Before joining the Gender Across Borders team, I worked as a Program Manager for Women without Borders, an international NGO based in Vienna, Austria. During my time there, I worked extensively as part of a team developing SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism), the first female counterterrorism platform in the international security arena. Now, as part of the Gender Across Borders editorial staff, my focus is on women and international security issues.
I’ve found that most people don’t really know what it means to be working on the intersection of women’s, international security, and peacebuilding issues. I certainly didn’t before I jumped in headfirst. Here’s a quick primer on the issues and why they’re important.
It is more dangerous to be a woman than to a soldier in modern war.
In 2008, the UN Peacekeeping Operation Commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Major General Patrick Cammaert, said, “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.” If you didn’t know this already, this should blow your mind.
In today’s world, it is extremely unusual for women to be political leaders or paramilitary combatants (Colombia is one exception that comes to mind), but it is also extremely unusual for women to be spared the violence and brutality that comes with war and unrest. Activist and documentary film producer Abigail Disney put it this way: “War has never been a tidy, closed activity, taking place on a clearly demarcated battlefield between two uniformed entities, or when it has, that has been the exception. Rather, war marches right through the center of everything—through house, hearth and field—ripping a hole into the center of things that can never be entirely repaired.”
One of the big problems with peacebuilding efforts worldwide—whether it’s preliminary peace talks, official negotiations, or post-conflict reconstruction—is that women are often excluded from decision-making processes. Lacking political power or official standing, women are denied agency in the agreements that will govern their lives and dictate rebuilding and reintegration efforts. In modern warfare, however, there is no clear line between combatant and non-combatant. In war, as in peace, women are mothers, daughters, sisters. They are community leaders. They are victims of gender-based violence. When men leave to fight, they are left to take care of their families alone. It is obvious to anyone that thinks about it for even a few seconds that women are intimately affected by conflict, and it is a mistake to see war as “primarily a masculine concern, an activity by, for, and about men,” as Abigail Disney puts it. She says, “Common sense tells us that war has always affected women in a fundamental and terrible way—and women in their turn have always affected wars.”
So why is it “more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier”? Simply put, rape as tool of war has become the norm, rather than the exception. As Amnesty International writes,
“[Rape] is a tool used to achieve military objectives such as ethnic cleansing, spreading political terror, breaking the resistance of a community, rewarding soldiers, intimidation, or to extract information… It is a weapon of war, a tool used to achieve military objectives such as ethnic cleansing, spreading political terror, breaking the resistance of a community, rewarding soldiers, intimidation, or to extract information. Many forms of violence that women suffer during armed conflict are gender specific in both nature and result.”
As a physical and psychological tool of war, rape leaves wounds in individuals and in the community that may never be healed. The Washington Post reported that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, clinics are treating rape victims as young as 3 and as old as 67. While men and boys are not exempted to these attacks, women comprise the overwhelming majority of the victims.
There is no difference between “women’s issues” and international security and peacebuilding issues.
Feminist activists and people working for women’s rights often find themselves buttonholed as working for a few, key issues, among them education, increased access to political structures, maternal mortality rates and reproductive health, and efforts against gender-based violence. However, there is no imaginary line in the sand that separates those “women’s issues” from the issues of international security and peacebuilding.
Armed conflict and war go hand-in-hand with decreased access to food, health care, and education, and the effects are felt by everyone, not just by women. Women feel the effects disproportionally, as they are often the first to go without food if there is a shortage and they are responsible for walking the distance to find potable drinking water, but ultimately, these issues have repercussions on the whole family and last far beyond the time when peace agreements are signed and life returns to normal.
Uneven, Unsteady Progress
Involving women in international security and peacebuilding is not a new idea: the official foundation for women’s participation in security in peacebuilding started with UN Resolution 1325, which was passed with much fanfare on October 31, 2000. Among other things, UN Resolution 1325
Reaffirm[s] the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stress[es] the importance of their equal participation and full involvement… in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution, …
Recogniz[es] the urgent need to mainstream a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations, … [and]
Urges Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.
Brief sidenote: for more information about UN Resolution 1325, check out Junior Editor Alicia Simoni’s article on “Women, Peace, and Security: It’s Not Just About ‘Them,’ It’s About Us, Too,” and keep watching her blog posts for more news and opinions. In addition to UN Resolution 1325, there are numerous other international agreements and frameworks with the aim of protecting and advancing the rights and safety of women during conflict. For a concise but informative overview, check out Amnesty International’s “Violence in Post-Conflict Situations” factsheet.
Activists and analysts remain divided on whether Resolution 1325 is effective or even makes a difference. For a characteristic debate, see the opposing viewpoints featured on PBS’ “Women, War, and Peace” website where Sanam Anderlini claims that “1325 Is Just A Starting Point” while Paula Donavon asserts that “1325 Has Failed Women.” Given the long time period in which countries and international organizations have had the opportunity to correct the exclusion of women from decision-making positions in peace negotiations, in developing reconstruction plans, and in restoring rule of law and yet have still overwhelmingly failed to do so, it seems intolerable that the idea of involving women in security and peacebuilding still seems like a novel approach to modern political conflict.
The need for women in security and peacebuilding is universal.
I know we’re not supposed to call many things “universal” in our day and age when everything is supposedly relative, but if you listen to people working to restore peace to the major conflict zones of the world, their message is the same: we need women to be involved in creating and maintaining peace.
In Afghanistan, Associate Director for Gender Rights and Civic Engagement for UNICEF Elizabeth Gibbons said, “Sustainable peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without the meaningful participation of women.” The contributions of women to the Good Friday peace talks in Northern Ireland are well-documented and held as an example of the unique contributions women have the potential to make.
In Liberia, women barricaded political leaders and warlords in a conference room until a compromise was reached. This battle of wills and the events leading up to it are caught in the award-winning documentary film, Pray the Devil back to Hell.
The list goes on and on. Search for women, war, peacebuilding, and your conflict zone of choice, and there you will find statements from leading diplomats and international aid organizations, all saying, “Having women at the table would have/could have made the difference,” or affirming that yes, “Having women participate in decision-making roles made a noticeable difference in both process and outcome.” I don’t know how else to say it… It’s women, war, and peacebuilding, D’OH!