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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2003

The Role of Women in Peace Building and Reconstruction: More Than Victims

Donald K. Steinberg, Deputy Director, Policy Planning Staff
Remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations
New York City
March 6, 2003

I would like to start by thanking the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this program on the impact of armed conflict on women and women’s role in peace-building. It is an honor as well to share the podium with UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer. The work performed by UNIFEM in support of women around the world has provided a guidepost for the international community in the struggle to empower women and to give full meaning to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. In the darkest and nastiest corners of the world, UNIFEM has been the eyes, the ears, and the conscience of the international community on these issues.

I particularly welcomed the recent report on “Women, War, and Peace,” an independent experts’ assessment by two other remarkable women, Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen John Sirleaf. This report provided a wealth of information on the impact of conflict on women and gave the suffering a human face. Equally important, it not only provided “ground truth” from Sudan and Liberia to Afghanistan and East Timor on the impact of violence, displacement, trafficking, and other social ills, but also practical suggestions for avoiding the stigma of victimization. Indeed, what comes through most clearly from this report is the need to view women as much more than victims, and to empower them to make their full contributions at the peace table and in post-conflict reconstruction.

This 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, just as 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, reducing infant mortality, and improving other social indicators after conflict 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 know these lessons well, but too frequently, in the press of responding to the latest crises, issues related to conflict prevention in general – much less the role of women in this process – get lost in the shuffle. And yet it is precisely in the midst of crises that these issues should take center stage

During my service as Ambassador to Angola from 1995 to 1998, Angola was the site of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General was sensitive to gender issues, and there was an active UN human rights program that forced attention to these issues as well. At the American Embassy, backed by advice from the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children, we had assembled a wide array of projects to enhance the role of women in the political and economic life of the country, including dialogue across political and ethnic lines, formation of women’s NGOs, and projects targeting girls’ education, micro-credit, and mother-child health care.

Still, when conflict re-emerged in 1998 and millions of displaced persons were in need of emergency relief programs, we set 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 when we looked around the room of the Joint Peace Commission that brought together the Angolan Government, UNITA, the United Nations, and the troika nations of Russia, Portugal, and the United States, there was not a single woman at the table.

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; assigning gender advisors to prevent domestic violence as ex-combatants returned to their homes; and ensuring women a seat at the table in the peace talks themselves. It is a sad reality that as an international aid donor, you are never as flush with resources as in the middle of a crisis, and you must use those resources to build the social structures that will empower women to play their full role in post-conflict reconstruction.

These lessons were particularly useful as we addressed the political, economic and security reconstruction of Afghanistan. Well-meaning experts – both Afghan and international – told us that the benefits of involving women in this process were outweighed by the risk of alienating anti-Taliban forces and traditional Afghan leaders whose help we needed in the fight against terrorism.

Fortunately, under the leadership of President Bush, women’s issues were given a place at the top of the agenda in our 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.

It is no accident that President Bush invited then Afghan Minister for Women’s Affairs Simar to be present at the 2002 State of the Union address, or that the Women’s Affairs Ministry was the first to get a U.S. Government grant shortly thereafter. Women are at the center of our assistance program, including through the establishment by President Bush and Chairman Karzai in January 2002 of the US-Afghan Women’s Council. Under the leadership of Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and her Afghan counterpart, this council is dedicated to promoting education, training, civil society, health care, micro-credit, political participation, and journalistic training for women throughout Afghanistan, including at 14 women’s resource centers established to promote adult literacy, human rights awareness, and vocational training.

We also welcomed the recent statement by the head of the commission drafting Afghanistan’s new constitution that reaffirmed that the draft constitution will provide for full and equal rights for women.  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, but there has been clear progress.

One area where we need to do better is insisting on full accountability for actions against women during conflict.  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. In Angola, for example, the Government and the UNITA rebels provided 13 separate amnesties for each other. Whenever a mass grave was discovered, it was in large part the international community – including the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the embassies of foreign governments, especially our own – that would go to the site to protect the evidence in anticipation of the day when the Angolan authorities could be persuaded into investigating the matter.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to transitional justice: 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 where local courts are inadequate, ensuring accountability is essential to convince men with guns that there is no impunity in acting against women.

But words alone cannot earn women a seat at the peace table, force financial institutions to provide capital to women entrepreneurs, or ensure adequate protection for women in refugee and displaced situations. So I wanted to take a few moments to outline some of the practical ways we are translating words into actions to enhance the political and economic participation of women around the world.

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.

The Office of Trafficking in Persons is a catalyst within our Government and beyond for new efforts to address this pernicious problem. Within the State Department itself, we are enhancing the attention paid to issues related to women in conflict in training programs for junior, mid-level and senior officers at our Foreign Service Institute.

At USAID, women’s issues have taken center stage. USAID recently unveiled the African Education Initiative, which will help train 160,000 new teachers, mostly women, and provide scholarships for 250,000 girls. The Clean Energy Initiative will help address the problem of indoor air pollution from cooking with wood and dung that causes 2 million premature deaths a year globally, especially among women. The Global Food for Education initiative will provide school-feeding program for 7 million school children, with particular emphasis on girls.

Other programs announced at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year for clean water, sanitation, hygiene, small-scale agriculture, and housing also have a direct and immediate impact on women.

And clearly, the President’s announcement of a $15 billion program over the next five years to fight HIV/AIDS in the most highly affected countries of Africa and the Caribbean will have a dramatic impact on the status of women, especially through programs designed to attach mother-to-child transmission of this deadly virus.

I also wanted to highlight the people-to-people programs for women sponsored under Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Harrison’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The process of drawing women together across political, geographic and ethnic barriers has been particularly gratifying, especially at the grass-roots level. The list of exchange programs on women’s issues runs 18 pages, so I will use programs now underway with Africa to give you an idea of some of these efforts. For example:

  • Women political and NGO leaders from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal are receiving leadership training under a program managed by Michigan State.
  • The AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts is assisting women and their families to fight HIV/AIDS in Botswana.
  • Women of Vision is helping groups fighting domestic violence in South Africa.
  • The American Bar Association has partnered with Nigerian organizations to develop women-led conflict mediation programs in southeastern Nigeria.
  • The African-American Institute is providing leadership training for women from 16 African countries and assisting women members of the Senegalese parliament.
  • Heartland International is building the capacity of the Tanzanian Association of Women Entrepreneurs.
  • The League of Women Voters is building women’s civil society institutions in eight African countries.
  • The Women’s Coalition of Duluth is supporting a coalition fighting Violence Against Women in Kenya.
  • Women for Women International is completing leadership training for Nigerian women.
  • Four counties in Ohio are enhancing management skills of women in local government in Tanzania.

These programs have their counterparts in every continent, and they are having a real impact. But before we congratulate 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 better in expanding and coordinating these efforts to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Further, we must elevate the issue of women in conflict within our foreign policy establishment. This issue still suffers from “second-class citizenship.” Despite the heavy emphasis placed on these issues by President and Mrs. Bush and Secretary Powell, you still hear advancement of women’s interests described as the “soft side” of foreign policy, especially by those who have never worked on them.

There is nothing “soft” about going after traffickers who turn women and girls into commodities. 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, forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence, or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments.

These are among the hardest responsibilities in our foreign policy agenda, and we need to do more to empower those courageous individuals who are dedicated to addressing them. Thank you.

Released on March 17, 2003

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