The foundation of human security in every society

The social fabric of a group is woven, in the first place, by the efforts of women. After war, the surest way to rebuild society is to protect and empower those who will re-weave the torn social fabric if given half a chance to do so: the women.

Valerie Hudson
21 May 2013

In 2006, then-Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said:  “The world is starting to grasp that there is no policy more effective in promoting development, health and education than the empowerment of women and girls. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.” 

The social fabric of a group is woven, in the first place, by the efforts of women.  Women make day-to-day living possible for men, women, and children, weaving the strands by growing and processing food, obtaining water and fuel, managing clothing and cleaning, performing reproduction, lactation, and childcare, nursing others through infirmities and old age, sharing information and coordinating efforts with other women in their families and communities, storing emergency provisions, being the primary investors in the human capital of the family’s children, and so forth.  What women do is the foundation of human security in every society.  When women are made vulnerable, when women’s concerns are ignored, when women’s voices have no place in societal decision-making, the fabric of the society begins to fray in a very real way.  And once society has experienced war, the surest way to rebuild society is to protect and empower those who will re-weave the torn social fabric if given half a chance to do so: the women.

Too often, however, women’s weaving is considered a given in national planning, especially after a conflict.  Re-establishing a politico-military order, which is a male-gendered activity, will often trump other important types of stabilization, which may be female-gendered.  No funds for a social services budget?  No worries; women will pick up the slack, and take care of the children, ill, and elderly.  Women’s caring labor for others is assumed to be both inexhaustible and free, like the air we breathe.  Furthermore, we assume this caring labor will not be affected if women are oppressed by social customs.  Even under the worst of abusive conditions, we assume women will still provide their free caring labor and keep the society running from day to day.  And because we assume women will provide this caring labor no matter how they are treated, we assume it is unnecessary to listen to their concerns and their insights.  Important decisions can be made without their input.

One of the most poignant reflections I have heard is that of Donald Steinberg, former US Ambassador to Angola.  He said, “Addressing an audience of African scholars on the Lusaka Protocol in late 1994, I was asked about the role of women in its negotiating and implementation. I responded that there was not a single provision in the agreement that discriminated against women. "The agreement is gender-neutral," I proclaimed, somewhat proudly. President Clinton then named me as US ambassador to Angola and a member of the Luanda-based Joint Commission charged with implementing the peace accords. It took me only a few weeks after my arrival in Luanda to realize that a peace agreement that is "gender-neutral" is, by definition, discriminatory against women and thus far less likely to be successful. The exclusion of women and gender considerations from the peace process proved to be a key factor in our inability to implement the Lusaka Protocol and in Angola's return to conflict in late 1998 . . . This contributed to the return to another three years of fighting that ended only with Savimbi's death in 2001.”

Here are some lessons I have learned from my twenty years as an academic studying the relationship between “sex and world peace

War does not stop in a nation when the men have stopped killing each other and are safe in their own homes and communities.  The war only stops when women are also safe in their own homes and communities.  This means monitoring, tracking, recording, publishing, and addressing the gender-based violence that attended the war and that typically attends demobilization.  Demobilization can sometimes lead to a new round of violence for women, and prevention of this unintended consequence must be addressed.  This focus must include attention to the trafficking of women in conflict and post-conflict situations, which must be a high priority for programmatic intervention. 

The peace process cannot be “men with guns forgiving other men with guns for crimes committed against women.”  The crimes committed against women and their children cannot be brushed under the carpet or deemed as lesser offenses.  Female officials should help lead any efforts such as peace and reconciliation tribunals.  Furthermore, reparations rather than merely symbolic justice should be pursued on behalf of female survivors.

The physical geography of a woman’s life must be considered in programmatic intervention.  For example, one must design refugee camps with women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and kidnapping in mind.  When pursuing de-mining, for example, the priorities should not just be the places men typically go, such as the roadways, but also the places women typically go, such as the fields.  Security checkpoints can be used to corral and harm females.  Women fearful of rape find it is more difficult to feed their children because now economically important areas are danger zones.  Feminist geographers have pioneered concepts that could help guide these efforts to reconfigure spaces to be safer for women.

Reproductive health care and girls’ education must be considered to be equally as vital parts of national infrastructure--to be reconstructed immediately post-conflict--as the provision of electricity or banking services.  Benchmarks of a functioning society must include benchmarks for women’s physical and economic security, as well as their educational advancement.  Security for girls going to school must also be a priority.

Security forces often prey upon women.  Women must be part of the reconstructed national security forces and police, to mitigate the too-frequently encountered culture of male impunity with regards to gender-based violence and oppression.  Furthermore, women should occupy senior positions as well as on-the-ground positions in the security and police forces.  Laws against trafficking, prostitution, child marriage, child debt peonage, and other predatory practices that flourish in post-conflict settings, must be enacted and enforced.

In reconstructing the rule of law, the critical importance of family and personal status law in affecting the lives of women must not be overlooked.  These laws must be configured in accordance with CEDAW principles.  Specifically, these include laws on property rights, land rights, inheritance rights, equal access to credit for women, and other personal status factors that may impinge on a women’s ability to provide economic security for her children.

Women who were kidnapped or coerced into serving rebel groups must be counted as persons in need of demobilization assistance and support.

Women’s unpaid caring labor must be included in the figures for gross domestic product, which will allow donors and national economists to model the effects of proposed laws and regulations on the ability of women to weave a strong social fabric for their nation.  Economic policy advisors should all receive training in gender analysis.  In addition, emphasis on providing economic opportunities for women to have livelihoods should be mainstreamed in donor aid programming.  No employment program should create jobs for only one sex: neither sex should receive more than 60% of job opportunities created.

Any barriers that women experience in accessing radio broadcasts or cell phone services should be a priority for programmatic intervention.  Radio broadcasts should include programming that, at a minimum, advises women of their legal rights and avenues for redress when those rights have been violated.  Field studies have shown that women may not even be aware of their rights, especially those living in rural areas, and may experience difficulties traveling to reach government offices or courts.  Cell phones augment the ability of women to create a network of women who can stand together against abuse when the public square is less accessible to women.

In Angola, Steinberg says the motto for women became, “Nothing about us without us.”  This reflects an important guiding principle: women must be involved in all programs not only as beneficiaries, but as planners and implementers.  Neither gender should have less than 40% representation in all societal endeavors to rebuild after conflict, whether that be peace talks, reconstruction organizations, or the reconstitution of the national government itself.  Capacity-building programs for women to not only participate in these activities, but participate effectively, should be undertaken.

Peace on earth will never be realized until there is peace between men and women.  It is time that societies, governments, and international organizations began to act on that premise.

Valerie Hudson is speaking at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Ireland.  Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference  

 Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences



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