Preparing a message - part 2: gender, changing attitudes, international do's and don't's, local credibility...

25 October 2005

1.  UN SCR 1325 needs to be better known and better understood
2.  UN SCR 1325 needs to be better enforced
3.  The participation/representation of women must go beyond numbers
4.  Our expertise must extend beyond women to gender
5.  How do you change attitudes in your society?
6.  International aid and intervention – what not to do
7.  We need local credibility

8.  How democracy can be made to work
9.  How to cope with vulnerability and combat victimisation
10.How to defend women’s human rights
11.Towards a ‘bloodless knowledge revolution’

4. Our expertise must extend beyond women to gender

Many bloggers were keen to shift the 1325 debate away from the concerns of women alone and towards a more profound understanding of gender equality, gender mainstreaming and gender hierarchies.

Lina Abifareh’s concern was that the women she encountered did not wish to be ‘extracted from their social realities’. They wanted to work with and alongside men. She saw this as a challenge for 1325 activists who too often liked to forget that men are an essential part of gender work. She cited one woman’s comment: “Men don't want to see women improve their lives. They think it is at their expense. No foreigner can come in and change this. If an organization comes to help men, this is better. First work and training, and then talk about change and women."

There was little disagreement about the need to encourage men to be active supporters of women’s rights and to work on gender relations. But different priorities were expressed. Mu Sochua was sympathetic to listening to those who fear change: ‘I think I went very strong on promoting women's space, when I was first minister of women's affairs and it was my deputy who told me, taught me to include men. And then it became easier as men who abuse their wives had less to fight against. They give up their space more easily when we explain that it is not a weakness but a sign of strength to allow their wives to have their own opinions’. But she is not keen to compromise ‘away our space in democracy because we need men… Democracy is never a free meal. It is not a fight between men and women – it is a fight to make sure that laws are used to protect men and women equally, rich and poor fairly, majority and minority justly.’

For some in the discussion, feminism helps both men and women, by ‘diluting the false patriarchal dichotomy, man/woman.’ For others, such as Farkhanda Chaudhry, speaking about the Muslim Women Talk project in the UK, women make a huge difference whether or not their work is recognized, or gender relations are challenged: ‘…the contribution of women in the creation of stronger communities is essential. Women's work needs to be recognised as valuable, like the cement used to build structures. This work may not always be recognised: it may be done in the background. Often we see women as the backbone to voluntary contributions: but men may front the initiative.’

But for others the right of women to be different and do things differently is what has to be defended, often from violence, and particularly in militarized societies where male aggression is the subject of adulation. Mu Sochua drew this conclusion from reading the discussion, ‘maybe women define democracy and peace very differently from men and that is the reason why women's agenda for peace rarely gets on the table.’

Galia Golan writes about how women in peace negotiations are more likely to be interested in individual well-being, inclusiveness, transparency – a win-win situation. Zainab, returning from monitoring the first free, multi-part elections in Liberia doesn’t mince her words, ‘Whenever I meet men politicians in Africa, I tell them Africa is in the mess in which it is because it has been run by men. They have destroyed our continent.’

Judith Butler’s essay, ‘On being Beside Oneself’ triggered a discussion about the violence against body and mind suffered by people ‘gendered and sexualized outside the mainstream’ in so many societies. This touched on the emancipation a closer encounter with diversity could afford all of us. Cindy Weber concludes, ‘the challenge is to make difference - in this case, the difference women make - something that is safe to imagine and to live.’

Sam Cook began to do the work of careful discrimination between terms which is crying out to be revisited in the attempt to understand, for example, sexual and gender based violence (SGBV): “Through research on sgbv in South Africa and Sierra Leone…it is clear that it is gender hierarchies and notions of masculinity and femininity which motivate and facilitate such violence… The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development has defined gender-based violence to be any act “involving use of force/coercion with an intent of perpetuation/ promotion of hierarchical gender-relations in all social structures.” This focuses on the intended effect of gender-based violence as being the perpetuation of gender hierarchies. This is an important move but this too fails to include a sense of such violence exploiting and relying for its effectiveness on current gender roles and hierarchies – that is, being based on gender. So we need to look at more than masculinity and femininity but also at how these operate in a society in relation to each other in a particular power context.”

5. Let’s share knowledge about how to change attitudes in our respective societies:

Visaka notes that ‘we have to work very hard to change the attitudes of our respective societies – the main obstacle to the implementation of 1325.’ What really does make change possible in our societies? Bloggers have found that all sorts of different approaches work. Here are a few examples – please add approaches you think have been important in these blog pages.

- The cost benefit argument, ‘Peacemaking and building is complex. You need all the help you can get. Women are agents of positive change – you should support their work.’
- The Organizacion Feminina Popular is a women’s organization leading a non-violent resistance against violence in Colombia. Despite the assassination of its leader by paramilitaries, the group offers training for work, in healthcare and arts courses to 1,200 women in safe houses across the region
- Films like Hotel Rwanda take people’s stories away from them and sanitise them. Rwandan survivors of genocide need to tell their own stories face-to face to international visitors. This is particularly important when women survivors have to face those who raped them and killed their families coming back into their communities. We must ask ourselves how we can support these women.
- Activism on 1325 is a way of overcoming fear and escaping from the position of the marginalized other. Global solidarity across borders and barriers also give alternative support to activists.
- Women prisoners brutally detained under the Uruguayan dictatorship for up to ten years, kept sane through their solidarity network. Now they work for democracy more energetically than anyone else, because they remember this ‘black page’ in their country’s history.
- Amongst the diversity of views, we have women who do wish to develop resistance using the parameters of their understanding of Islam, while others, who come from a very secular view point wish to do so from their own particular stance. One challenge is how to build up a coalition which respects this diversity and values the strength of collaborative working to achieve good outcomes for all.

