by Elisabeth Rehn
Much good news is reaching us about “women making the case”, but it is also true that the opposite sometimes dominates. In which category should we put the Canadian Human Rights Report, telling us that sexual violence against women in war was not the big deal we are making it to be?
In their essay, Antonia Potter Prentice and Rita Manchandan raise the question, what then is a big deal? For me, after talking face to face with thousands of raped women and men in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Northern Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia & Herzegovina—we have a tendency of counting this kind of problem by percentages, number of instances of sexual violence, child soldiers, refugees, IDP’s—every case is a big deal. Unfortunately, the violence continues after the war, from a tactic of war to a habit of post-conflict life. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu (DRC) has told me how the war changed sexual violence to a much more brutal and destructive form. He has during the history of Panzi treated close to 40,000 women, children and men who have been victims of sexual violence. Listening to him makes it clear that this is a big deal.
Sexual violence is indeed (despite its terrible influence on the society) not the only issue when making peace and building up society after a conflict. Women want inclusion, equality, and social reform, and very strongly, justice. When experienced conflict mediators are asked: What is more important, peace or justice? the answer predominantly given is peace as many lives are thereby saved. But the victims of sexual violence do find justice important. Sometimes it is the only way of building their future without fear, and for overcoming stigmatization. For them ending impunity and pursuing justice is of paramount importance.
The UN resolution 1325/2000 has a main message: enhancement of women in decision making, in the peace processes, and at the negotiation tables. In some way the related resolutions which have followed took the focus from this message stressing the women’s role as victim. Helping victims is important, but we cannot forget that the only way to support them is to get women involved in the decisions, as actors in politics, in economics, and with rights to own property. The victims themselves want this. It is impressive meeting women in DRC, raped, infected with HIV, kicked out by their husbands from their homes after being ”unfaithful”, who refuse to be called victims, they are “survivors”. They are ready to fight for the better future of their country. One way forward that they believe in is to get education for their daughters.
The strong women of West Africa have worked hard and successfully in building peace. The example of Liberian women is well known, followed now by the strong activities of Femmes Africa Solidarité and others for democratic and non-violent elections in the region. They engaged in the elections in Liberia, but the real breakthrough was made in the Senegal election at the Women’s Situation Room. Women in Senegal were informed at gatherings about the importance of voting, and not to allow violence at polling stations. All parties were represented at the Situation Room and presidential candidates visited them. They organized a link to the Ministry of Interior, to Police stations, and the women as observers had mobile phones to report immediately about unrest or women hindered to vote. The outcome is known. President Wade immediately declared his loss, calming down his supporters. The new President visited the Situation Room on the next day after his election, promising to keep the parity rule.
Women are regarded as one block with similar minds and opinions. Of course it is not true, like men women represent ethnic groups, religions, political opinions, young and old, the whole variety of life. Bearing this in mind women have still been able to engage in collective actions, like the Liberian action for peace, or the Women’s Situation Room in Senegal. As the President of FAS, Bineta Diop explains: you have to discuss with the women's groups what is dividing them, and to find the issues they can agree upon. Then build up the action on these issues to get everybody on board.
The Women’s Situation Room in Senegal is an example of women’s common action for democratic participation. It has been widely recognized, including by the African Union. The concept was brought to the elections in Sierra Leone and observers from Kenya and other African states facing elections in the near future were present in Dakar to learn. The many earlier violent elections like in Ivory Coast must not be repeated. If the unified actions of women can ease the tensions, it is already a long step forward.
Negotiating for peace is not an independent special event. It is an ongoing and sometimes very long process of ending conflict by building the momentum to sit down at the table for talks. Even then much of the work is done far from the tables. Experts, advisors, are listening to different interests of the people and the persons in power. If there is a genuine interest to embrace the whole population in a future peace, the skills and knowledge of women must be taken into account. It cannot be denied that women have a strong responsibility in the implementation of peace agreements. When we talk about the head mediator, we use the word “he”, not she. We are informed he has advisors who know about the needs of women. It is not enough. The mediator must himself be fully sensitized about the importance of integrating women in the process. If he does not genuinely care then the courtesy meetings listening to women representatives are only a play for the galleries. The same rule goes for the few women mediators.
Elisabeth Rehn: Minister Rehn has a long political career in Finland, as Member of Parliament, Minister of Defense, Minister of Equality, Presidential candidate, and also as a Member of European Parliament. Since 1995 she has been with the United Nations, as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Former Yugoslavia, as Special Representative of the Secretary General in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and later as independent expert on Peace and Security. She is the co-author of the 1325 report for Unifem “Women War Peace” 2002, Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP) report for UNDP on the situation in Palestine 2004, and the UNHCHR report on DRC 2010. Rehn is also the Chair of the Board of Directors at the Trust Fund for Victims at the International Criminal Court, the Hague.
To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.