Women and War

Learn more about the effects of conflict on women and how they can hold the key to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.


No Progress without Women: Rwanda's Journey to complete the Millennium Development Goals

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Seventeen years ago last Sunday, the Rwandan genocide came to a bloody end. In one of the of the most horrifying 100 days in human history, inter-ethnic tensions stoked by political propaganda escalated into full-scale civil war between two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Over the span of 100 days, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The two major ethnic groups had lived peacefully for generations, but decades of colonial rule and exploitation built the foundations of tensions that ultimately reached a boiling point in 1994, fanned by radio campaigns inciting violence. Bands of Interahamwe, a group of Hutu rebels armed with machetes, roamed cities and the countryside, killing any Tutsi or Tutsi-sympathizer they encountered. People fleeing the slaughter sought refuge in schools, churches and other places of worship, assuming them to be safe havens, only to be massacred within. To this day, many of these buildings remain as they did during those 100 days, a reminder of the horror of war.

WfWI-Rwanda participants in the field.

As in many conflicts, women were particularly vulnerable, targeted for brutal sexual violence as a tool of war and instrument of genocide. Between 250,000 to 500,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the genocide. According to UN Special Rapporteur Rene Degni-Segui, "Rape was the rule and its absence the exception." The campaign of sexual violence had a devastating impact on the demographics of the surviving Rwandan population.An estimated 70% rape survivors were infected with HIV, and even more had lost their homes, friends and family members in the slaughter.

After the genocide, up to 70% of the surviving population consisted of women. Despite the scale of devastation the society had endured, these women took immediate action to set their country on the path to recovery. Among other activities, they began to clean the streets, rebuild homes and adopt children orphaned by the genocide. In spite of their own suffering, women got involved at the national and community levels to set their society back on track.

To this day, it has been women who led Rwanda out of the ashes of war and into a more peaceful and prosperous future, arguably more so than any other country in the world. Though it may have seemed impossible on this day in 1994, Rwanda has surged forward to make remarkable progress with regards to social and economic development. The country is currently one of the top performers in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of international development goals established by the United Nations in 2000. These goals set a benchmark for the world to gauge progress on key humanitarian and development issues, from the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, to universal primary education and promoting gender equality, to reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability for future generations. Rwanda has shown more progress in these areas to date than most nations, developing and developed alike.

Equally notable is the high incidence of women's participation in leadership roles throughout the country, a favorite case study in the cannon of research and studies linking women's equality with economic growth and stability. A recent UN Women Report documents Rwanda's competitive advantage when it comes to the status of women and overall development progress.

Rwandan women have the highest rate of political representation in public office in the world, standing at more than 50%. This critical mass in legislative bodies allows for women to institute many legal reforms focused on the female population. According to the UN Report, female Parliamentarians have worked to improve women's economic and inheritance rights, as well as pass laws that protect women from domestic violence and marital rape. Notably, Rwanda is one of only 52 countries that has legislation that criminalizes marital rape. Furthermore, as of 2010, 33% of ministerial positions in the government are held by women. According to Oda Gasinzigwa, Rwanda's Chief Gender Minister, "It's good to recognize us. There are a lot of achievements we have registered and the good performance is attributed to the political will. The leadership has trusted us to participate in all levels of development."

These statistics suggest that investment in women's equality and creating space for women's contributions in critical social, economic and political processes is a key to achieving broader human development goals. Increasingly, research shows that investing in women and working to achieve MDG 3 - gender equality - can truly be the key to achieving all 8 Millennium Development Goals. Consider the following:

According to the World Bank, "Greater economic and educational opportunities for women mean her daughters are more likely to go to school, her babies are more likely to survive infancy and her family is more likely to eat nutritious meals." That statement connects progress on MDGs 2, 4 and 1, respectively, all through investment in the mother. Also according to the World Bank, the children of educated mothers are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of 5 and 50% more likely to be immunized. That is direct progress on MDG 4. We also know that women are the stewards of and the closest to the environment (MDG 7), and they are the fastest-growing population infected with HIV/AIDS (MDG 6).

Returning to the Rwanda case study, we see women's engagement earning dividends across the board when it comes to development progress. Education rates in Rwanda have shown a marked increase. In 1991, only 57.9% of the population was literate, however, as recently as 2009, the literacy rate has exceeded 70%. There has also been a significant increase in the number of children attending primary school. Currently, 87.6% of school aged children are enrolled in primary school, and, must notably, the ratio of boys to girls in primary and secondary education is equal; a significant development with regards to gender equality.

There have also been noteworthy improvements in public health. Life expectancy has increased from a mere 27.1 years following the genocide to over 50 years in 2009. Rwanda has also taken significant strides in reducing maternal mortality. In 2000, the maternal mortality rate was 1071 per 100,000 live births, however, in 2010 they achieved a rate of 383/ 100,000 live births. If this improvement continues, Rwanda will be one of the few countries able to complete MDG 5, which is aimed at improving maternal health.

Women have hence made significant strides in Rwanda, bringing their nation along with them. Yet the work is not yet done. As in many post-conflict countries, gender violence has outlived the conflict that exacerbated it. In 2009, a police report revealed that every six hours, a women was raped. To its credit, the Government has worked in a coordinated effort with women's organizations to address the issue. Working together, government and civil society groups have waged public awareness campaigns in the media, developed community policing programs, and drafted a policy to explicitly criminalize violence against women beyond the provisions of preexisting national penal code. There has been a welcome and significant drop in the number of gender based violence cases reported in the wake of these interventions: 1,345 cases were reported in 2010, compared to 2,033 in 2006. However, despite this significant decrease, sexual violence still remains a problem with over three cases being reported everyday in 2010. With a sustained level of commitment to developing and implementing the kind of policy and programmatic responses that will continue to combat this problem, there is reason to hope that more progress is to come.

