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UN, NGOs Battle to Back Women in Conflict Areas

by Michelle Chen

12/13/04

As women in conflict areas like Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan are facing unprecedented humanitarian challenges, U.N. bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have stepped up the fight for their rights.

Initiatives to support women's struggles in conflict and post-conflict situations marked the Oct. 31 fourth anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which provides for the protection and political empowerment of women in such circumstances.

On Nov. 15, the Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women of the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) granted 115,000 dollars to grassroots groups and researchers in Sudan working with issues of gender-based violence.

Sudanese women are among the hardest hit in the civil war that has displaced 1.7 million people in the northeast African country. ”Women and girls have been subject to abductions, sexual slavery, torture and forced displacement,” and lack critical access to legal and medical resources, reported Amnesty International (AI) in its 2004 assessment of resolution 1325.

UNIFEM's grant will complement programmes of the U.N. Protection Task Force and U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), based on 1325, which deal with systematic sexual abuse in the region.

Similarly, in the politically tumultuous rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq, the resolution has provided a framework for putting women's issues on the agenda.

UNIFEM has provided institutional support for Afghanistan's new ministry of women's affairs and opened opportunities for women to participate in the legal reform process. October's elections, in which 41 percent of registered voters were women, were a promising achievement, according to those involved in the work.

Yet Ramina Johal, a senior coordinator at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, observed that despite great progress in protecting Afghan women's voting rights, the effort was sometimes only ”on the surface.”

In facilitating the election in accordance with 1325, the international community still ”didn't really carry it out to ensure the implementation in the best way possible,” as protections for displaced and refugee women voters were insufficient, she added.

In Iraq, local organisations have used the principles of 1325 to secure positions for women in the interim government. Throughout the chaotic political transition, UNIFEM has guided NGOs and the U.N. Development Project (UNDP) on gender issues, and this month will sponsor a national women's conference to help advise Minister of State for Women Narmin Othman.

But advancing the cause of women under the current insurgency is a daunting challenge. ”In Iraq, now, there is poverty, isolation and depravation,” said Yanar Mohammed, director of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, in a recent interview with Women's Human Rights Net. ”This breeds the increased oppression of women.”

Though women have always been affected by armed conflict and its aftermath, only recently has the international community begun to acknowledge their unique needs and perspectives. Women are particularly vulnerable not only to physical brutality in war, but also to displacement and sexual abuse, which remain prevalent despite the passage of resolution 1325.

The resolution codifies, ”the need to increase (women's) role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution,” as well as, ”the need to implement fully international humanitarian and human rights law that protects the rights of women and girls during and after conflicts.”

That language has informed the policies of the world body and individual nations on women's political representation, gender equality and violence against women. For example, the United Nations has established rules in its agencies and field missions to safeguard women's rights and boost their representation in peacekeeping and rebuilding projects.

Nonetheless, those charged with implementing 1325 admit their work is far from finished.

In an open-debate Security Council meeting on Oct. 28, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan conceded the U.N.'s ”collective failure in protecting women and girls from the horrors of gender-based violence,” and called for a coordinated international effort to address gender issues.

UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer told IPS she believes gender should be a part of every discussion related to conflict, because ”it's the women who have been used as a weapon of war in so many countries.”

Resolution 1325 has shaped policies to increase women's participation within the United Nations and in U.N. field missions. Agencies like the world body's department of peacekeeping operations have developed strategies to safeguard women's rights and their representation in post-conflict projects.

Nonetheless, many women remain voiceless even after peace has officially been brokered. In post-conflict, said Heyzer, women commonly ”have great difficulty even addressing or giving witness -- even when there are tribunals, because (tribunals) are not sensitive enough.”

Expanding on the dialogue among U.N. officials, civil society groups have offered grassroots perspectives on the challenges of implementing resolution 1325.

In October, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security released an ”alternative report” analysing how grassroots NGOs have used the resolution in conflict situations and in the post-conflict rebuilding processes.

The report, drawn primarily from surveys of civil society organisations working on gender and conflict issues, warned that ”many civil society actors have little and in some cases, no information relating to SCR 1325,” so the United Nations has an obligation to raise awareness of the resolution in its missions.

Cora True-Frost, coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, said the organisation serves as ”a link for women's groups around the world to the inner workings of the United Nations and developments on 1325 at (U.N.) headquarters. Member states and U.N. entities in turn look to us to highlight the issues that women in the field are facing.”

Women's advocates criticise the world body for not adequately considering gender in policy-making. According to Annan's report on 1325, only 15.6 percent of the resolutions adopted by the Security Council from January 2000 to June 2004 refer specifically to gender issues.

”There has been a lot of advocacy for (1325) to be incorporated into other resolutions where it just hasn't been,” said Susi Snyder, director of the U.N. office of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a member of the Working Group.

Snyder also believes, ”the resolution itself is fairly broad in its scope, and that makes it somewhat difficult to implement.” Still, she said the drafters of the accord made it purposefully open-ended as ”a step in a process” of promoting dialogue on gender issues.

The crisis in Sudan might indicate that this dialogue is more crucial -- and more lacking -- than ever. At an October Security Council meeting supported by the Working Group and other organisations, Suzanne Jambo, coordinator of the New Sudanese Indigenous NGOs Network, demanded that the United Nations enact 1325 to integrate women into peace negotiations.

”Neither the international community, nor the Government of Sudan or other parties can afford to exclude us from this process,” she said. ”We, as women, will not stand by and let our country return to war.”

According to Snyder, a delicate tension exists between the U.N. system and the NGOs that monitor it. Even gender-focused U.N. bodies like UNIFEM ”can only advocate for so much” within that system, she said. ”We as NGOs bear the responsibility for ensuring that ... the agreements that have already been made are fully implemented.”

True-Frost predicts that when the Security Council's membership changes in 2005, a major goal will be ”to help strengthen and support alliances among members who can act as internal police people” by ensuring that 1325 is on every relevant policy agenda.

Noting the shortcomings that undercut the overall success of the Afghanistan elections, Johal stressed that the entire international community must be more comprehensive and consistent in realising the goals of the resolution: ”If we are going to say, 'we're going to move forward, we're going to empower women', then we have to do it in the right way.”

As Snyder pointed out, because 1325 is ”the only Security Council resolution that has a constituency, that celebrates an anniversary à it's not forgotten as easily as it could be.”

This article was originally published in http://www.ipsnews.net

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