Recognizing the Role of Women in African Peace and Security

Recent reports of the mass rape of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) once again highlight the vulnerability of women throughout the developing world, particularly in conflict-affected areas. Sexual violence against women continues to be used as a tool in conflict, particularly in Africa, where women are still widely viewed as subordinate to men. However, although it is important to acknowledge the victimization of women, it is equally important to recognize their increasing role in conflict resolution, peace and security. For instance, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict is a woman; Ms. Margot Wallstrom was appointed to the position just this past year and now leads the investigation into sexual violence in the DRC. In addition, there are women peacekeepers, State Ministers and ambassadors (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), as well as Presidents and Prime Ministers (Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf). The recognition by the international community of the constructive role of women in peace affairs is crucial to ensuring their further inclusion in matters that directly affect women throughout the world and to changing traditional attitudes towards women and their capabilities to ultimately achieve universal gender equality.

Several weeks ago, Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, addressed the UN General Assembly (GA) and proclaimed that her country would introduce a resolution on women, disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation in the First Committee of the GA (the committee which is devoted to disarmament, international peace and security). This is the very first time that a resolution focused exclusively on the role of women has been tabled in the First Committee and thus its implications are substantial. The resolution, which is currently being debated, calls upon the UN and all member states to recognize, in accordance with Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325, the role of women in peace and disarmament affairs. Security Council Resolution 1325, which was passed in October of 2000, was the first to officially recognize women’s roles in the field of conflict resolution, particularly peacekeeping operations. SCR 1325 urged member states and the UN to increase the participation of women in security affairs. The new GA resolution hopes to further the goals outlined in 1325; it is essentially an attempt to operationalize 1325. The new resolution requires states to basically acknowledge the work of women in the wider field of peace and security and further urges them to ensure more equitable representation in state peace and disarmament affairs (although this has since been watered down to ‘increasing their participation’).

To many states, the resolution seems reasonable enough, as many already recognize women’s roles in peace and security issues and even value their contributions above those of their male counterparts. For instance, on a recent trip to the Caribbean to inspect state weapons caches, a political officer for the Department of Disarmament Affairs noticed that it was always a female military officer who controlled the keys to the ammunitions depot. When asked why that was, the military liaison explained that women were simply more trustworthy than men. Women were less likely to steal or sell the weapons, to drink or use drugs or to otherwise act irresponsibly. Women’s contributions to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) have also had a significant impact upon operations. On one particular mission in Africa, while the male peacekeeping units were always late to rise, the woman’s unit was always the first to wake—up at 5am each morning to put up the mission flag, as was required. Their work ethic and integrity eventually had an impact upon their male counterparts, who, upon recognizing the shame in their behavior, also began waking at 5am. In addition, studies conducted in DRC, India and Sierra Leone have shown conclusively that women who are victims of sexual or domestic violence are more likely to report the incident to female police officers or a family unit than to police officers in a traditional police structure, and that women were generally better communicators than their male counterparts. There are numerous other instances in which women have proven their value in peace and disarmament and have even surpassed their male colleagues in terms of performance, productivity and integrity. It is important to recognize this so that women are not always categorized as victims, which only reinforces their subordinate role and undermines their professional and overall societal advancement.

Thus far, more than 11 central African countries have demonstrated their support for the new GA resolution, while Egypt has refused many, if not all, of the resolution’s provisions (its reasons are as of yet unknown). Other states seem to be confounded by the measure, failing to see the connection between gender issues and First Committee matters. Unfortunately, over the years, gender has come to be viewed by many states and actors as an issue entirely separate of other major matters; many are reluctant to even discuss women’s issues without a gender expert present. And then there are of course others that still seek to categorize anything relating to women as being ‘feminist’, a term which unfortunately has taken on a negative connotation. Trinidad and Tobago’s delegation was dumbfounded by the skepticism of its fellow member states. The legal officer who actually tabled the resolution stated that he hadn’t realized how ‘enlightened’ he was. Was it really so difficult for states to recognize women’s contributions to peace and security?

In Africa, where women have typically had little opportunity for substantial participation in the security sector, some progress has been made, particularly in more progressive countries such as South Africa and Liberia. Many countries have also drawn up national action plans for incorporating more women into all public sectors, as well as in the private sphere. However, the pace at which this reform is being implemented is far too slow and in some instances, the inclusion of women amounts to nothing more than providing them with marginal roles. For example, in some police stations throughout Africa, female police officers are permitted to do nothing other than cook lunch for their male colleagues. With such trivial roles, it is impossible for women to advance professionally and achieve higher ranks, both in the military/police and political realms. Although the lack of progress is frustrating, it is important to highlight cases within Africa where there has been success in achieving gender equality and greater opportunities for women. For instance, in Rwanda, major electoral reforms implemented after the genocide ensured more equitable representation in the country’s parliament. Legislative quotas guaranteed women seats in Parliament, and now Rwanda has the most gender equalized parliament in the world; almost half of its representatives are female. In addition, female parliamentarians formed the first multi-party caucus, comprised of both Hutus and Tutsis. In Liberia, a Women and Children Protection section of the National Police was established in 2007, which is specially trained to manage and investigate cases of sexual and gender-based violence. Liberia also instituted a 20 percent quota for female police officers and now boasts a police force that is 30 percent female, higher than many countries around the world.

It seems that several states have demonstrated reservations over the new GA resolution because they are concerned with the ramifications of such formal recognition. Many states do not want to commit additional financial resources to creating a more gender balanced work force within their security sector. Because of these reservations, the resolution has been seriously weakened, an unfortunate blow to an effort that had nothing other than the best intentions. The next few weeks will be critical; the resolution’s survival will depend on the persistence of its supporters and other advocates. For any woman who currently works in the field of political and humanitarian affairs, peace and security and/or development, or who plans to in the future, this resolution has great implications. Thus it is important to recognize the benefits of its passage, which could alter the landscape of peace and disarmament affairs, facilitate a change in perspectives on the issue of gender and ultimately translate into greater opportunities for future generations of women.