and Congress, and now as deputy president of Crisis Group, I have focused many of my efforts on these issues.  My interest has been partly motivated by questions of justice and fairness – a rights-based approach that addresses past grievances against women, who are the main victims of conflict.  But equally important, the involvement of women in these processes is simply good policy.  The more women are engaged in peacemaking and peace building as planners, implementers and beneficiaries, the more deadly conflict we will prevent and resolve.

Thus, it is not simply a question of redressing the grievances and legacies of conflict on women by assisting the victims of rape and other sexual violence, addressing burgeoning HIV/AIDS rates, combating trafficking in persons, and eliminating the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the hands of civilians.  Drawing on the talents, expertise and experience of women can help rebuild vibrant and growing economies, including through contributions to the formal economy as well as small enterprise development and microfinance.  Participation can promote healthy societies through girls’ education and reproductive health care.  It can assist reconciliation by helping reintegrate displaced persons and demobilized soldiers, ensuring accountability for past abuses, and building gender-sensitive security forces.

By contrast, failing to address these issues and draw on these perspectives leads civil society to view the peace process as serving the interests of the warring parties rather than society as a whole.  And when the process starts to falter, there may be insufficient civil pressure on the leaders to prevent a return to conflict.

The Cautionary Tale of Angola

Addressing these challenges is long overdue.  In 1994, while serving as President Clinton’s special assistant for Africa, I supported negotiations to end decades of civil war in Angola that had killed a half million people and left three million people homeless.  When the Lusaka peace accord was signed in November 1994, I boasted that not a single provision in the agreement discriminated against women.  “The agreement is gender-neutral,” I proclaimed proudly.

President Clinton then named me as U.S. ambassador to Angola and a member of the Peace Commission implementing the peace accords.  It took me only a few weeks after my arrival in Luanda to realize that a peace agreement that is “gender-neutral” is, by definition, discriminatory against women.   

Consider the evidence.  First, the agreement did not require the participation of women in the Peace Commission itself.  As a result, there were 40 men on this Commission and no women.  This imbalance silenced women’s voices on the issues of internal displacement, trafficking in women and girls, sexual violence, abuses by security forces, and the rebuilding of maternal health care and girls’ education, issues that were given short shrift, if addressed at all, by the men around the table.

Second, the peace accord was based on 13 separate amnesties that forgave the parties for atrocities committed during the conflict.  Given the prominence of sexual abuse during the conflict, including rape as a weapon of war, amnesties meant that men with guns forgave other men with guns for crimes committed against women.  These amnesties introduced a cynicism that undercut our efforts to rebuild the justice and security sectors and to build civil society support for the peace process.

Third, male ex-combatants received a little money and demobilization kits, but in general, women received no such assistance, because they were not considered combatants but instead messengers, cooks, bearers, and even sex slaves.  Further, the men were sent back to communities that had learned to live without them during decades of conflict.  The frustration of these men with no skills and no futures often exploded into an epidemic of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, rape, and domestic violence.  In effect, the end of civil war unleashed a new era of violence against women.

Even such well-intentioned efforts as clearing major roads of landmines to allow three million refugees and internally-displaced persons to return to their homes backfired against women.  Road clearance generally preceded the demining of fields, wells, and forests.  As newly resettled women went out to plant the fields, fetch water, and collect firewood, they faced a new rash of landmine accidents

We soon recognized these problems, and sought to address them.  We brought out gender advisers and human rights officers; launched projects in maternal health care, girls’ education, micro-enterprise, and support for women’s civil society groups; and insisted that women be fully engaged in all humanitarian and reconstruction programs.  But much of this was done on an ad hoc basis, and there was a “too-little, too-late” quality about it.   

A Global Challenge

Similar problems occur writ large throughout the world.  Courageous and talented women peace builders face discrimination in legal, cultural and traditional practices; hostility from men in power, often translated into threats of violence; and widespread sexual violence used as a weapon of war.  In a report from 2006 covering Congo, Uganda, and Sudan, Crisis Group documented how sexual violence and threats against women in power impose a stigma of victimization and a real danger that makes even the most impressive and courageous women think twice before stepping forward, reinforcing the unfortunate stereotype of women as mere victims.

