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18 Sep, 2011

The Gender Dilemma: Women Leaders As Both Warmongers and Peacemakers

Originally Published: 18 Sept 2011

A group of eminent women from around the region met at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific last week to push for increased involvement of women in peace-building and combat sexual violence against women in conflicts.

However, the meeting has only highlighted a view that as sexual violence is one of the consequences of conflict, the objective of eliminating it would be best met if the many women increasingly being appointed to high-ranking positions start showing better conflict-prevention results in the first place.

The primary focus of the inaugural meeting of Regional Advisory Group on Women, Peace and Security was UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

Referred to by the UN as a “landmark legal and political framework,” the resolution obligates national governments, regional organizations, the UN system, as well as non-state actors to “address the situation of women in crises and war, to protect them from violence and increase their participation in conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding. It is the first such resolution acknowledging the need for and contributions of half the world’s population to international peace and security.

It was adopted in 2000 but, like numerous other UN resolutions, has fallen well short in terms of implementation.

According to Mrs Nanda Krairiksh, Director of UN ESCAP’s social development division, “Women and girls are disproportionately affected by conflicts in the region, and they have particular vulnerabilities that are different from men (gender based violence, including sexual violence, etc). The impact of the destruction of women’s livelihoods and social infrastructure is profound. Human rights violations and the culture of impunity tend to be the norm.

“One key element of the resolution calls for governments to adopt national action plans on women, peace and security. However, in the 11 years since its adoption, only 30 governments have adopted such national action plans, and only two of those are from the Asia-Pacific region (Philippines and Nepal), which is a very poor record. So our region is lagging behind some others despite the increasing number of conflicts.”

She said that “while some good work has been achieved in our region on the ground in certain countries, particularly by women’s organizations and other civil society organisations, governments have generally not accorded priority to the agenda.”

According to Mrs Nanda, “This Regional Advisory Group, which is the first of its kind in the UN at the regional level, will help us in advocating these issues in intergovernmental processes, which has been a neglected area as much of the UN work has been on the ground. We want to see international norms and standards adopted by our governments, which will serve as tools for monitoring and for accountability.”

She said that the Group comprised eminent advocates from Government and civil society who have worked in conflict affected countries, such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Philippines. “So their experiences will be tapped in our efforts to accelerate government action. They will also serve as catalysts for forging the much needed partnership between Governments and civil society that is clearly missing right now in the region.”

As this was its first meeting, the Group decided on its terms of reference and a set of strategic interventions that it will implement over the next four years.

However, there is a long way to go.

According to a Case Study Assessment by the International Civil Society Action Network and the MIT Center for International Studies, “Women peace activists face profound security threats but receive no protection: Peace activism is not for the faint hearted. It takes courage, commitment, and resilience to face the range of threats that emerge.

“At the personal and community level too, women who dare to step out and reach across the lines of conflict can face pressure and be ostracized. A more insidious trend in recent years has been the discrediting of organizations and individuals. States or non-state actors can and do target individuals and organizations for daring to speak out.”

Said the case study report, “The War on Terror has provided governments with an easy tool to discredit dissident voices: some women’s groups have been labeled as terrorists, while others have been accused of treason. International acknowledgement of their work can provide some protection and bolster their credibility at the community level. At a minimum, acknowledgement provides moral support in situations where activists may feel very isolated.”

The study says that UNSCR 1325 emerged in the wake of “the perpetration of systemic acts of terror against civilian populations by states and armed groups as in Rwanda, Bosnia and the DR Congo, and the international community’s inability to prevent such wars. It was also recognition of the profound complexity of peace-building in the aftermath of such wars, when social fabric and trust within communities was destroyed.

It quotes UN report as noting women have been fewer than 7 percent of negotiators on official delegations in peace processes since 2000, and just 2.7 percent of signatories. In 13 major comprehensive peace agreement processes between 2000 and 2008, not a single woman was appointed as a mediator.

“Moreover, for most women living through violence in places like Sudan, the DRC, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, neither the words nor the promise of the resolution is a reality. Wars have continued, impunity for rape and sexual violence prevails, peace negotiations remain the exclusive domain of war-makers, while those who seek non-violent solutions are still shut out.

“The failure to address women’s security needs is indicative of more systemic problems. Some 40 percent of peace processes still fail within the first 10 years. Many never reach fruition in the first place. Of the six cases reviewed for this project, in four – Sri Lanka, Colombia, Israel-Palestine, and Uganda— the peace process failed to reach a conclusion. In Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Uganda, ending war through military victory became the states’ strategies.

“The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is marked by fitful peaceful negotiations buffeted by the violence of occupation, blockade, and resistance. The incentives and mechanisms to sustain the process of peacemaking are not in place,” the study says.

Asked how this problem could be solved if a number of prominent women are now actively pushing their government’s militaristic and neoliberal economic agendas, Mrs Nanda said, “On role models, while I will not comment on the ones you have referred to, we have some real “home grown” ones in our region, including the women on this Group who have dedicated their lives to this cause.”