Video of this event is now available. To watch the video, follow the links in the See Also box.
This meeting considered the positive roles women have played in peace building and the impact of individual women, women's organizations, and women's civil society networks in aiding reconstruction. Panelists reflected on women's activism in both formal and informal peace processes, and provided insight into the most effective ways in which women are involved in reconstruction activities.
Panel I: The Role of Women in Conflict-Affected Areas
Senior Research Associate, Centre for Developing-Area Studies (CDAS), McGill University
Ala Noori Talabani, Member of the Iraqi Interim National Assembly, Baghdad, Iraq
Jenni Williams, Director, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), Bulwayo, Zimbabwe
Rosalind Boyd initiated the discussion by providing an overview of the policy framework relevant to women engaged in conflict transformation. She said that the efforts of women to achieve rights as full citizens are not "us versus them" scenarios, and that women have spent decades seeking an equitable role in their respective societies.
Boyd highlighted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Beijing Platform for Action as two significant achievements in the advancement of women's rights. She noted that while these international conventions were formalized before the conflicts of the late 1990s and early 21st century, they allowed women to solidify common agreement regarding armed conflict. Resolution 1325 and the Beijing Platform for Action afforded women greater participation in the decision-making process, encouraged the reduction of excessive military expenditures, provided assistance to refugees, enhanced gender sensitivity, and encouraged the development of regional women's organizations. Boyd asserted that the international agreements reinforced domestic action.
Boyd described the gap between what has been done on the policy level and the lack of implementation on the ground, suggesting that this phenomenon is related to the rise of neo-liberalism and obscene disparities between the rich and poor. She remarked that a new discourse has taken shape around the concept of security. She also advocated an approach focused on process, which would allow for international consensus and a "people centered agenda." Through this agenda, a negotiating space could be established to give women agency.
Ala Noori Talabani spoke about the distinction between violent and non-violent conflict and presented her interpretation of the Iraqi conflict as having moved through three stages. The first stage was one of national identity versus self-governance, exemplified by the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi government prior to September 2003. The second stage of conflict was between liberal and conservative ideologies. Finally, Iraq is now experiencing a third form of conflict: intervention by external forces.
Talabani highlighted four aspects central to the transition currently taking place in Iraq: the shift from authoritarian rule to democracy; the substantial lack of infrastructure; the process of reconciliation; and the significance of ideology coming to the fore. She suggested that, in particular, the focus on ideology has forced women's issues to take a backseat.
Talabani provided a historical context from which these stages of conflict and aspects of transition should be considered. Before the Baath party came to power, Iraq was the most developed country in the region, she said. Active women's involvement in a vibrant civil society was destroyed through years of Baath party control. The subsequent war, sanctions, poverty, and illiteracy served to reinforce this process of disintegration, resulting in a closed society whose members turned to ideology for meaning.
Jenni Williams spoke of the need to create space within which women are free to articulate their views. As a women's rights activist in Zimbabwe, Williams described herself as a mother wanting a better life for her children. She illuminated a dire situation in Zimbabwe, characterized by the economy in freefall, declining life expectancy, and millions infected with HIV. Williams attributed much of the problems in her country to poor governance and a lack of accountability. She also noted that while some rights are enshrined in the constitution, the implementation of these rights is insufficient.
Williams' proposed solution to this dilemma is civil resistance, or what she calls "tough love." In other words, Zimbabwaens need to love their country enough to fight for its sustainability. She observed that throughout history, women have been the true liberators of societies. By opening minds and encouraging people to think about their dilemmas, women can help to foster change in these challenging circumstances. Williams also called upon humanitarian organizations to continue to pressure regimes such as that of Zimbabwaen President Robert Mugabe, which operate under the guise of sovereignty and ignore the reality of inequity and societal collapse.