Add your favourite new approaches here...)

6.  International aid and intervention must be well designed

Afghanistan and Iraq figure as major case studies. Lina says it took her three years to begin to understand the realities in the former – and compares this with the short-termism of ‘humanitarian interventions’ based on superficial notions of pre-Taliban and post-Taliban history. She adds: ‘An ideal example is the Western agencies and media obsession with the bourka. This became the barometer of social change in the country, leading us to assume that Western dress means liberation, while being "beneath the bourka" (as the oft-used cliche phrase goes!) was oppression. A facile analysis that only served to marginalize Afghan women… I would prefer democratic movements that emerge from the grassroots…’ She warns that ‘it is possible to do more damage than good... Poorly designed development programs could generate a backlash and could make things worse for women. There are signs of this for some women in Afghanistan.’

Maura highlighted the problems of intervention in Iraq: ‘Despite the fact that their attention is so otherwise occupied, Iraqi women do want to protect the rights they enjoyed for so long in a relatively secular society. For the most part it wasn’t until the 1990 sanctions were imposed on the country that Iraqi women began to feel oppressed… But let us remember that the social and economic oppression they felt did not come from the hated regime but from the United States by way of UN sanctions.’

And Yanar: ‘It is our conviction that on 15-10-05 the Iraqi people will embark on a new chapter in the enforcement of American-style “Democracy” - one which aims at manipulating the masses to vote “Yes” for a highly dangerous constitution that undermines both the integrity of Iraqi society and women’s civil rights… This is a constitution which does not recognize the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women because it contradicts a doctrine written fifteen hundred years ago… By tearing Iraqi society apart into nationalist, ethnic, religious and sectarian parts, they are pushing us into a bottomless pit.’

Inge Relph points to ‘endless statements from senior politicians asserting that the true measure of a democratic society is in how well it respects the rights of it’s women. So far the process in Iraq appears to be failing on both counts. Failure to recognise what a resource they have in the women of the country in helping to reconstruct their war-torn communities and failure to insist that women’s rights are human rights …after all it was human rights that we went to war for, wasn’t it?’

She discusses funding: ‘The proliferation of donor's and ngo's who flock in with good intentions but little co-ordination also contributes to making things more difficult. We need to push I believe for two things; support and training of local ngo's and community based organisations and secondly more direct funding of grassroots projects so that there isn't such a dependency on multilateral aid being passed down from govt. departments.’

7. ‘Local credibility’ must be achieved
Boitumelo expressed early reservations with the UN and argues for ‘homegrown South African visions’. She is skeptical about bodies such as the UN that send ‘external leaders’ to shape the destinies of countries when they don’t speak the local languages or ever show their faces in the communities...

Lina was keen to formulate some ground rules: ‘respect is the key…It's more sustainable that way, for starters. But also it demonstrates that the international community can truly operate with women taking the lead. Our role should be supportive - funding, resources, networks, etc. We tend to hijack a situation - as was done in Afghanistan - and assume that we know best what the women here need… Here's my concern: if there is a perception that quotas are externally driven, imported, and imposed, there will be a backlash for women. I'm now an advocate of easing our way in...makes for more sustainable change.’

Anita Mir, hotfoot from Pakistan, asks what kind of agency could work: ‘I think another important facet of the credibility criteria has to do with how grounded we are in the realities in which we work; for instance, how does a universal manifesto such as 1325 translate into our individual contexts? Are there times when it is, in its entirety, usable, or times when it is not, or times when it is usable only in parts? In a conflict situation, when is an appropriate time to speak of the requirements of a particular group of people (i.e. women)? The first response in a post-conflict situation is necessarily one of humanitarian aid. By the time the issue of the protection of women has been raised, countless women and young girls will have been abducted, raped, or sold into prostitution. Do we require, then, from the start, a separate agency which goes beyond advocacy work, to safeguard the lives of women? And if, as in so many of our countries, the structures of our societies are patriarchal, governments are ineffective and NGOs may be viewed with some scepticism, from which platform will such an agency emerge?’

Lina’s insists ‘we have to take the time to understand the context and learn about the history and society and how change happens in that particular place and with that particular population. Part of the problem is that these contexts (i.e. Afghanistan) attract the emergency and conflict specialists more so than the Afghanistan specialists. I would prefer the latter. Those who have some knowledge of the country can then learn how to operate in p-c situations, while those with knowledge of the latter tend to apply the same development models from Bosnia to Baghdad.’

For Mu Sochua this was one litmus test for the blog itself from the outset: ‘This is just the beginning of our conversation and let's make this work by not calling another conference, but rather an exchange of experience at the field level….’

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