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A Place for Women at the Table



Vandana Devi and Gulabi Bahadur, two elected women representatives from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh listen to UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet speak during the National Leadership Summit in Jaipur, India on 4 October 2012.
Vandana Devi and Gulabi Bahadur, representatives from the Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, listen to  Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women, speak during a leadership summit in Jaipur, India, on Oct. 4, 2012. GAGANJIT SINGH CHANDOK/UN WOMEN

A dozen years have passed since the United Nations Security Council made history by adopting a resolution that addressed women’s rights during conflicts and required their participation in preventing wars and in peace talks.

Until Resolution 1325was approved, post-conflict reconstruction had been mostly the realm of those possessing the Y chromosome in the eyes of international law. Yet women’s issues in such contexts received a strong foundation in the 1990s in the war-crimes tribunals covering the Balkans and Rwanda and in the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. All UN member countries adopted 1325, along with four supporting resolutions since.

Nevertheless, improvements on the ground have been just short of abysmal.

This was the message behind a new civil society monitoring report, “Women Count,” published with the resolution’s 12th anniversary on Oct. 31. The book’s data and research were compiled by the 67-member Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, building on two previous annual editions. It looks at women’s participation in peace-building in 15 countries, from developing nations like Afghanistan, Nepal and Uganda, to the industrialized countries of Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, where involvement in security-sector roles, for example, is measured.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, the international coordinator for the women peace-builders group and an author of the book, said that a yearly study was necessary since despite the resolution, “All the women were saying, It’s not implemented.”

Various women spoke about these concerns in New York in early November during anniversary events organized by the UN missions of Canada and Finland and others. The Security Council, one of the main UN bodies responsible for carrying out 1325, scheduled an open debate on the topic in October, but it was rescheduled for Nov. 30. The women at events represented nations dealing with longstanding internal turmoil, like Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines.

Haja Mariama Fofana of the National Organization of Women in Sierra Leone and the 50-50 Group, which aims to increase women in governance, explained how her country has worked hard at retaining peace since the civil war ended 10 years ago.

“But peace cannot be maintained if women are not involved,” Fofana said, speaking at the Canadian mission’s Nov. 6 program introducing the report. Fofana was a principal researcher for the section on Sierra Leone.

Women hold only 4 to 20 percent of positions in the country’s political and governing arenas, the report says, far from the equality demanded by 1325. Yet the National Electoral Commission is 40 percent women, as are almost a third of deputy chairs of local councils. Sierra Leone’s long-awaited Sexual Offenses Act, passed in August, combines all gender-based offenses, including domestic violence, rape and child marriage under one umbrella.

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“This helps the police to prepare the right charges,” Fofana said. Before, many men got away with their crimes because the police would prepare the wrong charges, she added.

Besides raising the minimum jail sentence for sexual assault to 5 to 15 years from just 2 years, the act protects women from forced sex in marriage and girls from sexual abuse by community leaders. Sierra Leone, which just announced the re-election of President Ernest Bai Koroma, is considered a beacon of hope among the developing countries in the report.

The UN-Sierra Leone tribunal surely sensitized the populace on women’s rights. It recently concluded its major work trying war criminals, including prosecuting for gender-based crimes like gang rape and sexual slavery of women. It was the first court to recognize that forced marriage is a crime against humanity.

The “Women Count” report compared data and research on 11 indicators, including the percentage of women involved in peace negotiations, the level of sexual or gender-based violence, implementing gender-responsive laws and women’s participation in government, justice and security sectors.

About 60 percent of the countries earned “positive”  reviews in at least 1 indicator, but most had “deteriorated” or made no progress in several others – like the number and percentage of women involved in constitutional or legislative reviews. In slightly less than half the indicators, the countries had made “moderate progress.”

The report found that Afghanistan, Colombia, Fiji, South Sudan and Sri Lanka do not have a national action plan to make 1325 effective. Of those that do, many don’t bother to ensure it functions properly.

In Sierra Leone, voting took place on Nov. 17, 2012, to elect a president.
In Sierra Leone, voting took place on Nov. 17, 2012, to elect a president. The country, recovering from a civil war, is making strides in honoring women’s rights. JOE PENNEY

Fiji and the Philippines have made slight improvements for women in this regard.

