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Women, Conflict, and Peacebuilding: Can the United States be a Leader?

This post was written by STAND’s Policy Intern Rosie Berman. Rosie is a rising junior at Clark University where she studies Political Science and Holocaust and Genocide Studies. These views do not necessarily represent the views of STAND.

One in three women worldwide has experienced gender-based violence in her lifetime. Hillary Rodham Clinton surely sought to reduce that number when she created the post of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues during her tenure as Secretary of State. On June 18, I attended an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at which the Honorable Catherine M. Russell, current US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues spoke about her work advancing policy and programs related to the issues women face worldwide. Ambassador Russell devoted a significant portion of her lecture to a discussion of how conflict affects women, and how women contribute to the peacebuilding process. I am taking this opportunity to both expand on Ambassador Russell’s discussion of women, war, and peace, and consider whether the United States can act as a leader in these areas.

Women in Conflict

We tend to view the male experience of conflict as the universal measure. However, how women experience conflict is not the same, and their experiences should not, and must not be discounted. After all, women make up 80% of all refugees and internally displaced persons, and disproportionately face rape and other forms of sexual violence. Rape is frequently used during war as a tactic of terror and intimidation and can also be used as a tactic of genocide, where women are forcibly impregnated with children belonging to the perpetrators’ group in a further, and insidious, attempt to erase the targeted group. Women and girls also may be kidnaped for use as child soldiers, or as sex and domestic slaves by fighting forces.

Women are not only the victims of violence but perpetuate it as well. Women serve in direct combat as members of both regular armies and irregular armed groups. They also perform more traditional roles in support of combat troops, such as cooking and nursing.

In her talk, Ambassador Russell focused on one main US initiative designed to protect women in times of conflict: Safe from the Start. Safe from the Start a US initiative announced in September, 2013, that provides funding for humanitarian agencies to to hire specialized staff, launch new programs, and develop innovative methods to protect women and girls at the onset of crises around the world. Safe from the Start hopes to prevent the United States and its partners from having to ‘play catch up’ in providing these vital services after a crisis begins.

Women in Peacebuilding

Once conflict ends, women are largely excluded from formal peace processes. Ambassador Russell mentioned that since 1992, fewer than 3% of mediators and 8% of negotiators were women. When women are excluded, important issues that women care most about — but affect all of society — such as family, education, food security, and violence against women, tend to get ignored. Ambassador Russell described how the US government recognized this dynamic prior to the Geneva II talks, and provided training for women’s civil society groups attending the talks. This was a wise decision on the part of the US government, as peace cannot be made or kept when 50% of the population remains disempowered and the issues that they care about are unaddressed.

Peacebuilding must also provide assistance to women who served as combatants during the conflict period. According to a UNICEF report, female combatants of all ages tend to be excluded from demobilization programs, and to face greater stigma within their communities after hostilities cease. Ambassador Russell did not mention demobilization efforts that included or focused specifically on women, or US support for such. I believe that if the United States wants to be a leader in providing peacebuilding assistance that includes women and focuses on their needs, it cannot neglect demobilization efforts.

Achieving Justice

Ambassador Russell also discussed the importance of ending the culture of impunity around sexual violence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mobile courts travel to remote locations to prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence. Those convicted arepunished with up to 20 years in prison and sometimes financial settlements are awarded to victims.The courts are staffed by Congolese lawyers and judges who are trained by international legal organizations. Not only do these mobile courts bring justice to women who rarely achieve it and work to end the atmosphere of impunity around sexual violence, but they help build a legal system for a post-conflict DRC by training Congolese legal personnel.

The United States is also working to end the culture of impunity. In his remarks at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict last month, Secretary of State John Kerryannounced that the United States both refuses to tolerate peace agreements that provide amnesty for rape, and has introduced a ban on visas for perpetrators and enablers of sexual violence.

Can the United States be a Leader?

Ambassador Russell emphasized that the United States must serve as a global leader in the battle to eradicate sexual violence and empower women. Leadership means many things. However,  the majority of leadership trainings I have attended (which is a lot) have stressed that a leader must lead by example. How can the United States lead by example in the global fight to eradicate sexual violence on and off the battlefield and end the culture of impunity around it when in the US Military, a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan was more likely to be raped by a fellow servicemember than be killed in the line of fire, less than five percent of all sexual assaults are put forward for prosecution, and less than a third of those cases result in imprisonment? How can the United States act as a global leader in women’s empowerment when 138 Congressmen and 22 Senators voted against the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act? And how can the United States assist women in taking control of their lives when attempts to restrict access to abortion and other forms of birth control continue to occur at both the state and federal level?

From Safe from the Start to empowerment of civil society groups to bans on visas for perpetrators and enablers of sexual violence, Ambassador Russell offered numerous examples of United States initiatives to assist women in both conflict and peacebuilding. Although commendable, these initiatives is not enough if the United States wants to be a global leader. If the United States wants to lead the struggle for global women’s rights, it must lead by example. If it wants to lead by example, it must improve how women are treated at home.


Resources on Women in Conflict:

Iraq: The Women Left Behind (Al Jazeera)

Secretary of State John Kerry at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

We Are Still Here: Women on the Frontlines of Syria’s Conflict (Human Rights Watch)

Women, War and Peace (PBS)

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