The report also showed that those who do step forward often are sidelined.  For instance, in the 2002 Sun City negotiations on the Congolese transition and the 2005-2006 Abuja talks that led to the Darfur Peace Agreement, men leading peace conferences excluded women or shunted them off to ante-rooms while “real” negotiations took place elsewhere. In both cases, women had prepared outstanding proposal for addressing internal displacement, sexual violence, abuses by government and rebel security forces, and the rebuilding of social services, but were mostly ignored.  In the DRC, women continued to be raped and trafficked with impunity, both by rebel movements and by the very government security forces charged with protecting them, despite the presence of 17,000 UN peacekeeping troops in that country.   Recent reports document 75 cases of rape every day in the eastern North Kivu province alone, a tragedy documented in the powerful film, “The Greatest Silence.”

Women peace builders in Colombia have faced similar challenges. In a 2003 report on Colombia’s humanitarian crisis, Crisis Group highlighted the prominent role of women in community development, not only in the villages or towns from which they had been displaced due to fighting, but also at regional and national levels.  Impressive women’s organisations, such as the National Network of Women and the League of Displaced Women, attest to their success as grassroots peace builders, but their visible role in promoting gender-sensitive community development increased their insecurity, as armed groups often targeted women leaders.  This has resulted in a higher murder and kidnapping incidence among these women.

The case of Afghanistan is also instructive.  In 2003, two years after the fall of the Taliban, Crisis Group examined the role of women in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and called for moving beyond symbolic projects to take meaningful steps to improve women’s security and economic opportunities, including drafting progressive civil and penal codes consistent with Islamic and Afghan norms.

Five years later, the record is decidedly mixed.  Political participation by women has expanded, with women now representing 31 percent of members of parliament – a rate substantially higher than many long-established democracies.  School attendance rates for girls have risen substantially, although there has been some setback recently.  But these advances have been offset by a failure to hold accountable warlords whose forces committed sexual violence during the years of conflict – and continue such abuse today.  Indeed, many have been given positions of authority and power.  The failure to build a modern justice system has left women subject to the application of Sharia law, which in traditional Afghan society has been highly discriminatory against women, especially in the area of family law.  Further, women suffer broadly from the lack of security, corruption, rights abuses and civilian casualties.

President Hamid Karzai has failed to articulate a vision of women’s rights, participation and protection that is both homegrown and consistent with Islam and traditional Afghan society.  This silence has ceded the debate to those – including a resurgent Taliban – who erroneously argue that women’s empowerment is an alien concept imposed on Afghanistan by foreigners and their Afghan “puppets”.

Absence of UN Leadership

Women in these situations look to the international community for assistance, but too often, the call for the promotion and protection of women has often fallen on deaf ears.  This may stem in part from the absence of women in senior leadership positions dealing with these issues, including at the United Nations.  There is not a single woman among the fifteen permanent representatives on the UN Security Council.  Similarly, among the 38 special representatives of the Secretary-General in conflict situations, there is only one woman: Margarethe Loj in Liberia.  And Ambassador Loj’s appointment was seen by many as recognition that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would not accept a continuation of this bias.

Consider another example from Liberia.  In late 2006, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a series of conditions that would indicate that the country was stable enough to permit the withdrawal of UN forces. There are 15 benchmarks on security, 17 on governance and seven on economic revitalization.  Not a single one of these 39 benchmarks even mentioned women. Among the final seven items on basic services and infrastructure, only the last item includes as an afterthought the token phrase: “increased school enrolment, particularly of girls.”