This anniversary, we celebrate the beacon of hope that Rwanda's unlikely turnaround provides. The nation's post-conflict recovery process proves a powerful point: that impoverished, war-torn countries can not only recover, but lead the way forward in global development progress. We celebrate its wholesale embrace of women's equality and leadership as not only the right thing to do, but also a winning development strategy effective in bringing all people out of poverty and into a more peaceful, prosperous future. As we look forward to 2015, when the world will evaluate progress on the lofty goals it has set for itself, Rwanda emerges as an unlikely -- and welcome -- contender for first place.

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Independence Day for South Sudan- Toward Women-Led Peace and Prosperity

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

July 9, 2011 - Today, the world welcomes its newest country: the Republic of South Sudan. This new nation in the heart of Africa is the historic result of a peaceful, popular vote on independence, in which roughly 99% of people living in Sudan's southern regions elected to split from the Northern, Arab government that had ruled over them -- and engaged in a brutal civil war against them -- for decades. The legacy from Africa's longest civil war is chilling: 4 million displaced, 2 million killed and 2 million women raped. Provided for in the official peace accord that formally ended the war in 2005, this vote represented the first opportunity for southerners to articulate their own vision for the future, in peace.

Women experience war and peace differently from men. For women, war means mass displacement, the threat and often the grim reality of sexual violence, the loss of husbands and family members and resulting task of providing for families without formal skills or training for the task. For women, peace means less the signing of an armistice and more the resumption of life's core activities--jobs, feeding children, bringing up future generations free of violence. This is no different in South Sudan, where independence is an important symbol of peace, equality and the opportunity for men and women alike to determine their own destiny. In the words of my colleague, Women for Women International's Country Director for Sudan, Karak Mayik, "Without women, we would never have achieved peace, or independence. Without the voice of women, there would be no South Sudan."

Independence celebrations in South Sudan

It's true. Women have been a tremendous force for peace and active architects of the new republic. 52% of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60% of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were led by a single woman. Karak tells me what a source of inspiration it was for her to watch her sisters proudly walk together to the polling stations, showing their community the importance of their participation in the historic vote. For a woman who spent too many years of her life in a camp for displaced persons in the Northern capital of Khartoum, Karak found new hope watching women in her hometown stand for hours to cast their first vote.

Despite relative exclusion from formal peace talks, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Women's civil society groups organized around the peace talks and campaigned for a leadership role in the new government. Moving forward, the Constitution states that 25% of the seats in the legislature must be held by women, and as of 2010, 34% of the Southern Parliamentary seats are held by women. Research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power correlate with decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs -- key priorities for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future. "Security, development and education are the top priorities for women of South Sudan now," says Mayik. "And for us to achieve a democratic South Sudan, this requires women's active participation in all community and national matters."

Security, development and education is timely agenda for South Sudan. True peace is yet to be achieved, and the new country ranks solidly among the bottom of global development rankings. Since the referendum results were announced, an unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed territories along the border between North and South. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. Reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians, as Northern forces use outdated, Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft and roll bombs out of the back. Accuracy is almost impossible, and civilian deaths are common, if unintended.

Development indicators paint a similarly grim picture, particularly for women. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report on Sudan points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in the South. The new nation is home to the world's highest maternal mortality rate, roughly 80% female illiteracy, and widespread child marriage and female genital cutting.

A humble beginning, yet one marked by tremendous optimism for the future. For my colleague, agriculture trainer Rebecca Yar, the female farmers she works with in the Southern countryside are laying the groundwork for a self-sufficient country, creating much-needed sources of food and income in South Sudan's under-developed rural areas. Women are also educating future generations and caring for the sick -- in short, leading the development their new nation desperately needs. According to a UN report, enrollment in schools has increased threefold since before the 2005 peace agreement, and we know women are key to that effort.

On this Independence Day, there is much work to be done, and women can lead the way forward. "This is the end of a war, but it is only the beginning for my new country," says Mayik, "we cannot do it without the women, and the women cannot do it alone. The violence must stop. Women must be supported in our efforts to create a peaceful future for our families, communities and this new country, starting today."

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Failure to Protect: Enduring Challenges for Peacekeeping in the DRC

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Today, July 1st, 2011, marks the anniversary of and another year's mandate for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the world's largest peacekeeping force. Recently, the UN Security council extended the force's mandate until at least June 2012, citing the continuing need to protect civilians. This is an important development, given previous suggestions by the Congolese Government that the mandate might not be renewed despite continuing attacks on civilians throughout the country's conflict-ridden eastern regions. The mission now operates under one of the most forceful mandates in history, which powerfully instructs peacekeepers to use "all necessary means to carry out its protection mandate."

The mission was launched in response to the Second Congolese War, which was catalyzed by a massive exodus from Rwanda following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In what has been called "Africa's World War," the Second Congolese War involved over five nations in the Sub-Saharan region. Estimates hold that over 5.4 million lives were lost, with 2 million still displaced and hundreds of thousands of rapes associated with the fighting. It was this grim backdrop that catalyzed UN intervention.

