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Women taking power: Mobina Jaffer's message

About the authors
Appointed to Canada’s Senate in 2001, Mobina Jaffer became Special Envoy to the Peace Process in Sudan the following year. In 2002 she also took on the role of Chair of the Canadian Committee on Women Peace & Security, pursuing her conviction that the key to peace is the inclusion of women in peace processes worldwide, as outlined in the United Nations 1325 (2000) Resolution.
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

Rosemary Bechler would like to thank the Foreign Policy Centre and the Barrow Cadbury Trust for a chance to meet Senator Mobina Jaffer and others at the Global Exchange Forum: Understanding Women's Social Capital and spend the day at that interesting event

When I met Senator Mobina Jaffer at the Global Exchange Forum, this small-built, demure lady ate her lunch while giving rapid, comprehensive answers to my questions without any sign of strain. Here was a redoubtable multi-tasker, I thought. Born in Uganda, Mobina Jaffer has achieved a string of firsts: she became the first East Indian woman lawyer in British Columbia and in 2001 she was appointed to the Canadian Senate as the first East Indian, first Muslim woman, and the first African. A year later, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed her Chair of the Canadian Committee on Women, Peace and Security. Canada has been a leading nation among the “Friends of 1325”, and Mobina seized the opportunity to initiate a new way of working:

“There are forty thousand Afghan-Canadians living in Canada. So I went to the Prime Minister and said, ‘We’re talking about what should be done in Afghanistan, and maybe we should be asking the people who are from that country what they think.’ He gave me the resources and I travelled across Canada meeting with Afghan-Canadian women and asking them what they thought should happen. We identified 60 Afghan-Canadian women to bring to York University, where we did four days of advocacy training with them. And on the last day, I took them to Parliament Hill, where they met the Prime Minister and various other ministers. They then went back to their communities and set up their own groups.

“Fighting violent conflict – an online conversation.” To join in the discussion on issues surrounding resolution 1325, see OpenDemocracy’s “women making a difference” blog

Now we have a network of these Afghan-Canadian women’s groups across the country. They produced a report called ‘A Stone in the Water’ which was taken to the UN Security Council and disseminated all over the world. But probably the main impact they had was in their own communities – the beginning of an integration process. Indeed, many of them have returned to Afghanistan to work there as Afghan-Canadian women in Afghanistan’s Women’s Secretariat. They are trying to push for women’s issues to be dealt with positively in Afghanistan, but because they are wearing the Canadian hat, they are more protected. Many of them have done this.”

Mobina Jaffer’s roundtables have since been deployed on a series of intractable problems including racial profiling, the plight of Iraqi women, and peaceful solutions to warring in the middle east (in all 13 roundtables across Israel and Palestine the two sides met separately, but she still hopes to bring together a core group of women from both). A Violence Against Women panel also travelled across Canada for two years looking at the situation there, not excluding the aboriginal reserves.

“The report we did showed that Canada was not living up to its international commitments. We don’t have the resources at the moment to challenge our governments properly using international law, but this is something that must come.”

In 2002 she was appointed special envoy to the Sudan, and has a particular feeling for what she sees as a narrow window of opportunity to make herself useful in southern Sudan in particular:

“As you know, the conflict has been raging for years, and the women have been fully involved – as combatants, in looking after the men, in doing all sorts of challenging work while the men have been away fighting. Now that peace has arrived they should be moving on to become policy-makers and decision-makers in their own right. But suddenly all those doors are being closed in their faces.

Now they are expected to go back home and take up the roles that might have made sense to them twenty years ago. They are told that they don’t have the experience to do anything but stay at home, that they are ‘not educated’. But no-one has the experience: it is a new situation for everyone in the South.

What I am doing is getting the women to give us their CV’s, so that I can very actively lobby both our politicians and the ones in the Sudan, giving them names I can recommend, and pointing out that there are all sorts of positions, diplomatic, political – that urgently need filling. It is like an open slate for a brief time – and we must seize the opportunity in that brief time to ensure that there are some places for women.”

She is haunted by the stories she has heard from ‘young, brutalised girls in the Sudanese camps’, and has come home resolved to push her government to significantly increase the number of Canadian women police officers who could be deployed to that country for the investigation of rape. ‘They have become part of your psyche and you have to do something…’, is what she says.

On its fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asks, “what has UN Resolution 1325 achieved?” Other articles in the debate include:

Srilatha Batliwala, “Women transforming power?”

Lesley Abdela, “1325: deeds not words”

Jeremy Greenstock, “Illuminating gender – 1325 and the UN”

Elisabeth Porter, “Women and security: ‘You cannot dance if you cannot stand’”

Maj Britt Theorin, “Women among paper tigers”

Nicola Johnston-Coeterier, “When women and power meet”

Nicola Dahrendorf, “Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict”

Maria Livanos Cattaui, “The Women Vector”

Susanne Zwingel, "CEDAW: the women formula"

Somehow, throughout her parliamentary career, the Senator has managed to maintain her law practice in Vancouver. But today she is in London at the Global Exchange Forum on women’s social capital, with a characteristically no-nonsense message. She uses her speech to share with an eager, international audience of women activists, the awful truth that despite all these achievements, too often ‘even now’ she waits to be ‘asked to dance’ or ‘to go cap in hand’ to request the chance to do something that she knows she has the ability and the right to do. She calls on the women in the room to throw away their ‘demons of submissiveness’ and become decision-makers:

“‘Taking power’ – these seem all too often to be regarded as dirty words in the women’s movement. When I say that women must not be held back, I get attacked by people who say, ‘Why do we want to be like them? Who needs that sort of power?’ But the truth is – we take charge all the time at home. If we don’t like something, we see that it gets changed. And now we are taking charge in the communities, and we are changing the rules. If we don’t like the way power works, we need to get in there and change it. Looking in from the outside, and saying, ‘I don’t like it, so I don’t want anything to do with it’, but continuing to let someone make the decisions that govern your life, and those of your families and your children – and you still don’t like it – it seems to me you have to get to sit around the table and change it.”

In 2004, Mobina Jaffer was put in the difficult position of defending the claim that resolution 1325 is still on schedule to fulfil all its major goals. The most positive result to date, she argues, has simply been the fact of its existence. All of us can point to this and say, ‘Look you signed this – what are you doing about it?’ I asked the Senator if she would like to send a message to the bloggers of the Women Making a Difference blog who have been debating the same question over the last month, as their discussion over the fifth anniversary moves to a close. This is the message she sent:

“I have spent some time reading the posts in this blog and I am energised by the passion and in many cases, frustration shared about the international results to date of resolution 1325.

I too am frustrated. I want to see change happen now. I don’t want to have to travel back to places like Darfur and witness the scars, both physical and emotional. I know that as impatient as I am to see change, my sisters in Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, the DRC and Iraq are even more impatient. They know what the cost of war and the value of real peace are where they are actively involved in decision-making.

Don’t give up. Don’t be overwhelmed by the obstacles that are faced as we move this important issue forward. It is only through the collaboration and partnership of our sisters around the globe that the commitments in 1325 will be fully realised. Change is taking place, we are moving forward. Our efforts are paying off so please stay strong. The work of one woman is like a stone dropped into the water. The ripples cast go on and on.”


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