This failure cannot be blamed on the absence of a strategic vision and a game plan for addressing these issues.  Such a vision exists in UN Security Council resolution 1325, passed in October 2000.  This resolution brought the promise of a systematic approach and concentrated energy to address issues of women in armed conflict.  Resolution 1325 is, in effect, a game plan for ensuring gender equality in political leadership, building gender-sensitive security forces, supporting women as they return to their homes, ensuring safety for women in refugee camps and settlements, and insisting on accountability for sexual violence and other abuses.

But thus far, the promise of this resolution has largely been a dream deferred due to the absence of enforcement mechanisms, monitoring and evaluation provisions, institutional structures, and commitment, resources and support from the UN system and its member states.   For example, despite the call in Resolution 1325 for the development of national action plan to implement its recommendations, fewer than a dozen of the U.N.’s 192 members have taken this step almost eight years later.

Further, the UN architecture for addressing gender issues is confused, under-funded, and often works at cross purposes.  The existence of three separate entities – the Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), and the Division for the Advancement of Women ((DAW) – while staffed by dedicated and talented individuals, creates bottlenecks, coordination problems, and diffused purpose.  Under the dynamic leadership for more than a decade of Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer, UNIFEM emerged as the equivalent of the UN’s Ministry for Women’s Affrairs.  By contrast, OSAGI and DAW have viewed themselves more as in-house advocates for gender mainstreaming within the UN system.  Immediate reform of this architecture is needed.

More Than Victims

Despite this less than ideal national and global environment, a number of impressive steps can serve as models and encouragement for similar efforts elsewhere.  At the local level in particular, impressive women’s organizations take the lead in promoting women’s rights, protection, and participation in political and economic life.  Post-conflict constitutions increasingly include provisions calling for the elimination of discrimination against women; participation of women in all political, economic, and social life; and an end of violence against women.  A total of 97 countries – more than half – have used legal provisions that require the participation of women in elected positions.  These include provisions in national constitutions, electoral laws, and registration requirements for political parties.  These requirements for formal equality should be accompanied by sophisticated steps to ensure practical effect, such as insisting on the “weaving” women candidates in electoral slates to preclude the practice of listing women at the bottom of such slates.

Another positive development has been the mobilization of women across international borders to share experiences, provide mutual support, and increase visibility.  Groups pursuing these activities include African Women’s Development and Communication Network, Asia-Pacific Women’s Watch, Femmes Africa Solidarite, the Centre for Development and Population Activities, the Global Fund for Women, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network, Women for Women International, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, the Women’s NGO Coalition, and the Women Waging Peace Network of the Initiative for Inclusive Security.

The impact of such groups can be substantial.  For example, despite its lack of formal status, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network played a key role in ending the conflicts that had bedeviled Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.  Meeting with Liberian President Charles Taylor, Guinean President Lansana Conté and Sierra Leonean President Tejan Kabbah in 2001, they helped persuade the three leaders to meet for negotiations, leading to a summit in Morocco where the leaders agreed to restart peace talks.

In our 2006 report, Crisis Group documented that in Sudan, talented women from Rebecca Garang to Anne Itto to Awut Deng Achuil have been key players in the peace negotiations, the national unity government, and the government of Southern Sudan.  Afhad University for Women in Khartoum is training thousands of women to participate fully in political, economic and academic life.  Ignored for most of the peace negotiations on Darfur, women from that region are insisting that their voices be heard in future talks.

In Congo, women finally forced their way into the Inter-Congolese dialogue, submitted principles on female empowerment and mobilized women as voters and candidates in the July 2006 national elections.  They secured the adoption of important provisions in the interim constitution, in particular Article 14, which called for eliminating discrimination against women; participation of women in all political, economic, and social life; and practical steps to stop violence against women.

In Uganda, impressive local organizations are promoting women’s rights, protection and participation in political and economic life, such as the Kitgum Women’s Peace Initiative and the Teso Women’s Peace Association. Betty Bigombe and this network of grassroots women’s groups are active in national and regional reconciliation efforts. The Child and Family Protection Unit in the national police is addressing rights and protection issues, although it remains under-funded and under-supported. The government’s endorsement of the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination against Women and its invitation to the International Criminal Court to investigate acts of sexual violence in the north have laid the groundwork for enhanced rights – even if government practices have not yet fully  lived up to its rhetoric.