As in many states, the formal peace agreement that was signed between the five warring nations in 1999 has not brought true peace -- especially for women. Despite the presence of peacekeepers since that time (then called MONUC), targeted attacks on civilians have continued. According to a recent TrustLaw expert poll, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, due to the high rates of sexual violence. A recent analysis of data collected in 2007 suggests that 400,000 women are raped every year in the Congo --almost one rape per minute. And as recently as last week, more than 170 women were raped by former members of the Congolese army in Fizi town. Although attacks lasted for two days, peacekeepers did not hear of it until many days later. This is yet another chilling reminder of how far we have to go before promises to protect women in Congo are truly kept.

Reflecting upon this tragic incident, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, welcomed the extension on MONUSCO with measured words: "Given the significant security challenges that remain in the country, it is crucial that the United Nations have a continued peacekeeping presence in the Congo. The recent mass rapes in Fizi in South Kivu highlight that Congo's women are particularly vulnerable."

To be sure, the force has been involved with a number of activities designed to improve human security in the East. Peacekeepers have helped set up information panels about HIV/ AIDS, created a "Trading Centers" program to combat illegal mining , and worked to create a more effective communication network so villages in need can contact peacekeepers. They are involved with preparations for November's upcoming elections, working to disarm armed combatants (with a special emphasis on children), and helping train Congolese police (which is generally agreed to be incapable of protecting the population, and members of which are often implicated in direct attacks upon civilians).

Although MONUSCO is making strides in the Congo, and is certainly an essential if imperfect actor in the quest to secure peace and human security in the country, it has failed in the most fundamental part of its mission: the protection of civilians. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is by many accounts considered to be a failed state, one that cannot protect its own people. Until the day that it is able to do so completely and credibly, the international community must shoulder that responsibility. The lives and dignity of Congo's innocent civilians depend upon it.

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The Word on Women-International Widow's Day

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Orginally published by TrustLaw

Today marks the first annual International Widow’s Day, a day of action adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly last December to “give special attention to the situation of widows and their children.” In my work with Women for Women International, an organization that helps women who have survived war, many of whom are widowed by the conflict, I’ve come to understand just how important that is.

In 18 years, we have served roughly 300,000 women in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. We have seen the toll war takes on women, from violence, disruption of economic and social activities, and, most devastatingly, in loss of life. In 2010, about 12% of the women we worked with were widows. In countries like Nigeria and Iraq, the number is higher--21% and 17% respectively. War widows face unique challenges in the forms of extreme poverty, social isolation, discrimination and often property seizure and homelessness. Many find themselves thrust into the new role of breadwinner and provider for multiple children, usually with no formal skills or training and very little education. This, in concert with the social and economic destruction that is usually a direct result of war, can be an almost insurmountable obstacle to survival.

In many countries, widows have little to no rights over their husband’s inheritance or property, and therefore often lose their family home and savings when their husband dies. In Nigeria, discriminatory widowhood rituals include economic deprivation and even exile from the community. According to a 2010 State Department Report on Human Rights, in northeast Nigeria, widows are often subjected to the discriminatory rite of “confinement”. For a period of up to one year, “confined” widows must live under severe social restrictions, and are often forced to shave their heads and dress in black. In other areas, Nigerian widows are considered part of their husband’s property, and can be “inherited” by his family members.

Coming on the heels of death, property loss is a devastating blow for women looking to survive on their own. Widows are often forced from their home, lose rights to family businesses, and become highly vulnerable to exploitation upon their husband’s death. According to the US State Department, 69% of widows in the Democratic Republic of Congo had been dispossessed of their property following their husband’s death. In Nigeria and Afghanistan, the brother of a deceased man will often claim his brother's widow as his second, third or fourth wife. Although this traditional practice predated and often transcends modern welfare systems intended to provide for women with limited financial prospects, the horrific result can often be a life full of abuse and exploitation by their new husbands and extended family. The lack of capacity of many states to provide for vulnerable populations can exacerbate this practice. Of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, more than two-thirds are women. Without formal job training or an education, widows struggle to earn an income to support their children and often live in poverty for the rest of their lives. Often they are ultimately forced into the informal labor market, where they are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and human trafficking.

The Indian Hindu custom of sati instructs women to self-immolate over their husbands’ funeral pyres. Though rare and explicitly outlawed in India, sati is occasionally practiced in northern and central regions of the country. In many African countries -- including Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda -- women, who are considered part of their deceased husband’s property, are subjected to “widow cleansing”. This tradition allows a man from the husband’s family, such as a brother or cousin, to force the widow to have sex with him in order to release her husband’s spirit from her body. This act not only authorizes rape and sexual abuse, but it also leaves women extremely vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, many of the widows who survived the 1994 genocide were raped, disfigured, and infected with HIV/AIDS.

Tellingly, sufficient data on widowhood is very difficult to find amongst the plethora of international development statistics and indicators, a sad reflection of just how marginalized the population can be, even, paradoxically, in arenas specifically dedicated to assisting the world’s most vulnerable people. Two countries of notable exception in this regard are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the conflicts have produced an estimated 2 to 3.5 million war widows. This has prompted a few targeted intervention efforts specifically aimed at bringing widows, and their families, out of poverty and social exclusion. For instance, Women for Women International is working to assist 2,500 Iraqi war widows through a year-long program that combines rights awareness and life skills training with business skills training, designed to build both a widow’s knowledge of practical topics, like health care and household finances, and her ability to achieve a sustainable income.

