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 Beyond Victimhood: Women’s Peacebuilding in Conflict Situations
 Donald Steinberg, USA
 September 11, 2006
 

Six years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed the historic Resolution 1325, a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the role of women in peacemaking and peacebuilding, and to ensure that gender issues receive full consideration in all U.N. programs in societies in conflict. Despite important steps since its passage, governments, international organizations, NGOs, and the U.N. itself have failed to fully implement its provisions.

This comes at a high cost. On August 16, the International Crisis Group presented a report at InterAction that examines the role of women in peacebuilding in Africa’s three deadliest conflicts. The report found that involving women in peace processes brings a more inclusive view of security and enhances the likelihood that agreements will hold. Demobilization and reintegration of women and child ex-combatants, accountability for wartime abuses against women, demining sites where women collect firewood and water, disarming civilian populations, and ensuring reproductive health care for refugees and internally displaced persons typically fall by the wayside when women are excluded from peace talks and postconflict governments.

Many of the findings in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda were discouraging. Resolution 1325 is virtually unknown and unused by populations and governments, and to some extent even by women activists and U.N. officials in these countries. Women are largely excluded from peace processes, governments, and the formal economy. Peace negotiations often look first at granting amnesties for warring parties—men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes against women.

Courageous women trying to make a difference are confronted with discriminatory 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. This situation is so traumatizing that many women are unable or unwilling to play their rightful roles, reinforcing the unfortunate stereotype of women as merely victims.

But looking more closely, we saw a somewhat different story.

In Sudan, talented women from Rebecca Garang to Anne Itto to Awut Deng Achuil are playing important roles in the emerging 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. Women’s participation in the Abuja negotiations—for just three weeks±improved the Darfur Peace Agreement enormously, even if it remains fundamentally flawed and its provisions for women’s empowerment have been ignored.

In Congo, participation of women in the Inter-Congolese dialogue, development of principles on empowerment in the Nairobi Declaration, and mobilization of women to register and run for office in July’s national elections encouraged the adoption of good provisions in the interim constitution. In particular, Article 14 calls for elimination of discrimination against women; participation of women in all political, economic, and social life; and elimination of violence against women—again, regrettably, without any enforcing legislation.

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. The Child and Family Protection Unit in the national police is addressing rights and protection issues, although it is under-funded and under-supported. The government’s endorsement of the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the invitation to the International Criminal Court to investigate acts of sexual violence in the north lay the groundwork for enhanced rights—even if government practices don‚t always match its rhetoric.

Other lessons emerged from across these countries. For example, women must constitute a “critical mass” in peace talks and governments (perhaps 20-30%) to give them confidence and peer support to address gender and other issues. While ministries of women’s affairs have their place, gender must be mainstreamed within government, such that the health minister is a principal advocate for mother-child health programs. The education of women and girls, long recognized as the best investment in improving socioeconomic conditions, is also central to empowering women as peacebuilders. Bringing women into the formal security forces enhances gender-sensitive law enforcement and facilitates investigation of crimes of sexual violence.

Gender issues are often viewed as the “soft side” of peacebuilding. But 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 refugee camps, holding warlords accountable for crimes against women, forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence, or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace talks and post-conflict governments. These are among the hardest responsibilities we face, and we must empower those courageous individuals who are confronting them.

Donald Steinberg is Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs at the International Crisis Group and formerly served as U.S. Ambassador to Angola and Special Assistant to President Clinton for African Affairs. This article was posted by the International Crisis Group.