Some countries emerging from conflict are addressing the further challenge lies in moving from grassroots peace building efforts to the formal inclusion of women in peace processes and post-conflict governance.  In Nepal’s recent election, a new quota system helped women win one third of the seats in the Constituent Assembly.  In Rwanda, nearly 50 percent of parliamentarians are women, originally supported by quotas, but now largely based on an understanding that women bring important new perceptions to the legislative process.  In the Middle East, Palestinian and Israeli women have formed forums to keep dialogue alive in the face of a downward spiral.

In a report published in April 2006, Crisis Group noted that, despite the marginal role of women in Liberia’s peace negotiations, they have instigated innovative judicial reforms since the end of the conflict.  For instance, the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia lobbied the transitional legislature pass a “rape bill” that would offer better protection for the victims of rape, whether women, children or men.  It is now pressing for effective judicial recourse and enforcement, especially in the light of alarming and rising rates of rape.  More generally, women play leadership roles in key ministries under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and perform important policing functions.

Making It Happen

Some argue that we have to wait for broad social change to achieve progress – in fact, change can come rapidly.  In early 2008, outraged by the continuation of a pattern of sexual violence against women in the context of war, a group of likeminded governments, UN officials, and civil society groups from around the world came together to urge the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would go beyond rhetoric and provide a forceful and accountable response to such attacks.

In May 2008, testifying before the U.S. Congress, I urged the U.S. Government to use its upcoming presidency of the UN Security Council in June to promote steps to create within the UN system the reporting and monitoring systems, incentives, and performance measures needed to ensure accountability to women in conflict-afflicted societies, especially in the context of sexual violence.  As the Security Council took up the challenge of translating these sentiments into a hard-nosed resolution, Crisis Group outlined publicly some essential elements for such a resolution.  These included:

  • A simple statement that the pattern of sexual violence against women in times of conflict can constitute, in itself, a threat to international peace and security and thus warrant engagement by the UN Security Council.
  • A provision that puts the international community on record as opposing impunity for acts of sexual violence during conflict.
  • A willingness as a matter of principle and policy to apply targeted sanctions against individuals who are engaged in sexual violence against women in conflict.
  • A requirement for a report on the UN response to sexual violence in conflict, including the establishment of monitoring mechanisms, benchmarks for implementation, and accountability provisions to ensure that departments and individuals take these requirements seriously.
  • A commitment to the full implementation of UNSC Resolution 1325, including gender equality in political leadership, gender-sensitive security forces, support for women as they return to their homes, and safety for women and children in refugee camps and IDP settlements.

On June 25, UNSC resolution 1820 was passed after an intensive period of lobbying, debate, compromise and inclusive consultations, including with international women’s organization.  It included each of these five advocacy points.

Getting There from Here

Within countries affected by conflict, international organizations seeking to help them, and foreign partners in the pursuit of peace, practical steps are needed to implement the commitment to ensure participation and protection of women.  Among these steps are the following

1.   The UN Security Council and its members should insist that the mandate for every UN peacekeeping mission includes as a priority the protection of women and the safeguarding of women peace builders, including through the provision of personal security and training. Between 2000 and 2006, only 25 percent of Security Council resolutions dealing with peace and security even mentioned UNSC Resolution 1325.

2.   International negotiators and mediators of peace processes must insist that a critical mass of qualified women is included peace talks, reconstruction conferences, and governance mechanisms, even if it takes quotas to do so.  Resources should be available to fund this participation, including provision for their families’ welfare during their absence.  Innovative approaches should be developed to ensure the attention to the concerns of women and broader civil society, including international assistance for the development of “women’s charters” to guide their participation and the identification of an “elders group” of respected civil society leaders to monitor the peace negotiations and the implementation of any agreement reached on behalf of the greater public interest.

