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The Women Vector

Maria Livanos Cattaui
31 October 2005

UN Resolution 1325 on women and peace-building presents a complex challenge for the international community. It identifies two distinct groups of women with a role to play in peace-building and reconstruction: those on the ground in areas of insecurity and those in global discussions on security issues, in positions of influence and who are peace-builders from the outside.

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

Women inside conflict areas, or areas of tension and vulnerability, are major catalysts for positive change. If they are not involved actively in conflict resolution, peace-building and reconstruction, two direct consequences must follow. First, as more than half the population, an asset of gigantic assistance is missing from the process. Second, in the absence of the involvement of women, it is likely that the formula that first led to catastrophe will repeat – with the same forces, the same configuration, the same people. Involving women can break that cycle and bring in voices, forces and influences that can intrude on those mechanisms from within, and alter their direction.

The business community is not so involved in the early stages of managing conflict. But when it comes to the reconstruction stage in devastated areas, some of the first pioneers in entrepreneurship in those areas are women. Very often, it has to be them, because so many men have been killed or disabled, or are out-of-area. So in a passive sense it is left to the women to pick up the pieces.

But there is also an active sense in which they take up the challenge: in many of these economies, especially in the least developed, women are the first to embark on small enterprise. This is one reason why micro-finances work so well in such contexts. This is an approach that has both been an aim of the international community, and one enthusiastically taken up by women in some of the most fragile economies in the world.

The risks of influence

While some encouragement from the outside world to ensure that women participate fully in post-conflict scenarios might be good, it will have no lasting effect if, within the country itself, such an idea is looked upon as an imposition rather than as an internal asset. Attempts to be ‘influential”, and to jump-start ideas such as quotas, or other mechanisms, can easily give rise to resentment and end up disregarded, especially where it is unlikely that they will develop naturally of their own accord. There is no easy answer to this quandary. Unless such developments are internalised, and integrated into the thinking and the very fabric of a society, they often fail to endure. Conversely, they may not even begin without some catalytic encouragement, often from the outside.

Interventions pose the danger of women inside the country suffering a backlash. And the promotion of women into visible positions may be perceived as providing a show-case of what the international community hoped to see, rather than really being effective on the ground. Unfortunately we are seeing that right now in Afghanistan. During the recent elections, there was some resentment and a certain backlash effect resulted.

But in Africa, where women face a very difficult challenge in most countries, something rather different is going on in certain areas that are just emerging from tension and conflict: where women have been encouraged, nurtured and, crucially, given the financial means to make a recovery, the economic situation has progressed.

Backlash may be more likely in societies where there has been a tradition backed by political and religious leaders who consider the ‘imposition’ of women inside the political system as a direct threat to their power base and worldview. So reconstruction requires different methods in different situations.

Recipes for growth

The international community has the tools to encourage positive forms of entrepreneurship, and understands the ability of women entrepreneurs in the first instance simply to survive conflict, and next to be in a position to contribute to economies that are in recovery.

The difficulty in many of these countries is that these women are entrepreneurs in the small economic ways that you would expect of survival economies. Without training, and without the financial means to advance, they will remain at this level. The international and the business community perceives the need for preparation training that will give these women a small window of opportunity to move on, beyond that level. This happens quite a lot in Africa. What has started in a negative way – with a terrible shortage, or a devastation, or mass mortality due to killing or disease – has occasionally been transformed into a surprising positive aspect where women have been able to pick up the slack.

Then there are situations that have started out more positively. There are many experiments going on, for example, in South Africa, where groups have been successfully promoted by women for women with economic strengthening and economic opportunity as their goal.

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”

Nevertheless, women are still under-utilised economically. Often, their economic contribution has been made on the basis of ‘service for free’. But those same women are perfectly capable of using their skills to add value to an economy and put growth into it. That is an important discovery. In many of these countries, those in charge were not always sure that they could do this. And then they came to realise that these women constitute one of the strongest vectors by which the opening and strengthening of economies – that is, growth – comes about.

Mechanisms of change

Treating women uniformly as a category is not the best approach. One must examine the specific situation and issues in question, to encourage the participation of women in different areas, rather than looking around for somewhere to ‘place’ women, or establishing gender departments in financial institutions and international organisations. That kind of pigeon-holing can be rather demeaning to women.

Women’s business networks help enormously. At a level a little above the survival of catastrophe, one of the big problems is that women often fail to avail themselves of a huge asset that men use all the time: networking. There are innumerable networks of men. Women must just use this technique more positively for and among themselves.

Often, once a woman reaches a certain position of power, she will try to distance herself from her former female colleagues’ networks in order to secure the privileges of her male peers and become ‘one of the boys’. That happens, and many women complain, ‘Once she got there, she paid no attention to us any more!’ But each individual woman, specifically those in power as well as those who are not yet there, needs to understand the tremendous support and strength she can give to each and every one of us. Men do it all the time: women have to learn to do it in a more consistent and coherent way.

Women, wealth and democracy

The more privileged women in the world economy have the necessary laws and means at their disposal to make an impact. When one looks at the true imprint of democracy, and at the true imprint of economic growth and of a veritably strong market economy, the correlations between these phenomena and the way women are treated – as well as the way in which they treat themselves and their societies – are striking. In strong, vibrant, growing and healthy economies and democracies women are likely to play a far stronger, far more active role. This doesn’t always mean that women are in the workforce. But it does mean that they are playing their full part. This has to be encouraged, or allowed to happen.

The major difficulty is to know how and where to start in areas of the world where none of this is available – I am not alone in being worried and confounded by what needs to be done in areas of the world where, whether through tradition or culture or religion or devastation, those conditions are not present. As with all great changes in society, it is not a matter of just one advance. Such a sea-change will emerge from many initiatives being undertaken simultaneously. Once again, there are no simplistic answers to complex questions.

But it is no accident that those countries that are the most closed, often the most economically fragile, politically devastated and internally deracinated, are very often those where women have not played a role, or where they have purposefully been relegated to the sidelines and inactivity. That much we do know, and that correlation should be better studied.

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