International Widows Day provides an opportunity for reflection on the incredible obstacles faced by widows around the world; it also offers the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to doing something about it. For although the evidence points to an uphill battle to open opportunities for women facing such entrenched challenges to thrive, our experience has also shown us that these are the women who have the strength to rebuild their lives and societies at a time when foundational socioeconomic institutions have been decimated.

Take Begzada, a graduate of Women for Women International’s program in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of a conflict that stunned humanity with its targeted and brutal campaign of violence against women during the Bosnian War. Begzada was living with her husband in Srebrenica when he was murdered in a massacre that claimed the lives of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. After losing her husband and their home, Begzada moved with her children and mother into a one-room home without running water or electricity, near Sarajevo.

The future looked bleak. Without any formal education or job training, Begzada spent her nights knitting by candlelight and her days trying to sell her crafts at the local market. One day a neighbor introduced her to Women for Women International, where Begzada was able to enroll in the home design training. She learned how to use her knitting skills to create home furnishings, popular items in a country trying to rebuild after war. With the extra income from the profits of her new business, Begzada was able to invest in her home and future. She built the first floor of her house and began to rent land to grow potatoes, onions, beans, carrots and beets to feed her family.

This small revolution in one woman’s life and family reflects the essence of the larger reconstruction process that is needed to foster stability and economic growth where war has devastated everything. According to the World Bank, women like Begzada reinvest up to 90% of their income in the family and community -- as opposed to 30-40% by men. So although they face the greatest obstacles coming out of conflict, they are also our greatest hope.

In the words of Begzada, “My greatest dream is to give my family a home which would be ours, which we would never have to leave. With great effort and sacrifice, I am now realizing my dream.” This International Widows Day, take a moment to reflect on the obstacles faced by widows around the world, and then take a moment to do something about it. Sponsor a woman like Begzada at www.womenforwomen.org today, and help us be a part of the solution

Read the original article at TrustLaw here.

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To mark the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s participation in the peace-building process, Zainab Salbi spoke at the Women and War Conference in Washington, D.C. on November 3, 2010.


U.S. Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325

Since November 2010 Women for Women International has been a member of the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, a coalition of organizations working to advance the women, peace and security agenda within the U.S. government. This civil society working group is currently working with the Obama Administration on the development of a United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. While UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was unanimously passed in 2000, only 25 countries have taken the next step to develop national action plans incorporating the principles of 1325 into their own national codes. The U.S. Plan is much anticipated globally, as it shows the United State’s commitment to the increased inclusion of women in peace and security issues.

On February 15, 2011 the Civil Society Working Group submitted a memorandum to the White House, the State Department, USAID, DOD and other agencies involved with the drafting of the National Action Plan. This memorandum is meant to use the expertise from civil society groups working with women in conflict and post-conflict zones, in order to help inform, as appropriate, the U.S. agencies committed to drafting this action plan. As such, the memorandum outlines four benchmarks through which a strong and concrete strategy can be framed.

Download the CSO Working Group National Action Plan below.

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Building Bridges of Peace and Prosperity for Afghan Women

Part of CSW 55 Blog Series

By Su Chuen Foo

New York, March 4, 2011 – Since the start of international intervention in Afghanistan 10 years ago, and the fall of the Taliban government, at no point in time were women in Afghanistan at a greater risk of being sidelined in discussions aimed at determining power-sharing agreements between the Afghan government and insurgent groups. Women for Women International, has therefore taken the opportunity to host a parallel event at the 55th Commission on the Status of Women to shine a spotlight on the realities of women in Afghanistan.

Panel members of the event engaged in discussion. From left to right: Nasrine Gross, Afghan activist and Founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies, and Education; Saba Ghori, Senior South Asia Specialist and Violence against Women Advisor from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; and Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy and External Relations Analyst and Women for Women International’s delegate.

This panel “No Peace Without Women: An Urgent Call to Help Women in Afghanistan Build Bridges of Peace and Prosperity for their Country” brought together representatives from Afghanistan and U.S. civil society and a delegate from the U.S. State Department to discuss the plight of Afghan women and outline actionable items the international community can do to elevate Afghan women’s voices in the peace process. The panelists include Nasrine Gross, an outstanding activist on Afghan women’s issues and Founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies, and Education; Saba Ghori, Senior South Asia Specialist and Violence against Women Advisor from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; and Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy and External Relations Analyst and Women for Women International’s delegate.

The event began with an update on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. This is the third attempt by the Afghan people to achieve democracy. Diplomatic efforts to suppress terrorism are lacking. Corruption is rampant and women still fear for their security when they venture outside. Adult women constitute the largest illiterate population in society and “women are still being abused without recourse.” Although women composed 1.7 million of the 3.5 million voters and 416 candidates in the last election, women are still being excluded in peace negotiations that will determine the future course of their nation.

Standing in support of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the U.S. government has been a strong proponent for the rights of Afghan women. This priority is evidenced by U.S.’ efforts to advocate for women’s full inclusion in Afghanistan’s peacebuilding processes, such as for women to be present at the Peace Jirga in June 2010, the Kabul Conference in July 2010, and at the High Peace Council set up by President Karzai to oversee the peace and reconciliation process. More importantly, this priority is best captured in a presidential directive issued by the White House which will direct development of the U.S.’ National Action Plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s inclusion in all levels of the peace process. This National Action Plan will include Afghanistan as an urgent focus country with the hopes of increasing Afghan women’s political, economic, and social rights.

Nasrine Gross, author and activist, has been engaged in Afghan women’s political empowerment since 2001 where she has trained over 3,000 women on leadership and political skills.

