Empowering Women: Governments must “practice what they preach”

Reading time 5 min.

When the former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, convened the first meeting of the new UN women’s rights agency, UN Women, in late January, she declared that ending violence against women would be a major priority. Marian Aggrey assesses progress and setbacks in the UN 10-year effort to empower women in peacemaking and outlaw rape as a weapon of war.

In October 2010 more than 600 Congolese women and girls were reportedly raped along the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola during a mass expulsion of illegal immigrants from Angola. According to UN officials, one woman died from internal injuries sustained during the violence.

That month also marked the 10th anniversary of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It reaffirmed the crucial role of women in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building and sought to protect women and girls from violence, particularly sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.

A decade later, women and girls are still being victimized amidst armed conflicts. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sexual violence remains an all-too-common tactic of war and often continues well after the guns fall silent. Over the past year in the DRC alone, more than 8,000 women were raped during fighting between warring factions, reports the UN Population Fund. “What worries us,” said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “is that rape seems to be becoming endemic in several parts of Congo…. We fear it’s becoming part of the routine.”

Such attacks on women are “unfortunately a very effective, cheap and silent weapon with a long-lasting effect on society,” says Margot Wallström, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict. “It is a way of demonstrating power and control. It inflicts fear on the whole community. It is also sends a message to the men: ‘You are not able to defend your women’.”

Breaking new ground

For many years, civil society and women’s organizations fought hard to demand the international community’s action against the egregious and inhumane treatment of women and girls during armed conflicts. The 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing emphasized that women’s full participation in decision-making is crucial to preventing and resolving conflict and maintaining peace and security.

Then on 31 October 2000, the Security Council’s Resolution 1325 established a framework to guide UN actions and policies on women, peace and security. Although the resolution succeeded in drawing greater attention to the issue among UN agencies, member states and civil society groups, significant achievements are hard to pinpoint, the Secretary-General finds in a recent report to the Security Council.

Concrete steps

A number of African countries, however, have taken concrete steps. In December 2008 Uganda launched a national action plan for Resolution 1325 and is pursuing deliberate affirmative action initiatives, including requiring each district to have at least one female representative in parliament and each local council executive to fill at least a third of their positions with women.

Kenya reserves 47 seats for women in its National Assembly and 16 in its Senate, in addition to those who may be elected from various constituencies. The government has also sought to increase the number of women participating in peacekeeping missions.

Namibia’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare organizes workshops to sensitize the staff of the Ministries of Defence and of Safety and Security to their legal obligations under Resolution 1325, especially in areas of peace-building, conflict resolution, sexual violence, rape and the rights of children.

A National Action Plan in Burundi promotes policies for women’s equality and has increased the number of women in government. In neighbouring Rwanda a similar plan was drafted in May 2010 to implement a constitutional provision that at least 30 per cent of higher positions be allocated to women. Earlier, women’s participation in the country’s legislature reached 56 per cent, the highest rate in the world.

Peacekeeping missions

Three years after Resolution 1325 was adopted, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) developed gender awareness training materials for military and civilian police personnel in advance of their deployment. This was followed by ongoing programmes to highlight gender issues throughout the course of peacekeeping operations. The UN has also reached out to member states to increase the participation of women peacekeepers, including at a senior level.

Since women and girls remain vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence in Africa, DPKO has also supported African governments in enacting laws to protect women’s rights. These have included laws on sexual violence in the DRC, rape in Liberia and inheritance rights in Sierra Leone.

Several UN peacekeeping missions in Africa have encouraged the creation of special national police units to deal with sexual and gender-based violence, including in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Sudan’s Darfur region and in the DRC, UN forces have increased patrols to prevent sexual violence.

Nevertheless, the UN is still facing difficulties in implementing Resolution 1325. The Secretary-General notes that despite intensified action over the years, “those activities lack a clear direction or time-bound goals and targets that could accelerate implementation and ensure accountability.”
According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), opportunities are lost because of insufficient funding of programmes for gender equality.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark stressed during the launch of a five-day Peace Fair on Women, Peace and Security in October that implementation requires not only concrete and time-bound programmes, but also resources. Governments and the UN, she said, must “practice what they preach.”

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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