Washington — Ending the sexual violence inflicted on women during and after armed conflicts remains a huge challenge, according to Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
"The 'inconvenient truth' is that despite our efforts, we are still collectively making too little difference in the struggle to combat sexual abuse, impunity, and the systematic disengagement of women from peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction," Steinberg said in his February 16 keynote address at "The Missing Peace Symposium: Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings."
The three-day symposium was hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace; the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley; Peace Research Institute Oslo; and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute North America. It brought together scholars, policymakers, and military and civil society representatives to examine the issue of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings and to explore how to provide effective responses.
"In too many conflicts," Steinberg said, "rape continues to be used unabated as a weapon of war. The voices of women are still too often excluded from peace negotiations, resulting in agreements that ill reflect ground truth, lack popular support, and are as likely to fail as to succeed. As a result, issues related to trafficking in persons, reproductive health care, girls' education, and accountability for past abuses continue to be lost in the shuffle."
According to Steinberg, demobilized male combatants are too often prematurely sent back to their home communities that have learned to live without them over decades of conflict.
The end result: waves of alcoholism, domestic violence and rape. Moreover, warring parties, Steinberg said, "still frequently begin peace processes by granting amnesties to each other for heinous crimes committed in the fighting - tantamount to men with guns forgiving other men with guns for crimes committed against women."
Despite this gloomy state of affairs, great strides have been made in norms and attitudes, Steinberg said.
"On the international stage, it would be unthinkable to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution addressing an ongoing conflict or to organize a peace-making and peace enforcement mission without including language about protecting civilians, in general, and women threatened by sexual violence, in particular," he said, noting this is possible thanks to Security Council resolutions 1325, 1888 and 1960.
"In the U.S. government," Steinberg said, "the full-throated participation of the White House, State Department, Defense Department, USAID and other agencies in implementing the National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security goes far beyond 'checking the box.'"
President Obama has often spoken, including in his most recent State of the Union address, about the importance of women's empowerment to U.S. national security interests as well as reflecting U.S. values abroad, Steinberg said.
"Just as important," Steinberg added, "I believe that the American people 'get it.' They want to live in a world that respects human rights and human dignity, but they also know that countries that respect women, prevent abuse against them, and involve them as full contributors to peace processes and national reconciliation don't tend to traffic in persons, arms or drugs; transmit pandemic diseases; send off large numbers of refugees across borders and oceans; harbor pirates or terrorists; or, perhaps most importantly, require American troops on the ground."
Steinberg noted that new USAID project proposals include the equivalent of a "gender impact evaluation," and new projects have been launched to create safe schools for girls, to expand family planning, and to combat violence and maternal mortality during disasters.
"I take great encouragement," Steinberg said, "from the fact that people are standing up - from Sudan to the Middle East, from Kenya to Colombia, from Colorado to Guatemala - to protect and empower women in conflict situations around the world. We owe them our strongest possible support possible."