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International Women’s Day: Focus on Women in Conflict Areas

8 Mar

This blog was originally written for United to End Genocide in honor of International Women’s Day

Today serves as a day to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions that women around the world have made to their societies. However, it is also a day to reflect on the challenges that women continue to confront.  Perhaps nowhere are these challenges more prominent than in conflict zones, where women are faced with having to protect themselves and their families as they strive for peace in their communities. Violence against women is a tragic theme that touches every conflict our organization works on.

Violence Against Women in United to End Genocide Conflict Areas

In Darfur, women face brutal attacks when Janjaweed militias or government troops storm their villages. These women continue to remain vulnerable in refugee and internally displaced person camps, particularly when collecting firewood or water. These women have reported having to make unbelievable choices – send their husbands or sons out to collect the wood where they would be killed, or make the journey themselves and be raped.

For months, rumors have been circulating about the use of sexual violence in Syria. While many of the confirmed victims have been boys and men, UN officials believe women are largely underreporting rapes. Syrian security forces have also found that the threat of raping the female relatives of detainees can be used as a form of coercion.

Since last March, more than 80 cases of rape have been reported by human rights groups on the Thai – Burma border. Meanwhile, a recent flair-up of violence in the minority state of Kachin has sent refugees fleeing across the Chinese border with horrific tales of violent rapes by Burmese soldiers.

Sexual violence is an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the UN Special Representative Margot Wallström on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence has called “the rape capital of the world”.

International Community’s Response to Violence Against Women

For centuries, this type of violence against women was seen as an unfortunate side effect, or even a spoil of war. However, today mass rape is increasingly recognized as a strategic tactic and weapon of war and the orchestrators of these atrocities can now face charges of crimes against humanity. Since that time, the international community has made attempts to curb sexual and gender-based violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and mitigate the other effects of conflict on women.

These efforts have been welcome progress, but much more still needs to be done to address the needs of women in conflict. While UN resolutions 1325 and 1820 laid out specific requirements for states to consider gender perspectives when addressing conflicts, conflict-related humanitarian crises, and peace processes, neither resolution has been fully implemented.

Today, too many women are still being targeted by government forces and rebels around the world, who know that attacking them will help break down the societies they are trying desperately to control. Survivors of violence and sexual assault often lack access to proper medical and psychosocial services. Displaced women rarely have safe or secure access to even basic necessities such as food and water. Too often the voices of women are still absent from crucial negotiations that could bring their communities peace.

Everyday women’s rights and human rights advocates — both those affected by conflict and elsewhere around the world — work tirelessly to keep these issues on the global agenda, so that future generations will never know these atrocities. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember the mothers, sisters and daughters living in areas of conflict and to ensure that their voices are not silenced.

International Security: “…something is missing. And that is women”

7 Feb

Photo Credit: US State Department

This past weekend, senior leaders in international security policy from around the world, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, gathered in Munich, Germany for the 48th annual Munich Security Conference.  The independent conference focuses on discussion and analysis of current and foreseen future security challenges, such as decreasing global military budgets, ongoing violence and repression related to the Arab Spring and increasing concerns over Iran’s defiant attitude. And like many of these international conferences, it attracted a variety of side events as well, including a breakfast event focused on women in international security.

In her remarks at the breakfast, Sec. Clinton focused on what appears to be missing piece in international security and peacemaking….There just aren’t enough women. To prove her point Clinton pointed out that even there, at a global conference on security, she could count very few women in the audience (another participant in the breakfast put the exact number at 37).  She also cited the fact that many of the failed peace negotiations in recent decades lacked the voice of women at table, as only 8% of participants in these discussions were women.  Clinton also pushed back on the often used criticism that focusing on women’s rights and inclusion in peace processes  is “soft” and can be brushed off to the “margins of the real conversation”. She stated that “We just completely reject that. And the evidence is so clear that rejecting it is the right decision.”

The important role that women play in peacemaking was recognized in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was passed more than a decade ago.  It’s an issue that the Obama administration raised to national prominence again when it announced the  U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and an accompanying executive order last December.  The plan lays out the US’ course of action to “…accelerate, institutionalize, and better  coordinate our efforts to advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention…” among other things, like humanitarian assistance and civilian protection.

At the event, Clinton specifically highlighted the role the US has played in supporting the training of 2000 female peacekeepers in regions, predominately in Africa, where women and children are among the most severely effected by conflict. She also touched on the role that the US and our NATO allies have played in increasing the role women play in Afghanistan and the work being done there to train female police and military personnel. She made it clear that the  international community must continue to work for women in the region, stating that “…part of what we have to do as we try to test whether peace is possible in Afghanistan, is to make it very clear that peace will not come at the expense of women’s rights and roles”.

Afghanistan is the perfect example of the challenges that women face in having their needs recognized and their voices heard in the peace process. While comments like Clinton’s at the women’s breakfast are great to hear, they do little to quell the concerns of women on the ground in Afghanistan and other war torn areas of the world. These women have heard this rhetoric for sometime now, but what they have failed to see is action.  Women in Afghanistan for years have been calling to be brought in to peace negotiations with the Taliban, negotiations that they fear will result in the stripping away the rights they’ve gained in recent years. Despite requests from women leaders and civil society members and the emphasis that western states put on women’s rights, when it comes down to it,  NATO has done little to involve women in the process.

The United States has made a concerted effort to elevate the issues of women’s rights and participation in the global discourse on peace and security, humanitarian aid, development, politics and economics, particularly under the Obama administration.The National Action Plan is in place, and the opportunities to try it out are there, in Afghanistan, in Darfur, and numerous other conflict ridden states around the world. But the time to start turning words into actions is now. After all,  Secretary Clinton is right when she says that ” When you look around the world,… You see  how hard it is to make peace under any circumstance. But the exclusion of women, I argue, makes it even harder.”

Click hear to read the entirety of Clinton’s remarks at the women’s breakfast.