Friday, October 29, 2010

"It is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict" - Ten years on from the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security

Ten years ago, the UN Security Council made it legally-binding to involve women's perspectives and voices in conflict resolution and peace building. Still, the burden of conflict and war continues to fall heavily on female soldiers. There is a long way to go in the struggle to empower women as actors in peace processes and give them a say in the decisions that so deeply affect their lives. However, UNSCR 1325 points us in the right direction.

Bill Clinton once said: “If we’d had women at Camp David, we’d have had an agreement”.[1] His words recognize the contribution that a different approach to conflict resolution can achieve. From Serbia’s Women in Black to Israel and Palestine’s Jerusalem Link and our SAVE anti-terrorism platform, women are forging understanding at the grass-roots level across ethnic and religious divides in order to contribute to peace negotiation efforts.

Ten years ago, the United Nations made a landmark recognition that peace-building efforts have historically been half-blind. On October 31, 2000, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It recognized the need to promote women’s involvement in all levels of the decision-making process, and legally-bound all UN member states to increase their efforts to combat gender-based violence in combat situations, and promote the involvement of women’s organizations in peace processes.

Promoting women’s involvement in peace making is not only important because women are good at peace making, it is also important because women should have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Peace accords shape how post-conflict societies are run, and war itself is a phenomenon that impacts just as much, if not more, on women as on men.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert once commented: “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.” In his capacity as UN Peacekeeping Operation commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he should know what he is talking about. Rape as a weapon of war has reached pandemic proportions in the African country, where last year over 8,000 women were raped – one for every hour of the day. Systematic rape as a method of ethnic cleansing, intimidation, and a way to disintegrate and polarize communities was brought to the world’s attention during the Bosnian war, when somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped over the three and a half years of conflict. That conflict led to war rape being classed as a crime against humanity, but it already was and continues to be a chillingly common weapon.

Rape is admittedly one of the worse ways women are affected by conflict, but there are many other channels through which the burden falls heavily on female shoulders. War has become much more democratic over the last century. Back in the early 1900s, 90% of war casualties were soldiers. Nowadays, 90% are civilians. And the majority of these civilians that become victims of conflict are women and children. Even when not killed by war or raped by combatants, women are often left with an almost insurmountable burden when their male relatives become casualties. The nature of patriarchal societies inherently means that it is harder for women to support their families when they are left without the male bread winner. Discriminatory laws and practices making it harder for women to inherit property, secure an income and protect themselves against exploitation, serve to exacerbate the difficulty of post-conflict situations for women, especially those supporting a family on their own.

However, women should not be portrayed simplistically as victims of war. Their status as one of the main groups affected by war should mean that, democratically, they play a major role in the conduct and resolution of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. It is not sufficient that men make decisions for women, however inclusive and non-discriminatory these men try to be. It is time that women be allowed to exercise their human rights, make their own decisions and promote the specific needs and interests of women.

Even so, men make up 97.6% of signatories on peace agreements, with on average only 5.9% women in negotiating delegations. Considering the magnified adverse effects that war and its ongoing consequences have on women, this situation is not only hugely unfair and undemocratic, it is also untenable if conflicts are to be resolved on a lasting basis. Currently, over half of all conflicts reignite within a decade of peace being made. This signals that peace-building efforts are not targeting the root causes of conflict nor re-constructing societies on terms that are inclusive and acceptable to all. In peace agreements, the interests and needs of sections of society may be neglected – for example in the Dayton Peace Accords, which effectively banned certain segments of society from reaching the highest echelons of the political hierarchy – but with women we are not talking about a minority. The rights and interests of half – sometimes more than half – the population are consistently ignored.

It is easy to dismiss the resolution as a “soft issue” that the UN will never be able to follow up. But it is not a difficult resolution to keep. It is largely about changing attitudes. It should not be an extra effort to incorporate women in peace-keeping missions and negotiating teams – women already exist; you don’t have to make them. It doesn’t cost any extra resources to involve women and consider their needs. The legal framework that the resolution put in place obligates peace-keeping missions and negotiating teams to consider the perspectives and needs of women before they make decisions that concern the whole population. Focusing on HIV/AIDs awareness, making women’s rights an integral part of policy-making on subjects such as repatriation and resettlement (women and children make up 80% of the world’s refugee populations), electoral and judicial systems, and eliminating impunity for those who have carried out gender-based violence will help build healthier societies. 

Post-conflict societies need stability and socioeconomic development. Empowering women is possibly the surest way to achieve this. In the words of Kofi Annan: “"No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation… But whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains: women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear.”

