Africa: Women's Empowerment Builds International Peace and Security

Photo: John Ferguson/Oxfam
(file photo)

United Nations — When war erupts, women are often the first to experience the harsh brutality and the last to be called to the peace table. A resolution adopted Friday by the U.N. Security Council moves us one step closer to the full participation of women as leaders for peace and security.

By unanimous vote, the Council adopted a resolution that sets in place stronger measures to enable women to participate in conflict resolution and recovery, and puts the onus on the Security Council, the United Nations, regional organisations and member states to dismantle the barriers, create the space, and provide seats at the table for women.

Without an invitation, [Malian women] walked into the talks and raised the alarm about the attacks against women and girls.

Despite increases in the numbers of women in politics and in business leadership, very few women have lead roles in formal peace talks, in spite of the significant role they play in community-level reconciliation. Peace negotiations and all institutions linked to conflict resolution remain male-dominated.

Since the end of the Cold War, women have represented only four percent of signatories to peace agreements, less than three percent of mediators of peace talks, and less than 10 percent of anyone sitting at the table to negotiate on behalf of a party to the conflict.

Yet decisions on matters such as power-sharing, natural resource management, electoral systems, land and property restitution, disarmament, justice and reparations can have a profound effect on women's lives and prospects for lasting peace.

These decisions have an impact on women's political participation, economic and physical security, and on the way war crimes against women are perceived and prosecuted.

In many current conflict resolution processes, such as those for Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, or Somalia, there have been few opportunities for women to participate directly. UN Women hopes that this new Security Council resolution will trigger opportunities for women's direct engagement, setting priorities for recovery in their countries.

There can be few better investments in building a sustainable peace than involving women. They connect the talks to the lives of those affected by conflict. They help generate broad social buy-in to the peace. U.N. Women therefore invests in building coalitions of women to influence negotiations.

Last year in Mali, for example, after women were routinely targeted when extremist groups took over the northern part of the country, resulting in rape and the removal of women from public office, women were told to stay out of public space.

With men fleeing from attacks and forced recruitment to rebel forces, women were left to head households with no means of seeking water or food, or of reaching to the outside world for help.

This story is not unusual. Nor is what happened next. Women across Mali demanded inclusion in the conflict-resolution efforts that began immediately in nearby Burkina Faso. In response, UN Women began convening huge meetings of women from civil society and government leaders from across the country to set out their own priorities for peace and demand a space at the peace table.

UN Women arranged for four women peace leaders to fly to the peace talks in Ouagadougou. Without an invitation, they walked into the talks and raised the alarm about the attacks against women and girls and the dire situation facing them in refugee camps and in towns occupied by armed forces. They demanded inclusion in efforts to stop the fighting so their needs could be addressed and their human rights protected.

Security Council resolution 2122 spells out specific measures to protect women's rights, including their right to sexual and reproductive health. It outlines measures so that delegations to peace talks, post-conflict national leaders, peacekeepers, mediators, foreign ministers and their staff put into action the commitments set out in Security Council resolution 1325, the first one calling for women's engagement in conflict resolution, adopted 13 years ago.

This is important because sometimes it takes a woman to make a difference. It was not until there were more women in international criminal tribunals that there was a significant increase in indictments listing sexual violence as a war crime.

And the U.N.'s appointment of a woman lead envoy for conflict resolution - Mary Robinson, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region - has brought a new approach to mediation. In her first months of taking office, she convened a massive conference of women leaders from across the region in Bujumbura to guide her work and the way forward.

With today's resolution, the Security Council is recognising something very important: that gender-based inequality, just like poverty, is an injustice that fuels conflict and undermines peace, and that gender equality and women's full participation are critical to international peace and security.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is Executive Director of UN Women.

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