Why conflicts can also be opportunities for (positive) change for women

February 13, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

The November edition of Oxfam’s Gender and Development Journal focused on conflict and violence. Here one of the contributors, Julie Arostegui, a humanJulie Arostegui pic rights and gender specialist, discusses Gender, conflict, and peace-building:  how conflict can catalyse positive change for women.

In my years as a human rights and women’s rights advocate, I have witnessed the resilience of women who have lived through horrific situations including sexual violence, domestic violence, human trafficking and other abuses. But I have also noted the opportunities that struggle and conflict have created for women to find their voices, advocate for new policy, and at least begin to change societies.

In recent decades, the nature of war has changed dramatically. Civilians, and especially women and girls, are targeted with extreme violence. It is commonly said that women’s bodies have now become battlefields. At the same time, women have played major roles as peacemakers and peace builders. Despite the devastating impacts of conflict on themselves, their families and their communities, women throughout the world have used post-conflict periods to reshape societies, rewrite the rules and advance women’s rights.

In doing so, they have drawn on an international framework on women, peace and security that includes United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, international human rights law and other international and regional agreements and commitments to involving women in post-conflict peace building.

When I visited Rwanda in 2012 to talk with local groups, I was struck by the beauty of the country and the strength of its women, and how they have healed and found their voices since the 1994 genocide. After the genocide, so many women were left as widows that they began to establish groups and organisations to come together to find a way forward and avoid isolation.

At the same time women such as Mary Balikungeri (left), Director and Founder of the Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN), who had been livingMary Balikungeri in the diaspora due to years of ethnic conflict, came back eager to help rebuild their country.  On her return, Mary first worked with orphaned street children, before founding the RWN in 1997.

RWN focuses on health care, socio-economic empowerment, education and awareness, and networking and advocacy for women. It provides dialogue spaces for local women to connect with policymakers, and has established ‘Polyclinics of Hope’, which adopt a holistic approach to the plight of women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence by addressing their health, psychosocial, shelter and socio-economic needs

According to Mary, the power of women in Rwanda has come from all of them  – both those returning from the diaspora and those who had remained in Rwanda – working together as survivors.

In the years since the genocide, Rwandan women have lobbied for the repeal of discriminatory legislation and mobilised to ensure that the 2003 constitution included women’s rights. Rwanda now has the Parliament with the highest percentage of women in the world, at 56% in 2013. The Government of Rwanda has also recognised the importance of investing in women both as a strategy to achieve economic development and to empower women.

Uganda, which suffered a dictatorial regime under Idi Amin in the 1970s followed by a five-year civil war, then a horrendous 20-year uprising in the north led by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, has served as a role model for the region on inclusion and women’s rights. Ugandan women played a strong role in advocating for peace and made sure that the 2006 peace agreements included provisions on women’s rights. They also worked for an inclusive, human rights based constitution passed in 1995 which has been the cornerstone for advocacy on women’s rights.

In Uganda, as in many other countries, traditional and cultural practices and norms have allowed discrimination against women to be Ugandan activistsperpetuated. Women’s groups have been instrumental in working with cultural and religious leaders, who are the gateways to their communities and often the arbitrators of disputes, on linking human rights concepts to cultural practices in order to raise community awareness of women’s rights issues and change perceptions about gender roles.

For instance, in Northern Uganda, FIDA Uganda, the Association of Women Lawyers, has been working with local elders of the Ker Kwaro Acholi (KKA) to address sexual and gender-based violence in their communities, training chiefs in the mediation of disputes and supporting the creation of gender principles to assist them in handling cases of gender-based violence and sensitize communities on gender issues. Linking local practices and human rights norms, the gender principles provide recommendations on the definition of marriage, regulation of polygamy, sexual rights, property rights, divorce and separation, violence against women and inheritance and property rights.

Meanwhile in South Sudan, although women’s structures and networks are still in their initial stages, women advocates, with the help of international donors and international NGOs, have been working to advance the roles of women and participate in the building of the legal and policy framework of their country. Although the situation in South Sudan is at this moment quite dire, it is my fervent hope that peace will come again soon and that women will be able to continue on their path.

The evolution of the international framework around women, peace and security, the experiences of women in Rwanda and Uganda and the recent processes in South Sudan show the power that women’s voices can have. Part of women’s empowerment in these countries has come with the education, advocacy and organisational skills that they developed as a result of conflict. Periods of turmoil have frequently offered the opportunity for change that women need. They represent new opportunity and are a voice for peace.

As we begin 2014 with the hope of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, being shattered by ethnic conflict, continuing violence in countries such as the Central African Republic and Syria and renewed violence in Iraq, just to name a few, it is more important than ever to look at the opportunities that conflict can bring for change and continue to amplify the voices for peace.

February 13, 2014
Duncan Green