[1] Swanee Hunt and Cristina Posa, „Women Waging Peace”, Foreign Policy, May-June 2001.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

London inquest into 7/7 bombings begins, bringing closure for some while opening old wounds for others

As the inquest into the bombing five years ago gets underway, a rise in tensions between British communities is possible. It is important to stress the bridge building and reconciliation in order to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

It has been five years since four young men stepped onto London’s public transport at rush hour, each carrying a rucksack full of explosives. In a terrorist attack that shocked and saddened Britons of all backgrounds, 52 people died while around 700 were injured.

Four days ago, the long-awaited inquest into the 7/7 attacks finally began. The inquest will attempt to answer questions that victims and relatives are still asking themselves, such as why two of the bombers – who had aroused suspicion in the past – were no longer under surveillance, and whether the emergency services could have reacted more efficiently. Records as far back as 2004 will be examined in order to give victims and relatives a fuller picture of events running up to the attacks.

Until now, calls by victims and relatives for a full inquiry have gone unanswered. Many feel that official accounts of the attacks have been “insufficient, inaccurate and misleading”. The lateness of the inquiry is, however, stirring up mixed feelings for some.

"It took me years to deal with the anger. I don't want to feel angry again,” said Dania Gorodi who lost her sister Michaela in the attacks. Many family members feel that listening to statements about their loved ones could stir up old feelings that they have spent many years trying to work through, while the inquest will provide no concrete results to speak of.

Some relatives and victims are pleased that an inquest will finally look into the reasons why their loved ones were exposed to a deadly terrorist attack. However, the process risks reviving tensions within multi-cultural British communities, and could be detrimental to the emotional progress that some of the victims have made through the revival of painful memories and feelings of revenge. It will require a very delicate approach to ensure that the inquest provides positive results for families and victims, rather than setting back the emotional progress that some have made.

Letting go of unproductive feelings of revenge is a breakthrough that many of the victims have already made. Gill Hicks is a figure of hope, optimism and strength. She lost both her legs in the bombings, when Germaine Lindsay detonated a bomb on a Piccadilly Line tube train two steps away from her. Despite losing 75% of her blood and almost dying on the way to hospital, she made a speedy recovery, learning to use prosthetic legs quickly enough to walk up the aisle and marry Joe Kerr less than six months later.

Her ordeal has left her with no desire to avenger herself on those who carried out the attacks. On the contrary, she believes in the possibility of achieving peace, and has formed the charity Making a Difference for Peace. Based on the premise that peace starts from within, and each person is responsible for their individual contribution to resolve conflicts, the charity works through public awareness, education and bridging divides between communities. Hicks’ initiative focuses on the positive that can come out of tragic events.

While families and victims are owed the closure that the inquest will hopefully provide to them, it is important to stress the fact that to avoid such tragedies in the future, we must overcome tensions between communities and renounce revenge in favour of reconciliation.

Read more about the London bombings inquest and the family’s reactions here:  (BBC)

Read more about Gill Hicks’ experience here (Daily Mail)

Click here (The Independent) or here (The Guardian) for the latest news on the progress of the inquest.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Destined for Death? Motherhood in Yemen a Game of Russian Roulette, by Afrah Nasser

Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni Journalist, speaks out on the appalling maternal mortality rate in Yemen.

A mother is the family’s spine. She is crucial for her family’s welfare because so much depend on her. In one-way or another, her wellbeing directly reflects upon the entire family’s wellbeing. Any damage experienced to her automatically affects her offspring and the family as a whole. The greater the attention that is given to a mother, the greater the chances are for her to have healthy and strong children. The stronger the children, the more stable and solid society will be. Investing all available and required health and social recourses into motherhood’s safety is unquestionably an investment in a nation’s wellbeing.

Around the world, every minute, a female dies during pregnancy or childbirth. 99 percent of these cases happen in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization’s 2006 report on global maternal mortality rates, Yemen women face frightening odds, as 570 of every 100,000 pregnancy is fatal. These numbers make Yemen’s mortality rate one of highest in the world.

The reasons behind the deaths vary from minor and indirect causes that are easily preventable to major and direct causes that require the provision of affordable health services.

The indirect causes typically stem from poverty, ignorance, social and economic deficiencies. These causes are demonstrated by the lack of attention young girls typically receive as they carry their own children, as well as the traditions that encourage early marriages and early pregnancy. Other certain unhealthy practices are based on false beliefs or superstitions, leading to mortality rates that are effortlessly preventable.