Policy experts in Afghanistan, the U.S., and the panelists at this session agree that urgency in Afghan women’s issues have grown, thanks to the advocacy and outreach efforts of civil society and fellow women’s rights supporters. Yet, we need to remain vigilant and continue shining the spotlight on Afghan women’s rights abuses. Afghan women are at the crossroads once again – actions in the near future can determine where Afghan women will stand in the blueprint of their nation’s rebuilding process. We need to agree on a gender agenda for Afghanistan and put forth a unified, strong voice to call attention to the ongoing women’s rights abuses, to the brutal stoning of women, to the acid and poisonous gas attacks against girls in schools, and to the forced and early marriages of Afghan girls to the demise of their country.

One great opportunity to do that is on March 8 during the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day when Women for Women International is hosting a global Join Me on the Bridge campaign calling all women’s right supporters to meet on bridges worldwide, to say “No Women No Peace.” Ultimately, Afghan men and women, civil society and government alike need to define what peace means in Afghanistan, and what peace will look like with the reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Without continued conversations and pressure, the prediction by Sweeta Noori, Women for Women International Afghanistan Country Director that “hope is dying in Afghanistan” will become a reality.

To learn more about the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, go here.

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Why We Tell Our Stories

Part of the CSW 55 Blog Series

By Su Chuen Foo

March 3, 2011, New York – It is uncommon to find a panel discussion staffed by all young, African women leaders. That is why it was such a refreshing change to hear their voices at yesterday’s session on “Documenting Women’s Experiences in Peace & Security as a Research Tool.”

These women were alumni of a joint fellowship program between the African Leadership Center and King’s College London aimed to train young, capable African women leaders to take a greater part in shaping the future of their country and its citizens. Coming from all over Africa including Nigeria, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, these women gathered to share their stories with us, as well as the stories of other women during peace and security, and of the importance of documenting them.

Telling the stories of women in war - before, during and after - takes on a more personal note for these women, one which we at Women for Women International comprehend fully. Documenting and sharing the stories of these women is more than just keeping a record of war’s experiences.

When we tell the stories of women, we let others into the daily realities of women in conflict and post-conflict zones. We give the world a glimpse of what it means to lose your husband to armed rebels, to be raped in front of your sons and daughters, to be constantly afraid to leave your house for fear of being attacked, and to be shunned by your own community because you have become one of the many thousand victims of sexual violence through no fault of your own.

When we tell the stories of these women, we shine a spotlight on the existing gaps between policy rhetoric and women’s experiences on the ground. We tell policymakers that regardless of how well-intentioned their policies and programs are, that if it was not formulated with women in mind, it will fall far short of their goals.

When we tell the stories of these women, we remind donors and politicians that there is more to war than just military intervention. We share with them aspects of women and children’s lives that become lost in translation in the midst of urgent military decisions during conflict, decisions such as whether to send additional troops into countries experiencing chaos as opposed to seriously contemplating and acting upon the critical need to increase humanitarian aid to conflict countries.

When we tell the stories of these women, we are ensuring that women’s courageous actions before, during, and after the war are not forgotten, ignored, neglected, and swept under the rug during peace talks. According to Shuvai Nyoni, who was one of the panelists from Zimbabwe, part of the reason women have been excluded during peace negotiations in Africa is because their role and actions have been for the most part, invisible. Without documentation, it becomes almost impossible to advocate, assert, and fight for women’s valuable contributions toward peace.

When we tell the stories of these women, we are putting a human face to the problems going on far, far away from many of the world’s citizens. Vivid images, stories, and interviews with these women will hopefully light a fire in people’s conscience, reigniting empathy for all humankind, and drive them to take action to end the mass violation of these women’s rights. When we hear of these stories, they shame us into remembering that, regardless of our intentions and experiences, solutions to problems need to come from women themselves. As the representative from Open Society Institute - East Africa Region, who closed the session yesterday shared, even after losing everything – their husbands, children, homes, and source of income, the Congolese women she met with only wanted soap, so that they can clean themselves and so that they can restore a sliver of their dignity.

Finally and above all else, when we tell the stories of these women, they remind us that women are not just victims of violence and oppression, but most of all they are also agents of change and of peace. Despite atrocities, loss, and violence, women survivors of war are able to defy odds to rebuild their lives and the lives of countless other women like them. Slowly but surely, many of the women survivors of war that have gone through the year-long program at Women for Women International have shown us the power of what little knowledge and resources can do for a woman’s future.

One such success story is that of of Violette, one of the women survivors of war from Rwanda that Women for Women International served. In attempts to flee the rebels who were tearing her village apart, Violette ran away with her children to a nearby church to seek protection. Little did she know that the church was also grounds for a mass massacre. To avoid getting killed, Violette smeared blood on her and her children and laid on the floor pretending to be dead for one week. With little money to support her children, Violette enrolled in Women for Women International to learn vocational skills so that she can earn some income to feed her children and send them to school. Relying on her entrepreneurial skills, Violette’s business of harvesting sorghum and beans flourished. Violette was making an average of $1800 a year when the average income in Rwanda was $260 according to the World Bank. Inspired to share her wealth and fortune with her community, Violette applied and received a bank loan to build a water pipe for her community, where women spend hours a day catching water from the wells.

There are many other stories like Violette - of women who are heroes to many of us, and these stories need to be told.