3.   The UN system and individual countries should develop personal accountability and system-wide monitoring and evaluation measurement mechanisms with respect to women’s protection and participation, so that individuals and departments take these provisions seriously.  National action plans should elaborate how individual countries will implement UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820.  Such steps raise awareness among staff and establish concrete targets and benchmarks for success.

4.   A formal working group of the UN Security Council should be created and mandated to implement women’s protection and participation, including possible “naming and shaming” and adoption of sanctions against countries and individuals who are patent abusers.

5.   International and regional organizations and individual countries must expand the role of gender advisers in their missions and work toward a balance of men and women serving as in senior roles in conflict resolution efforts.  This effort should be supported by programs to recruit women and to promote their success through training and mentorship.   These authorities should examine appointment procedures to ensure there are no hidden biases against women.  All countries should ensure that their diplomatic and military personnel involved in crisis prevention or mitigation are familiar with and committed to the need to protect and promote women, and include ample numbers of women among their ranks.

6.   The UN should restructure its gender architecture to ensure that women’s issues receive the direct attention of the Secretary General, enjoy full funding, and are represented in country teams around the world, especially in post-conflict situations.  A new department or division should consolidate the current efforts of UNIFEM, DAW and OSAGI.   It should report directly to the Secretary General, be headed by at least an Under Secretary General and received an initial annual budget of at least $500 million.    

7.   Donor nations and institutions must prioritize in post-conflict reconstruction and donors conferences the rebuilding of social structures of particular importance to women, such as reproductive health care and girls’ education, and all plans should be subjected to gender-impact analysis.   It has been well-established that girls’ education is the single best investment in rebuilding social structures, introducing improved health and agricultural practices, and reducing HIV/AIDS rates and infant and maternal mortality.  Donors should help rebuild women’s civil society organizations and to use them to implement development projects.  They should also work with host government authorities to identify and replicate successful local conflict resolution processes led by women and extend them broadly throughout their countries.

8.   While transitional justice mechanisms should balance the often competing needs of accountability and national reconciliation, there should be no impunity for individuals who have engaged in targeted violence against women, including rape used as a weapon of war.  The International Criminal Court and other international and domestic tribunals should continue to target perpetrators of gender-based violence. Further, the practice of keeping women effectively enslaved through so-called “bush marriages” should be recognized as a crime against humanity, drawing on a landmark ruling by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  

9.   International support for the rebuilding and reform of armies, police, and other security forces should insist on training in gender issues for new and existing forces and require the incorporation of women into those forces, in particular so that local women who have been abused will come forward with their accusations.  Legal support for such victims should be provided in order to enhance their capacity to seek proper redress of grievances

10.  While the creation of separate ministries of women’s affairs is invariably a positive development in post-conflict governments, gender issues should always be mainstreamed throughout these governments in order to ensure ample resources for them and proper coordination.  For example, the health minister should advocate for and devote resources to mother-child health programs and the commerce minister should support business development programs targeted at women.

11   The UN, donor nations, and NGOs must take responsibility for the sexual exploitation and abuse that too frequently comes from peacekeepers, aid workers and other internationals.  The UN Secretary General should heed the recent call by Refugees International and create a permanent position of Special Advisor on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and ensure its autonomy, influence and independence.

The “Hard” Road Ahead

In conclusion, fundamental to these solutions is a change in mindset, one that goes beyond viewing women solely as victims, and regarding the protection and participation of women as the “soft side” of peace-building.

There is nothing “soft” about going after traffickers who turn women and girls into commodities.  There is nothing “soft” about preventing armed thugs from abusing women in IDP camps, holding warlords accountable for crimes committed against women, forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence, or insisting on a seat at the table for women in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments.

These are among the hardest responsibilities in our conflict prevention and peace-building agenda, and I commend the Salzburg Global Seminar for shining a spotlight on them in this program this week.  Thank you.

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