The direct causes stem from a poor health system and\or the poor care social and physical care females receive, especially within rural areas.

Considering motherhood’s importance and newborns’ vulnerability, the National Safe Motherhood Alliance (NSMA) in Yemen, a non-profit organization working between governmental institutions and NGOs, has been diligently striving since 2008 to tackle motherhood and children’s issues, specifically aiming to decrease the high rate of maternal and infant mortality rates in Yemen.

The NSMA in Yemen works closely with the White Ribbon Alliance (WRA), a nonpartisan, non-profit and non-governmental organization that aims to decrease maternal and newborn deaths globally. NSMA is one of 15 alliances working with the WRA. The 15 alliances are united together in implementing a common goal; they seek to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are safe for all women and newborns in every country throughout the world.

After many initiatives, discussions and consultations among several parties, the alliance was launched on the 8th of March 2008, in parallel with the International Women’s Day celebration. Governmental and non-governmental institutions’ support constituted the alliance’s foundation.

Jamila al-Sharie, NSMA general secretary, explained the alliance’s main goals. “The alliance’s essential objective is to foster and cater safe motherhood issues. We aim to raise public awareness about the issues. In addition, we focus on communicating with government and non-governmental legislators in order to have more substantial results. We care about society’s participation, but we care more about organizational and governmental participation, as they are the ones who can directly influence change and improvement.”

Since the Alliance consists of governmental and civil foundations, it enjoys an essence that makes it unique. “NSMA is distinguished because we work in association with governmental bodies and NGOs to establish more effective and tangible results,” explained Afrah al-Qershi, NSMA executive director. Concrete members from both governmental and civil institutions form NSMA’s executive board. Fundamentally, NSAMA works to fill the gaps between all the divergent and separate efforts tackling motherhood issues. It focuses on brining fundamental changes to health matters related to motherhood.

Given the general health system’s statistics, drastic fundamental changes are required. “Yemen’s state budget allocates only 3% for the heath sector. Such a small percent is inadequate to cover all of the health care shortcomings. Moreover, there are laws making childbirth free of charge across the entire country, but unfortunately the funds are not enough to complete all of the tasks necessary. The laws have still not been implemented,” cautioned al-Qershi.

NSAM builds upon the capacity of the alliance’s members, encouraging education regarding the cause. It also has conducted awareness programs and projects to enhance public knowledge about the issue in several governorates. “We established committees to work with alliance members in a number of governorates, in order to coordinate with them for the smooth implementation of our work and activities in the future. Those governorates with committees so far are located in Amran, Lahj, Aden, Taiz and Ibb. We aim at establishing committees in all Yemen’s governorates,” said al-Sharie.

The issue’s magnitude necessitates more action to be taken. “70% of maternal deaths occur in rural areas due to many factors. Those areas lack basic health services, services that are crucial to a mother’s safety. Every day, seven women die in Yemen as a result of complications related pregnancy and childbirth. Having babies is not a disease! Something is fundamentally wrong and the issue must be immediately addressed,” added al-Sharie.

Decreasing the maternal mortality rate in Yemen requires combining many factors together, working hand in hand, to address the issue. It is extremely beneficial to have an ever-growing resource from which to pull funds, however, it is just as important to continue to raise public awareness among society about the importance of monitored pregnancy and childbirth. Statistically, most complications occur within rural areas, leading educational efforts to focus on rural citizens. “Just recently we had remarkable progress by conducting several awareness raising projects in a number of governorates by committed voluntary work. Our efforts facilitated a vast increase in awareness within rural areas,” said Dr. Rami al-Maqtari, DFID project officer at NSMA.

Nevertheless, NSMA is concerned as to how to corral all concerned organizations on these issues. There is a strong desire to have all concerned bodies work jointly in their efforts to solve the issue. Therefore, NSMA is developing a Consultancy Committee, consisting of governmental and civil bodies, as well as donors, to establish effective communication among all.

Since many parties are involved in tackling the issue, such as the government, civil society groups and international donors, a medium for harmonious cooperation between all is critical. “The fact that we work in close association between all the concerned parties allows us to aim at using this multi-support to good advantage by expanding our work, conducting training courses and carrying out raising awareness programs in the most targeted areas that lack attention. Those most targeted areas are rural areas, but not necessarily. Big cities also witness this issue as well,” added al-Qershi.

“It’s not fair to let women die just because they are pregnant or just because they are becoming mothers. Every woman, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, is entitled to live through pregnancy, childbirth and afterwards in safety, no matter what. Enlightened people have a responsibility to implement such realities,” concluded al-Sharie.

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS