Women in Conflict and Peace: Ensuring a Seat at the TableDonald K. Steinberg, Deputy Director, Policy Planning Staff
Remarks to Secretarys Open Forum Distinguished Lecture Series
June 19, 2002
I would like to start by thanking the Open Forum, the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, Women in International Security, and the State Department Office of International Women’s Issues for hosting this continuing series on gender issues, and in particular, this session on women in conflict and peace. Too frequently, in the press of everyday business or crises, women’s issues get placed on the back burner. But it is precisely in the midst of crises that these issues should take center stage.
I remember that during my service in Angola from 1995 to 1998, in what we hoped would be a post-conflict period, we had assembled a wide array of projects to assist women, including support for women’s NGOs, girls’ education and mother-child health care programs. Still, when conflict re-emerged in 1998 and millions of displaced persons were in need of emergency relief programs, we put aside our good intentions. We allowed ourselves to believe that the urgency of getting food to these people outweighed our focus on women’s participation.
And yet we soon recognized that we were missing a key opportunity to lay the groundwork for post-conflict equality and reconstruction by bringing women to the table to plan for emergency assistance; using women’s NGOs to distribute relief; and assigning gender advisors to prevent domestic violence as ex-combatants returned to their homes.
These lessons were particularly useful recently, as we began to address the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Well-meaning experts -- both Afghan and international -- told us that we should not highlight women’s issues, since this would be an unnecessary distraction that would alienate anti-Taliban forces and traditional Afghan leaders whose help we needed in the fight against terrorism. Fortunately, under the leadership of President and Mrs. Bush, women’s issues were given a place at the top of the agenda in our political, reconstruction and security efforts in Afghanistan as we pressed for full participation of women at the political conference in Bonn, the reconstruction conferences in Washington and Tokyo, and the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan.
There is still a very long way to go to overcome the tragedy inflicted on Afghan women as a result of the Taliban’s twisted interpretation of Islam, as our other panelists will point out, but there has been clear progress.
This experience is a reminder of a universal truth often highlighted by Secretary Powell and Under Secretary Dobriansky: when social order and rule of law break down, it is women who suffer most. The reasons are often discussed, but bear reviewing quickly. When men and teenage boys go off to war, women are left as heads of households and must provide food, income and security for remaining family members.
Women are likely to be victims of gender-based violence -- deliberately used as an instrument of war -- and may suffer from deep psychosocial trauma. We were all shocked -- although not really surprised -- when Physicians for Human Rights reported that one-sixth of the women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan had tried to commit suicide.
The breakdown in health structures means that maternal and infant mortality rates skyrocket. Trafficking in women and girls increases when social order deteriorates. Women also bear the brunt of displacement, leading their families to refugee and IDP camps, and taking care of them in the camps. As prime farm workers and collectors of firewood, they are more likely to be the victims of landmine accidents.
My most troubling memory from Angola came when I visited a small clinic outside the town of Kuito -- one of the world’s most devastated towns. As we entered, we saw a woman on an operating table who was having her leg amputated and giving birth at the same time. The nurse told us that the woman had been living in a refugee camp and knew that the gruel she was being fed was not providing enough nourishment for her unborn child. So she ignored the warnings of landmines and went into a mango grove to pick some of the ripe fruit. She stepped on a landmine, and the loss of blood stimulated labor. The nurse said that neither she nor her child was likely to survive.
But if women are victims of conflict, they are also key to reconstruction and consolidation of peace once the arms go silent. It is not just a question of equity or fairness. We know that bringing women to the peace table improves the quality of agreements reached and increases the chance of success in implementing them, and that involving women in post-conflict governance reduces the likelihood of returning to war. Reconstruction works best when it involves women as planners, implementers and beneficiaries. The single most productive investment in revitalizing agriculture, restoring health systems, and improving other social indicators after conflicts is in women’s and girls’ education.
Further, insisting on full accountability for actions against women during conflict is essential for the re-establishment of rule of law. We welcome the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness after peace comes, but too often, amnesty means that men forgive men for atrocities committed against women. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to transitional justice arrangements: whether it is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the gacaca community court system in Rwanda, a human rights commission in Afghanistan under the Bonn agreement, or international tribunals in cases where local courts are inadequate, ensuring accountability is essential to convince men with guns that there is no impunity in acting against women.
Under Secretary Powell’s leadership, all of these lessons are reflected in programs throughout our government. For example, the Offices of International Women’s Issues, Women in Development and Transition Initiatives, and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and International Labor are assisting women’s organizations and ministries of women’s affairs, promoting women’s rights and involving women in peace-building and post-conflict political structures. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance are addressing women's and girls’ education, psychosocial trauma, special feeding programs, mother-child health care, and protection services for refugees and internally displaced.
Exchange programs for women are organized under Educational and Cultural Affairs grants and other programs. The Office of Trafficking in Persons is a catalyst within our Government and beyond for new efforts to address this pernicious problem. More and more of our development aid is supporting projects with a high impact on women, including maternal health, girls’ education, HIV/AIDS, micro-credit, and strengthening of civil society.
We have many allies in this effort, including members of Congress, other Government agencies, and international bodies such as UNICEF, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The work of the UNIFEM under Director Noeleen Heyzer has been particularly inspiring, and we are working with UNIFEM on new partnerships with host governments, civil society and businesses to leverage our individual efforts. We also benefit from contributions and collaboration with NGOs, such as International Rescue Committee, Refugees International, Vital Voices, the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children, and others.
But before we start congratulating ourselves too much on these efforts, we should remember that the hardships faced by women around the world are getting more serious and pervasive every day. For every picture of a woman speaking to the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan or girls returning to school in that country, there are dozens of countries around the world where women are systematically excluded from peace processes and post-conflict governance, and where girls’ access to education, health, and other social services is minimal.
Within our own Government, programs to address these issues are too often adopted on an ad hoc basis. They may be poorly coordinated; they often overlap; and each new effort tends to start from scratch. We can do much better in expanding and coordinating these efforts to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Finally, the issue of women in conflict still suffers from "second-class citizenship" within our foreign policy establishment. Despite the heavy emphasis placed on these issues by President and Mrs. Bush and Secretary Powell, you still hear that advancement of women’s interests is the "soft side" of foreign policy.
Let me assure you that there is nothing "soft" about going after traffickers in human suffering. There is nothing "soft" about preventing armed thugs from abusing women in refugee camps, holding warlords and other human rights violators accountable for their actions against women, or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments.
These are among the hardest tasks of foreign policy, and I am pleased that people like my fellow panelists are fully committed to doing them. Thank you.
Released on June 19, 2002