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The Role of Women in Peacebuilding and Reconstruction: Lessons from Rwanda, East Timor, and Afghanistan

March 6, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

This discussion was on-the-record.

The following summary incorporates the perspectives and recommendations of Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director at UNIFEM and Ambassador Donald Steinberg, Principal Deputy Director of Policy Planning for the Department of State.

The transcript of Ambassador Steinberg’s remarks is available at the following website: http://www.state.gov/s/p/rem/2003/18759.htm

1. What We Know:

United Nations Resolution 1325 and UNIFEM report:

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which passed unanimously in October 2000, acknowledged that civilians, particularly women and children account for the vast majority of those adversely afflicted by armed conflict.

Resolution 1325 recommended mainstreaming a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations. To that end, the resolution set a new threshold of action for UN and all governments by calling for institutionalizing the participation of women at the peace table, and in the post-conflict processes of peace-building and reconstruction.

The 2002 UNIFEM report, “Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peacebuilding” was designed in response to Resolution 1325, as part of the effort to document and analyze the disproportionate impact of war on women and the potential of involving women in the peace process. The report gives their suffering a human face, but also acknowledges them as combatants in certain wars. It provides information on the changing nature of the battlefield, and the increasing use of rape as a weapon of war to humiliate both the female victims as well as the men in the community.

The report also argues and demonstrates that peace agreements and reconstruction work better when women are involved in the building process - bringing women to the peace table improves the quality of agreements reached and enhances the chances that they are implemented. A critical mass of women, and not merely token representation, however is needed for this to work, and the report recommends a minimum of 30 percent. Often in the midst of crisis, it is difficult to prioritize such principles - provision of food, shelter and healthcare are the urgent needs and the focus is taken off women. The report reminds that it is in the midst of such crisis, when humanitarian assistance is most readily available, and that these resources must be used to build the social structures that will empower women to play their full role in post-conflict reconstruction.

The report insists on accountability for war crimes committed against women – not just for the sake of justice, but to reestablish the rule of law. Reconciliation and amnesty has often implied that men forgive other men for atrocities committed against women. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to transitional justice. Ensuring accountability, however, is essential to convince men with guns that there is no impunity in acting against women.

Case Studies: Rwanda, Afghanistan and East Timor

Rwanda: The Rwanda example should be evaluated in the context of the impact of genocide on development. There was a pressing need to rebuild both human capital as well as the human psyche because of issues such as the return of the diaspora, which has very high illiteracy rates; children born as a result of rape during war; women deliberately infected with HIV/AIDS; households headed by children, etc. A tremendous opportunity existed within the new legal framework formulated after hostilities ended. A Gender Desk was established in the law ministry, which resulted in reformed inheritance and marriage laws. The Justice and Reconciliation Committee incorporated women after being criticized for not having any female judges and for humiliating female witnesses.

East Timor: A 30 percent quota was stipulated for women in the new parliament and 267 women candidates ran for election; these women as well as female voters were trained in preparation. Since cessation of hostilities, however, domestic violence has increased because of the vast numbers of unemployed men. This is being dealt with as a community issue by faith-based organizations.

Afghanistan: The American government was discouraged by some experts from focusing on women; it was feared that this would alienate some of the anti-Taliban forces whose support was required in the war against terrorism. But eventually women’s issues were placed at the top of the agenda and the United States pressed for full participation of women at Bonn, the reconstruction conferences in Washington and Tokyo, and the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. Media also played an extremely effective role in highlighting the Taliban’s repression of women. (The UNIFEM report notes that overall levels of assistance to women in conflict, especially humanitarian aid, are related strongly to media interest in the country’s trauma.) Currently, work is underway to ensure the mainstreaming of gender in various ministries and projects, and ensuring that the new constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women. Finally, the economic and physical security of Afghan women is inextricably linked to peace and security in Afghanistan itself, as well as to its economic growth.

2. What We Don’t Know:

It is unclear if any role has been envisioned for women in post-war Iraq, both in the transitional government as well as in reconstruction efforts. The Afghan model could be applied in Iraq – though it will be much harder because the displacement will be greater and the international community is not united behind this action. The UN Secretary General has instructed a special working group to devise policies on this very issue.

3. What Are the Next Steps; What Should Be Done and by Whom:

The UNIFEM report lists 22 recommendations for action, but would prioritize the following:

  • Gender budget analysis of humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction to ensure that women benefit directly from resources mobilized through multilateral and bilateral donors;
  • Systematic collection and analysis of information and data by all actors, using gender specific indicators to guide policy, programs, and service delivery for women in armed conflict;
  • Establishment of a United Nations Trust Fund for Women’s Peace-Building, which would leverage the political, financial, and technical support needed for women’s civil society organizations and women leaders to have an impact on peace efforts;
  • Maintain a minimum of 30% representation of women in peace negotiations, and ensure that women’s needs are taken into consideration and specifically addressed in all such agreements. Such aggressive affirmative action in favor of women is necessary as a first step, because the sheer presence of women will break traditional/cultural barriers.

Within the U.S. government, women’s issues are often treated as “soft” issues, and hence marginalized. There is a need to demonstrate that these are not soft issues, and that they have national security implications. To that end, work is underway to prioritize the mainstreaming of gender within U.S. policy, which would have implications on U.S. involvement in peace-building and reconstruction efforts as well. Currently, many American organizations have already aligned with a range of international organizations working on such issues, which is facilitating the creation of a constituency for gender mainstreaming and prioritization within U.S. policy.

Currently, the U.S. government’s focus in post-conflict situations is on:

  • Investment in girls’ education, which is the prerequisite and bulwark for all intended economic and societal changes;
  • $15 billion fund to fight HIV/AIDS, since women and their children are disproportionately affected by the disease, and have sometimes been deliberately infected during the conflict;
  • Curbing the annual trafficking of 4 million women, which expands dramatically during conflict; and
  • Mainstreaming the active participation of women in post-conflict civil societies, economies, and governments. It is agreed upon that guaranteeing the status of women in the constitution is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve these aims.

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