Before I end, it is important to note how symbolic the panel of young women leaders was when we talk about UN Security Council Resolution 1325. This landmark resolution passed in 2000 and for the first time recognized the unique role and contributions of women in peace and conflict times. It called for women’s increased role in peace negotiations and for the protection and prevention of women from insecurity. The fact that this panel consisted of all young women leaders presents a laudable step in the right direction. After all the ongoing discussions about the lack of progress on UNSCR 1325, this panel is helping keep hope alive for me.

To learn more about the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, go here.

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Zainab Salbi Briefs White House Officials on U.S. Engagement Opportunities for Women, Peace and Security

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

During the week of Washington’s celebrations of the 10th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325, the White House hosted a roundtable discussion to hear from women peace-builders around the world on their work and recommendations for implementing UNSCR 1325’s three core principles of protection, prevention and participation. The audience included officials from across government who are working together to develop and launch America’s newly announced National Action Plan on women, peace and security, including representatives from the Secretary of State’s Office on Global Women’s Issues; the National Security Council (Samantha Power's deputy and Abigail Freeman, Director for Afghanistan); and Tina Tchen, Executive Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Women peace-builders from around the world, including Pakistan’s SWAT territory, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Israel/Palestine and others gave testaments from their field work as to why the full inclusion of women is essential for effective and sustainable peace-building, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. Salbi closed with specific recommendations urging the U.S.’s strong leadership leveraging influence and resources to ensure that Afghan women’s rights, participation and mobility are not sold down the river in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.

Women for Women International has been and continues to advise the Administration in the development of its commitments under the emerging National Action Plan for the full implementation of UNSCR 1325.

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WfWI-DR Congo Country Director Christina Karumba Briefs State Department Officials

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

Women for Women International DR Congo Country Director Christine Karumba briefed State Department representatives from the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the office of Global Women’s Issues, the Bureau of African Affairs, Office of the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and others about our programs in DR Congo and the needs and recommendations of women on the ground, as articulated in our 2010 DR Congo survey and report. Christine made the case for the efficacy of U.S. foreign assistance programs directed through and for women, such as innovative programs like the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI) and the Men’s Leadership Program, which are funded in part by U.S. and multilateral donors. Read more about Women for Women International-DR Congo programs.

She also pointed to findings of our DR Congo report linking women’s livelihoods to ripple effects improving physical and mental health, nutrition, children’s education and well-being and community involvement/civil society development. As the Administration and new Congress look to trim spending and decrease the deficit, findings such as these make the case for sustaining the American commitment to foreign assistance, and increasing the proportions of that spending directed toward women’s programs, which have been proven in our experience and a growing body of other research to be more effective and efficient stewards of funds.

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Congolese Women Speak Out Against Violence—Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo Report

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

Decades of violence and conflict have brought the women of the DR Congo years of displacement, poverty and a brutal campaign of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The recent mass rapes of more than 300 women, children and men in the eastern part of the country is testament to the continuing failure of the international community to protect the women and children in the DR Congo.

In news and policy discussions, we rarely hear about the realities of these women living in war who are struggling daily to put food on the table and send their children to school. More often than not, we focus our efforts at the frontlines of war while neglecting that greater needs exist at the backlines of war. Women for Women International sought to amplify the voices of these women through our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo report. Click here to learn more about our DR Congo report and the current state of Congolese women.

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UN Security Resolution 1325: Including Women in Peace-Building Efforts Worldwide

November 17, 2010 — Washington, D.C.

After 10 years since its landmark resolution, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which calls for greater inclusion of women in peace-building efforts, is finally meandering its way to become a permanent fixture in discussions on peace and security. Despite its importance, progress has been particularly slow and is often hampered by lack of resources and political will. Until now, women have never been chief mediators in any UN-sponsored talks and only 3% of the UN peace-keeping military force is women. Given our mission in conflict and post-conflict situations, UNSCR 1325 is central to the operations and programs of Women for Women International. Learn more about UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and how it impacts women in conflict situations.


Senior Policy Analyst Lyric Thompson Reports on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 a Decade After Its Passage

By: Lyric Thompson, Originally published on openDemocracy.net

Washington, D.C.–October 2010—In October 2000, the Security Council formally passed the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), calling for greater participation and incorporation of women's unique perspectives in the "3 P's": participation in conflict prevention, peace-building and reconstruction; protection of women and girls' human rights during conflict; and the prevention of gender-based violence. This landmark policy was the first to recognize the unique experiences of women and children during war as victims, but more importantly, also as agents of change and peace. However, a decade after its passage, rhetoric has yet to be translated into effects felt on the ground. Women have never been a chief mediator in U.N. peace negotiations and only 3% of total military peace-keeping forces are women.

In a series of revealing blogs on openDemocracy.net, Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst, writes with a critical lens on the progress or lack thereof among U.N. and member states to push the UNSCR 1325 agenda forward and the often-forgotten yet pernicious effects of politicking behind closed doors of U.N. discussions.

Read Lyric’s Thompson’s series of blog posts addressing the various aspects and implications of UNSCR 1325.

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A New Era in Civil-Military Cooperation: An Opportunity for Women?

By: Lyric Thompson, Women for Women International, First published in Monday Developments

Washington, D.C.–August 17th, 2009—In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented an image of an egalitarian relationship between civilian and military actors: "First, civilians complement and build upon our military's efforts in conflict areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, they use diplomatic and development tools to build more stable and peaceful societies, hopefully to avert or end conflict that is far less costly in lives and dollars than military action." We in the development community welcome the idea of an equal partnership after a period of time in which funding for defense assistance has exponentially trumped that of development assistance; we welcome the call for a "civilian surge."

