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Women’s role in peace processes stressed

Female members of Argentina's human rights group, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, march during a rally in 2003 Reuters

Switzerland is taking further steps to implement an international resolution that aims to increase the participation of women in the peace process.

A revised national action plan was discussed at a conference in Bern this week organised by the Swiss foreign ministry. The plan sets out how Switzerland can apply United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, unanimously adopted ten years ago.

It was on October 31, 2000 that for the first time, the international community explicitly recognised the impact of armed conflict on women and the importance of involving them in peace processes.

“To date there are 17 nations that have put together a national strategy with the aim of implementing the objectives outlined in Resolution 1325,” Swiss Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini told the conference.

The former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia spoke at the meeting where discussions focussed on Switzerland’s revised national action plan, which was first released in 2007.

“The aim is to increase the percentage of women in organisations that promote peace,” Tagliavini explained.

Victims of armed conflict

Despite the good intentions, there has been little change on the ground. Women are still in the minority in the police force and army, as well as in the political realm. For the most part, they are recognised as the victims of the consequences of armed conflict: poverty, abuse, disease and emigration.

“Ten years on, the results are generally positive but at the same time alarming,” Tagliavini said. “Resolution 1325 is without a doubt one of the principle instruments defending the rights of women in war zones, but it’s still not enough.

“According to a study by the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), there have been 24 important peace processes since 1992 but only 3.2 per cent of the mediators and 5.5 per cent of the observers were women. How is it possible to achieve long lasting and durable peace if half of the population is excluded even before the start [of negotiations].”

The participation of women in peace processes is even more important in a context in which traditional patterns appear to have been altered.

Old illusion

“We must overcome the old illusion that women are only victims of conflicts,” said Elisabeth Decrey-Warner, president and co-founder of the non-government organisation, Geneva Call. “Like men, women can be responsible for war and therefore part of this hell.”

There is a widespread sentiment that to guarantee security in the 21st century, women’s involvement could be more important than throwing up a missile shield over Europe.

The fact is that the issue of women suicide bombers in Afghanistan or women rebels in Africa or Latin America cannot be addressed just from a man’s perspective.

On the one hand, Resolution 1325 wants to see women sitting at the negotiating table, and on the other promote their direct involvement in the field. At times, a female presence in a conflict zone can be indispensible in overcoming cultural and religious barriers. Women soldiers can more easily inspect – and show respect – for Muslim women at checkpoints, can win the trust of victims of sexual abuse and according to some, have a positive impact on predominantly male troops.

Despite the rhetoric, it is not always easy to assume the role of peacemaker in a predominantly male conflict. Tagliavini has first-hand experience. “For a woman, integrity and credibility are fundamental to survival in patriarchal countries like those in the Caucasus. It’s not easy to initiate a dialogue. We have to give men more time to get used to the idea of sitting across the table from a woman…”

Nepal efforts

Education and information are crucial for laying the groundwork for equal representation. In Nepal, for example, Switzerland organised different conferences and meetings for women and political parties to raise awareness of the issue.

Nepalese women have played a particularly active role in the national conflict as either leaders and fighters for the Maoist cause, army members or supporters of the peace movement. Despite their contributions, they have been largely excluded from their country’s democratisation process.

The Swiss presence in Nepal is only one example of Swiss government actions taken as part of Resolution 1325. The revisions introduced to the Swiss National Action Plan were done in collaboration with various NGOs.

“For the first time, the plan sets specific objectives for different departments and involved parties,” explained Ursula Keller, responsible for the contributions of the foundation, swisspeace. “In this way, it will be much easier to evaluate results and make the necessary adjustments in 2012.”

Female quota

Among the objectives are the promotion of women candidates in regional and international organisations and an increase of the female quota in Switzerland’s expert pool to 40 per cent.

The government is also making efforts to strengthen the prevention of sexual abuse and favours sending special observers to high-risk countries.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Swiss strategy will change the lives of women in Afghanistan or Congo,” admitted Keller. “But it’s a strong commitment on the part of Switzerland and should be welcomed.”

There is still a lot to do ten years after the adoption of Resolution 1325. One thing though is certain: “Peace building is a task for all humanity,” concluded Decrey-Warner. To achieve this “women must start fighting for everyone and not just other women”.

According to the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), as much as 90 per cent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children. Women in war-torn societies can face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives.

Women are the first to be affected by infrastructure breakdown, as they struggle to keep families together and care for the wounded. And women may also agree to sexual exploitation to survive and support their families.

Even after conflict has ended, the impacts of sexual violence persist, including unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and stigmatisation. Widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict, as a consequence of insecurity and impunity.

Swiss policy on “Gender and Peacebuilding” is based on UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution has three main thrusts:

• Increasing participation of women in decision-making processes related to peace-building
• The prevention of gender-specific violence and protection of the needs and rights of girls and women during and after violent conflicts
• Integration of a gender-sensitive perspective in all peace-building projects and programmes.

Since 2007 Switzerland has had a national action plan for the implementation of the goals of Resolution 1325. Since its accession to the UN, Switzerland has belonged to the informal network called the Group of Friends of Resolution 1325. The Human Security Network, of which Switzerland is an active member, is also committed to the gender and peace-building initiative.

(adapted from Italian by Dale Bechtel)

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