The international community stood united at the London conference on Libya this week - all 42 of them. But you could be forgiven for thinking that there was something monotone about the massed ranks of suits: only four of them present were women. There was Hillary Clinton of course; if you’re interested, the others were Cathy Ashton, Inaan Osseiran the Lebanese ambassador, and Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene from Lithuania. Should this matter?
Maybe not at all. But the problem is, it’s been definitively shown that when governments involve women in conflict resolution, and resource them effectively, they can make the difference in building sustained and successful peace. It was on this basis that in 2000, UNSCR 1325 was passed - a landmark declaration which called on member states to establish the equal participation of women in all areas of post-conflict recovery - not only to give peace its best chance, but to ensure issues important to women's lives are given the same priority as those of value to men.
One look at the Libya conference contingent and all this seems like lofty aspiration: have governments really taken these ideals to heart which they signed up to and purport to advance? There could be few more vivid illustrations of the failure of western polity to do so than the group photos from last Tuesday – as eloquent a testimony as the demeaning ritual of the ‘leaders’ wives’ visiting orphanages and the suchlike during G8 summits.
It wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that the social position of women is so central to the Libyan conflict. There is no possible basis for an intelligent discussion of the future of the Arab world without placing women's rights – and all the vexed issues of moral relativism and culture this brings with it – at centre stage. In their struggle for democracy Libyan women didn't just join the protests; they strategised and reported on these events, capitalising on new found opportunities for leadership through social media. We've been inspired by leading lights such as Salva Bugaigis (of the Benghazi Citizen's Committee) and for many of us, Eman al-Obeidi has been the face of the conflict - like so many others, a victim of sexual violence by state forces who would have been anonymous had she not had the courage to storm into that Tripoli hotel.
Then there's Gaddafi himself, with his regiment of virgin bodyguards; who can forget his embraces with Berlusconi, followed by his invitation to dozens of Italian models to tour Libya. Two commodifiers of women, in the twenty-first century, using state power as their own pimps. But of course, more than just a strange obsession with his own sexual virility, Gaddafi's 42-year reign has been characterised by institutionalised torture and forced disappearances. Women have endured this culture, all the while supporting their families in a country with of one the highest unemployment rates in Africa. Their force of feeling is unsurprising; the resourceful way in which they've been able to make it known - much more so.
Peace will be neither quick or easy for Libya; the rebels will continue to reassure the international community of their democratic values and there will be further discussion about what a political settlement might look like. For the sake of Libyan society as a whole, women must play a more equal and visible role in shaping it. There will be other key talks about the country's future and the protection of its citizens’ human rights, but if this week's conference is anything to go by, Resolution 1325 will, once again, be conveniently over-looked. War and diplomacy, with all its discourse of targeted strikes and lines in the sand, remains a world of men.
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