Iraqi women clad in traditional abayas against the stark contrast of gleaming blue domes of a local mosque and the dusty rubble and debris that line the streets of a war-ravaged Iraq.

As the Obama Administration looks to define itself in the world generally and in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, a new opportunity is emerging to redefine civil-military cooperation as a true partnership in which both communities participate fully. The Administration's evident emphasis on women's issues (President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law his first day in office, created a White House Council on Women and Girls on International Women's Day, and has created the new position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues in the State Department) coupled with recent developments in the mandate of civil-military mechanisms such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) indicate an opportunity for the engagement of women as leaders and partners in the quest for global security and development.

While this assertion may seem a bit of a stretch within the traditional realm of civil-military cooperation, there is some evidence that this is not only possible but already an emerging reality.  The PRTs provide an interesting case study.

Originally designed as a forum for equal partnership between civilian and military actors engaged in the reconstruction effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PRTs quickly became military-dominated. Inability to fill civilian positions on the PRTs meant that the men and women of the armed services were increasingly called upon to perform development tasks for which they often lacked necessary expertise. Troops were tasked with such traditionally civilian-run projects such as constructing schools and hospitals, often with less-than-ideal results.

Women for Women International Afghanistan country director Sweeta Noori recalls one example: "[The PRTs] built a hospital in Jalalabad, a fine hospital, and were eager to see it put to use. But they forgot to communicate this to the Ministry of Health, which had no plans to support a hospital in that location, and the building stands empty to this day." Noori shakes her head as she recalls the confusion. "Any mother or caretaker in the community could have told them this was not the proper place to build a hospital. We know where our sick and our injured have need for medical facilities. It was unfortunate."

In this instance, consulting community stakeholders – especially women, who care for the sick and infirm – would have quickly made clear the actual needs surrounding the proposed hospital-construction project.

The conflict/post-conflict context in which much of civil-military cooperation takes place has proven a unique opening for advancing the status, participation and rights of women. Quotas for women's political participation are possible in new constitutions, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In post-genocide Rwanda, a constitutional quota for women's parliamentary participation has paved the way for the country's current-day achievement of 56 percent, the world's greatest female representation in government. (The country, one might add, is an island of socioeconomic stability amidst a current of insecurity and conflict throughout the Great Lakes region.) Also in Rwanda, women led the way forward in the country's reconstruction and recovery efforts, organizing to adopt children orphaned by conflict and participating fully in new structures for democratic governance at all levels. This is an encouraging body of evidence pointing to the critical role women have to play in the construction of stronger communities and nations.

Remarks by Secretary Clinton at an April 2009 town hall meeting of Iraqi PRT leaders demonstrate a renewed commitment to women's development, empowerment and full participation in civil-military efforts. She said, "I believe strongly that supporting and empowering women is good for countries ... I believe that Iraq will be much stronger if women are educated and empowered to participate on behalf of themselves and their families, particularly their children, as Iraq makes a new future."

There are heartening indications that these words will be translated into practice within the existing civil-military framework. Noori reports encouraging conversations with PRT representatives in Afghanistan who are newly interested in engaging women in their efforts to rebuild the fractured and poverty-stricken country. "I had a wonderful conversation with the PRTs, who are looking to support and learn from Afghan women moving forward. I'm very excited by the idea that women might access the opportunity to develop their own potential as leaders and participants in Afghanistan's social, political and economic realms, and, in so doing, contribute to a stronger, more stable Afghanistan."

Noori is hopeful that this and other developments signify a genuine indication that progress is being made toward a new era of balanced civil-military cooperation that leverages the distinct knowledge and capacities of women toward the twin goals of security and development. "I think that we can help each other to achieve our common goals. In a recent survey we conducted among 1,500 Afghan women, the women identified the inseparability of security and development: 66 percent identified security as the primary challenge facing the state, and 81 percent identified the need for commodities, job opportunities and services as primary challenges they faced on a daily basis. We need the military to provide a secure environment in which we can do our work. And the military needs us to sustain that stability and cement peace through the creation of opportunities for social, political and economic participation. I'm looking forward to working together for a more peaceful, stable Afghanistan, of which women are going to be an integral part. And in my conversations with the PRT representatives in Afghanistan, they're equally excited about us and ready to support our work with women."

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The Price of Peace

By: Lyric Thompson, Women for Women International, First published in openDemocracy.net

As an individual working specifically on issues affecting women survivors of war, I was excited to see on the CSW agenda a UN-sponsored session on "The Price of Peace: Financing Gender Equality in Post-Conflict Recovery and Reconstruction," hosted by UNIFEM and the United Nations Development Program, UNDP.

Despite women's courageous efforts as mediators and negotiators of peace at the local level, women still only serve as 6% of negotiators in formalized peace talks.

Introducing the panel, Winnie Byanyima, Director of the Gender Team for UNDP's Bureau for Development Policy, referenced the progress that had been made in recognizing women's unique experience of conflict and post-conflict. She cited landmark international accords that recognize gender as a security issue (UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889) as evidence of this. Significantly, these resolutions recognize that women shoulder the greatest burdens in war and must be protected; that they contribute enormously to peace building and recovery efforts and must be included in those processes; and that sexual violence and rape as a tool of war is a particularly destructive and common feature of war that must be prevented, combated and prosecuted. Yet, she acknowledged, we have far to go. Although women around the world have demonstrated time and again their strength as survivors of conflict who work daily to mediate between armed groups, keep food on the table and schools and clinics running in the midst of chaos, women have to this day served as only 6% of negotiators to formalized peace talks. There have been zero female chief mediators in the UN system.