In Fiji, the first female-led community radio station was set up by a local nonprofit group, FemLINKPacific, so rural women could receive information on health issues and human rights, share opinions and report problems. The network has two stations and a mobile radio unit working from a suitcase. This has enabled more than 600 rural women leaders, representing a membership of 6,000 women, to address their peace and human security priorities in radio programs and broadcasts in rural centers.

“Radio is the best vehicle to reach communities who live in poor areas, where there are no phones,” Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, the executive director of FemLINKPACIFIC, wrote in e-mail to PassBlue.

“It enables women to communicate their priorities, and this has been even more important during the Constitution submission process, which enabled 67 rural women to take to the airwaves and also appear on television to share their aspirations for Fiji’s current democratization process,” Rolls said.

In October, the Philippines government signed a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ending a 40-year conflict with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group. The agreement contains two provisions on basic rights for women, Cabrera-Balleza wrote on the Web site of the women peace-builders group: the right of women to meaningful political participation and protection from all forms of violence; and the right to equal opportunity and nondiscrimination in social and economic activity and public service, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity.

Cabrera-Balleza noted that for the first time, the Moro appointed a woman to its board of consultants and technical working group. The government panel has two women members.

Colombia is staging talks with long-term rebels, too. Katherine Ronderos, the coordinator of the women’s human rights defenders program at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, an international group, spoke at at Nov. 2 program on 1325 and the country’s newest peace discussions.

In October, Colombia officially restarted negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerilla group that has been fighting the government and paramilitaries for 50 years. FARC also announced a two-month unilateral cease-fire. The talks began in Oslo and continued in Havana; Venezuela and Chile are additional mediators. Negotiations are being conducted on several levels, said Ronderos, who is also president of the Colombian board of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

But women’s representation is slim. The inner circle of country mediators has no women at the table; at the secondary level, there is one on the government side and one from FARC. For women to inject their voices in the peace negotiations, it’s an uphill climb in a country dominated by machismo, panelists conceded at the Nov. 2 event.

Ronderos called for, among other things, the government to develop a national plan to carry out 1325 and urged the negotiators and everyone involved in them to include the demands and needs of women, who, as in most conflicts, have borne the brunt of the war. Grass-roots efforts in Colombia have enlightened people on the 1325 mandate and its benefits as talks get under way. Politicians, indigenous leaders, women leaders and police and military officers have showed up at workshops, learning about such things as victims’ reparations.

Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace and a panelist, said that the Colombian discussions could be a model for another hot spot, Mali, which held informal discussions this fall on resolving its dual crisis of Islamic extremists’ hijacking the north and stabilizing its government after a coup.

Cabrera-Balleza said that women were consulted in the Mali process on the periphery, adding, “This is one of the common practices of the UN and international mediators. When it is informal and unofficial, the women are involved. When it becomes formal and official, they are excluded because they are not seen as having expertise.”

Uganda is a major example of a lost opportunity, as the government has failed to include women in its reconstruction in any major way after its 20-year conflict with Lord’s Resistance Army. Uganda still has a weak social structure that contributes to extreme poverty, child abuse and a high prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence.

The “Women Count” report found Uganda had made just one positive step on women in peace-building: the percentage of civil-society groups on 1325 national task forces. “Moderate progress” was noted on four other indicators, including allocating money for women, peace and security projects. While 35 percent of the Ugandan parliament is female, many lack the gender and advocacy skills to be effective. The country did, however, begin a three-year peace, recovery and development plan in July to address problems in the north and northeast.

Change can be slow for all countries, forcing women to stay diligent in protecting their rights. Change can also require a simple act. At the UN, 1325 requirements could be added to a checklist of important items in peace talks, a panelist suggested, among such essentials as getting airplane tickets, hotel reservations and seats for women at the table.

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In Congo, Listening to Rape Victims to Establish Trust



Mirva Lempiainen is a journalist from Finland who writes about travel, culture and social issues for media based in Finland and in the US. She has a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and writes a travel blog at

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