Panel II: The Role of Women in Regions Emerging from Conflict
Cheryl Benard, Senior Political Analyst and Director of the Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth, RAND Corporation
Eulalie Nibizi, President, Burundi Trade Union, Bujumbura, Burundi
Sanam Anderlini, Independent Consultant on Gender, Peace, and Security Issues
Cheryl Benard highlighted accomplishments of women in Afghanistan, such as their commitment to participating in the political process—in which they often vote for democratic candidates. With this in mind, she also noted that Afghan women must face the challenges presented by reforms to the civil law code, implementation of the constitution, and limited access to economic opportunities. As is often the case, women can be particularly disadvantaged when rights on paper are not properly translated into daily life.
Benard said that international organizations and local institutions give a variety of reasons for not dealing with women's issues effectively during and after conflict. Women's issues are often considered difficult to approach, having the potential to "rock the boat," consuming too much of limited resources, and not integral to stability in the immediate term. In the past, those lobbying for increased attention toward the protection of women's empowerment often argued their case on the basis of morality. Benard suggested that empirical evidence and pragmatic arguments are now needed to support the cause. She referred to studies by the World Bank, which incorporate women's empowerment into statistics on economic and institutional stability. Instead of arguing that the subjugation of women is wrong, policymakers and advocates should argue that it is ineffective.
Benard commented that, in fact, when international and local actors give special attention to combatants during reconstruction, women's issues tend to be sidelined and later ignored. Women tend to take a "pleasant, likeable, and ineffective posture," she observed. They do so in order to allow peace processes to move along smoothly, but this approach actually marginalizes their own concerns. Benard also noted that the cessation of military activities does not ensure women's safety; after men return from war, women are often susceptible to increased domestic violence.
Eulalie Nibizi's experiences in Burundi provided another context for understanding the role of women in countries emerging from conflict. Nibizi tracked the progression of women's participation in the Burundian reconstruction process and noted the fundamental shift in attitudes toward women that resulted from their increased involvement in relief and reconciliation activities following the war in 1993. Women's collaborative associations, the first being the Collective of Women's Associations and NGOs in Burundi (CAFOB), brought attention to the ability of women to mobilize and coordinate themselves.
These networks organized women to appeal to the male-dominated peace negotiations, lobbying for permission to participate in them. Observer status was granted to women in the Arusha talks and since then, women's leadership has formalized and grown to the point at which over thirty percent of the political positions in the new government are held by women. Nibizi observed that when the goals of women resonate with government policy objectives, the possibility for full implementation is enhanced; "it is easier to talk about peace when you share economic and social interests," she said. She considered the main challenges facing women to be lack of education, violence against women, and poverty. Women's associations have been able to influence politicians and are expanding network capabilities, but Nibizi argued that the need for capacity building among Burundi women continues.
Sanam Anderlini said that Rwanda is not the only place where women mobilized for peace, but that its sustainability is unique. In Rwandan culture, women are perceived as being better skilled than men at reconciliation, which provided the political space necessary for women to obtain a greater role in government operations. Women were mainstreamed into every level of political bodies, a triple-balloting system ensured that women received their own ballot, women's councils were developed to parallel local councils, and the constitution called for one third of seats to be filled by women. Anderlini noted that today, Rwanda has more women in government offices than any other country in the world, thirty-five percent of judges in local councils are women, and women in parliament have created a cross-party caucus to serve as a model for male parliamentarians.
Rwanda is not alone in the gendered aspect of its conflict, and it is vital to identify the untapped potential of women as agents of change and sources of information in a post-conflict environment. Neglect of fifty percent of a population results in depletion of fifty percent of a population's talent pool. In considering how the international community can support women in entering this political and social space, Anderlini recognized the danger that pushing too hard might cause a backlash, and not pushing hard enough might actually limit the progress of women. In responding to women's needs during and after conflict, it is critical to focus on protective measures, and to identify potential players and agents for change instead of focusing on spoilers. In addition, maintaining awareness of the tokenism that can result from overuse of quota systems, considering the implications of cultural specificity, and attempting to explore and respond to the frustrations that create environments in which rape and violence are prevalent are critical to protecting women's ability to engage in and influence reconstruction activities. Anderlini noted that the "soft issue" of women's rights is often linked inextricably to the "hard issues" of economics and security, and that policymakers and advocates would do well to highlight this connection.