It was against this context that the panelists considered how to tackle that seemingly intractable problem of closing the gap between policy and practice. Mary Robinson summarized the problem thusly: "Women in civil society are doing tremendous work on the ground, but they are not heard, they are not respected, and above all they are not funded."

Robinson sees a window of opportunity, though: technology. Previously, she said, we have not understood that women are agents of change at the local level because they were fragmented and highly localizedÑwomen in one refugee camp would assess needs and strategize for the effective delivery of goods and services. Women in another village would work to negotiate with armed groups to ensure the continued provision of food and water amidst conflict. Now, with the emergence of mobile phones and the internet, women are able to mobilize, organize and elevate their efforts. But their efforts are still not supported, scaled, funded.

Robinson pointed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women have suffered a conflict and associated campaign of sexual violence of epic proportions and developed an action plan to implement UN Security Resolution 1325 in response. But they aren't represented at high-level decision-making tables where those plans can be nationally adopted, resourced and implemented. Indeed, customarily peace is negotiated by the armed groups that shattered it in the first placeÑby men with guns who are often more concerned with defining the terms of the power they will inherit in the new government or power structure than they are with, say, holding accountable human rights violations such as rape as a weapon of war. "Peace processes are bad men talking to bad government and other bad men," Robinson said, offering the quota as a tool that has proven effective in electoral processes and could be adapted to the peace-building and recovery processes. "Let's say that the United Nations will not engage a peace process without at least 30% women at table. That the UN won't be involved without it. Let's do it. It worked electorally--why not in the peace process?

A compelling idea, but certainly not one tracing to any past performance in global peace processes. See Liberia, where thousands of women organized across religious and political divides to demand peace and literally had to force themselves into the 2003 peace talks by sitting outside and locking the warlords in until they reached an agreement. See Sudan, where women's civil society groups were not permitted by the World Bank to participate in the 2008 Oslow donor conference (although the Norwegian government did invite them to Oslow, organize a parallel conference for them, and negotiate an opportunity for them to deliver a brief statement to the boys next door doling out dollars). And see Afghanistan, where just last month the Afghan government's delegation to a major donor conference in London did not see fit to send a female representative and civil society representatives were not invited until the very last minute.
As Ingrid Fisca, the Norwegian State Secretary for International Development, said, "War is a masculine pastime and money is power. Donors are often reluctant to overrule the [dominant] parties. Gender equality is often declared as a western imposition, and so donors are overly cautious."

Therein lies the problem. As men move out of the home and into the frontlines (as Rosie the Riveter remembers) women take on new roles economically (supporting families and sustaining economies); socially (as community and household leaders); and politically (as advocates negotiating amongst factions for the basic necessities of daily life). As men return at war's end, the clash of opposing gender norms and expectations often pushes women back to the margins, where their voices do not reach conversations about what peace looks like, and on whose terms. When raised, the concept of gender equality is dismissed as quaint, unnecessary or culturally irrelevant, and the women who were once actively engaged in the heart of community life and processes are silenced. As we look to the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security this September, we must rededicate ourselves to the idea that peace is not the absence of war but the presence of life, the resurrection of economies, the resumption of services, the serving of justice and the participation of all citizens in the public sphere. We cannot achieve this true peace without 50 percent of the population, and we cannot do it without a robust and sustained commitment of resources. As the title of the day's session reminds us, we must be prepared to pay the price for peace.

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The United Nations Appoints Zainab Salbi To Group of Independent Experts

March 5, 2010—The United Nations has invited a newly established group of independent experts to advise on ways to better protect women in conflict situations, and to ensure that their voices are heard in peace processes and that they are included in post-conflict reconstruction and governance structures.

Women and children are 70% of war's casualties. As part of UNSCR 1325, the Civil Society Advisory Panel of 1325 will work with the Secretary General to ensure that the voices of women are heard in peace processes and to step up the protection of women in post-conflict situations.

The establishment of the group of experts from civil society comes as the landmark Security Council resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace and security marks its tenth anniversary in 2010.

The expert group will advise a UN High-Level Steering Committee set up by Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, which is tasked with enhancing the UN system's efforts to implement the resolution.

Resolution 1325, which was adopted by the Council in 2000, stresses the importance of giving women equal participation and full involvement in peace and security matters and the need to increase their role in decision-making.

The steering committee will advise on the organization of a ministerial-level meeting of the Security Council later this year on the issue and provide policy advice on ways to accelerate implementation of the resolution.

The civil society expert group that will be advising it will be co-chaired by former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and Executive Director of Femmes Africa SolidaritŽ, Bineta Diop.

"Our advisory group is made up of individuals with long experience in addressing conflict situations," said Ms. Robinson.

"We will be consulting with civil society organizations around the world and looking at a range of possible ways forward, including scaling up resources dedicated to protecting women in times of conflict as well as involving them more in building lasting and just peace."

Other members of the group are: Salim Ahmed Salim (Tanzania), Elisabeth Rehn (Finland), Lahkdar Brahimi (Algeria), Hina Jilani (Pakistan), Sanam Anderlini (Iran/United Kingdom), Thelma Awori (Liberia/Uganda), Swanee Hunt (United States), Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls (Fiji), Susana Villaran De La Puente (Peru), Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda (Zimbabwe), Zainab Salbi (Iraq/US) and Donald Steinberg (US).

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