Bill Clinton once said: “If we’d had women at Camp David, we’d have had an agreement”. 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.”