Despite 100 countries enacting national plans to carry out the global women, peace and security agenda, women remain largely absent from conflict mediation and other peacemaking endeavors across the world. The agenda, cemented in a Security Council resolution approved in 2000, is supposed to ensure the equal participation of women in peace talks and other related steps. But the agenda has fallen far short of achieving that goal since it was authorized by UN member countries more than two decades ago.
Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, emphasized the lack of participation by women in peace negotiations and mediation during a Security Council open debate on the role of regional organizations in carrying out the so-called WPS agenda, held on June 15. Bahous said that 12 regional groups have also adopted “action plans” on the agenda, up from five in 2015. Yet that does not add up to success.
The Council meeting was chaired by Albania’s foreign affairs minister, Olta Xhacka. Besides speeches delivered in the morning by the 15 Council members, Bahous and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, women representatives from the League of Arab States, the African Union, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spoke, each bringing their region’s individual response to the problem, with some noting small gains.
“With all these institutional progress, almost every time there are political negotiations, peace talks, we still have to ask, ‘Where are the women?'” Bahous said. As rotating president of the Council for June, Albania is raising the focus as Ukrainian women are reportedly being preyed on by human traffickers amid Russia’s invasion and Russian troops are being accused of raping Ukrainian women.
Ethnic Albanians understand the trauma of sexual violence in war all too well. In a year of conflict in Kosovo in the late 1990s, thousands of women were raped in Serbia’s battle to hold on to the territory. Kosovo is now recognized as a sovereign country by 97 UN member states.
Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was agreed on in 2000, a year after the war ended in Kosovo, and one of its core purposes is to recognize how violence affects women and girls specifically. With that resolution, UN member states committed to including women in all peace-building processes.
Eight years later, the Council adopted Resolution 1820, addressing the particular problem of using sexual violence as a tool of warfare. Besides these two resolutions, seven others have been adopted to guarantee women’s equal roles in peace-building efforts in their countries or regions. The Albanian mission said in a statement that it was determined to hold sexual abuse offenders accountable to deepen the WPS agenda.
“The use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and terror continues to be a common element in conflicts around the world,” the statement said. “During the last decade of the 20th century our region, the Balkans, has witnessed firsthand sexual violence being used as a weapon of war, as well as the challenges faced by post-conflict societies in dealing with the trauma.”
Albania, a NATO member, also vowed in its focus on women, peace and security in June to strengthen the collective international response to protect the rights of rape survivors by ensuring perpetrators are held to account. That includes using sanctions and ad hoc justice mechanisms — like tribunals — to go after abusers. Actioning the pledge has been tricky if nonexistent in the last two decades.
Unable to prosecute member states directly, the UN has been aiming to enhance the ability of nongovernmental organizations and a range of judicial institutions to collate and prosecute conflict-related sexual violence. As the leader of the UN, Guterres is in charge of this work. Annually, he presents a report to the Council on the UN’s efforts at tackling atrocities committed in wars. Guterres contends that his reports and the work of others in this regard are facing pushback from the world’s power brokers. Speaking at the June 15 debate, he echoed Bahous on the seeming futility of the world’s resolve to equalize representation in conflict mediation.
“Women’s equality is a question of power,” he said. “Today’s political deadlocks and entrenched conflicts are just the latest examples of how enduring power imbalances and patriarchy are continuing to fail us.”
Guterres noted that 124 cases of sexual abuse committed against women and girls in Ukraine have been submitted to the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights. He listed Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar and Mali as other places where decisions made by men have traumatized and excluded women and girls.
“And we know that for every woman who reports these horrific crimes, there are likely to be many more who remain silent, or unrecorded,” he added. “Women refugees are taking on leadership roles and supporting the response in host countries. Inside Ukraine, women who chose not to evacuate are at the forefront of healthcare and social support. It is important that Ukrainian women participate fully in all mediation efforts.”
In his 2022 report on conflict-related sexual violence, Guterres said that some countries were not strengthening the capacity of national institutions to investigate incidents of sexual violence in insecure areas.
“Military spending outpaced investment in pandemic-related health care in fragile and conflict-affected countries,” Guterres said in his 2021 and 2022 reports.
Two of the fragile countries to which he referred in his reports are located in the arid lands of the Sahel region in Africa. In the last two years, Mali and Burkina Faso have both ejected civilian, democratic governments. (Mali has carried out two military coups twice; in addition, Guinea underwent a coup in 2021.)
Bineta Diop, the special envoy to the African Union on women, peace and security, said at the debate that women in these countries have been doubly hurt by the coups and the worsening violence and upheaval.
“The women in the Sahel say they are doubly affected, not just by the coups but by terrorists’ attacks,” she said.
Yet many speakers at the daylong debate, which also featured dozens of other countries participating, said that women who are directly affected by violence are excluded from resolving the abuse they have endured.
Gry Haugsbakken, state secretary in Norway’s ministry of culture and gender equality, suggested that one way that regional groups could push justice through the WPS agenda would be to “reduce barriers” and protect women human-rights defenders “against reprisals.”
On the other hand, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, began his remarks on a not-so-constructive note, saying the topic of the Council debate “appears rather vague, but to a large extent, it can be projected on the situation in Ukraine.” He delved into rationalizing his country’s attacks in Ukraine, and then said: “Our Western colleagues have no chance to succeed at exploiting the topic of sexual violence in Ukraine, allegedly committed by Russian troops. All you have is fakes and lies, and not a single fact or piece of evidence.”
However “vague” the debate appeared to Nebenzia, Bahous of UN Women repeated the burning question.
“As regional organizations, when you convene negotiations, ensure that you do not have to ask yourself, ‘Where are the women?'” she said.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.