Critical Role of Women in Peace and Security

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
July 27, 2010

It is an honor to be here with Ambassador Chowdhury, who was the guiding spirit behind Security Council Resolution 1325. We owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his commitment and vision, and for our part, we continue to work to realize the potential of women’s participation in all decision-making levels focused on peace and security and keeping women protected from violence.

I want to thank USIP for all it does to foster peace and specifically the work of the gender working group. We are grateful for your leadership—and I want to acknowledge Kathleen, Tara, and their colleagues for organizing this important meeting, along with the partner organizations. Where would we be without all of you? I want to recognize all the people here for the work you do every day.

Although the importance of women’s participation in conflict resolution, peace building, and post-conflict reconstruction is irrefutable, and although it’s been 10 years since the Security Council, in adopting 1325, unanimously acknowledged the intrinsic role of women in global peace and security, we all know that, while we have made some progress, we still have a long way to go to see the full implementation of 1325—or we wouldn’t be here.

It’s also worth noting that it’s been 15 years since 189 countries signed on to the Beijing Platform for Action and agreed to strengthen the participation of women in national reconciliation and reconstruction and to investigate and punish those who perpetuate violence against women in armed conflict. The Beijing Declaration foreshadowed the action of the Security Council.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council bears primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. With the Security Council’s action on 1325, the international community linked the role of women to peace and security.

So, as we mark these two anniversaries, we are called to redouble our efforts to ensure that decision-makers recognize—and take seriously—the essential role that women must play if conflicts are to be resolved and peace sustained. I am pleased to tell you that the U.S. Government is accelerating its efforts.

We know that around the world, the places that are the most dangerous for women also pose the greatest threats to international peace and security. We also know that today conflicts increasingly take a toll on civilians—mostly women and children. Sexual violence, particularly rape, is used as a the weapon of war—as a purposeful strategy. Impunity is widespread.

Women must be active participants during the peace process and its aftermath, and must take an equal role in shaping these decisions. But for too many in positions of power, there is still a lack of recognition of why women matter to peace and security. A government official once said to me during a discussion about women’s participation at the peace table: “I don’t get it. They’re not government officials. They’re not armed combatants. Why would they be included in negotiations?” Women are far too often seen only as victims, not as the agents of change whose perspectives and participation are critical in peacemaking and peace building.

A woman in Afghanistan said to me at the start of a discussion one evening in Kabul, “Do not look at us as victims, but look at us as the leaders that we are.” Unfortunately, we are still looking at women solely as victims.

The United States has strongly supported the Security Council’s actions on these issues. Inspired by 1325, the United States took the lead in the adoption of two subsequent resolutions—1820 and 1888—which focused on ending sexual violence in conflict and ending impunity. There is a clear link between maintaining international peace and security and preventing and responding to sexual violence as a tactic of war.

During a trip to eastern DRC and meetings with government officials, peacekeepers, refugees, and women in civil society, Secretary Clinton saw firsthand the urgent need for greater efforts to address sexual violence against women. She argued for adoption of Security Council Resolution 1888 to improve the UN’s response to sexual violence committed during armed conflict. It was adopted unanimously by the Security Council.

As a result, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Margot Wallström as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. And we are working with the UN so that it will have the capacity to deploy teams of experts to help governments strengthen the rule of law, improve accountability, and end impunity.

President Obama’s National Security Strategy recognizes that “…countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity. When those rights and opportunities are denied, countries often lag behind. Furthermore, women and girls often disproportionately bear the burden of crises and conflict. Therefore the United States is working with regional and international organizations to prevent violence against women and girls, especially in conflict zones. We are supporting women’s equal access to justice and their participation in the political process…”

And, Secretary Clinton has often said: “Women’s rights and women’s issues cannot be an afterthought in our foreign policy; they must factor centrally in how we look at the world. We have made women a cornerstone of our foreign policy not only because we think it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do.”

The President’s and Secretary’s words are matched by actions. Let me focus on Afghanistan. I want to welcome and recognize Palwasha Hassan, who is here from Afghanistan and who has been a leader in her country. She participated in the Kabul Conference, and we look forward to hearing from her.

At the International Conference on Afghanistan, in London earlier this year, Secretary Clinton emphasized that women need to be involved at every step of the way in the process of building Afghanistan’s future; and she introduced the Women’s Action Plan, which is incorporated into our U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy. As Secretary Clinton said, “the plan includes initiatives focused on women’s security, women’s leadership in the public and private sector; women’s access to judicial institutions, education, and health services; and women’s ability to take advantage of economic opportunities, especially in the agricultural sector.” This is a comprehensive, forward-looking agenda. She also emphasized the role that women must play in the reintegration and reconciliation process as it goes forward.

The U.S. also worked to ensure women’s participation of at least 20% in the consultative peace jirga that took place in Kabul on June 2, as well as in follow-on shuras and consultations at all levels. At the request of women leaders, we provided assistance so they could map out their strategy and participate in discussions with greater effectiveness.

At the peace jirga, about 23% of the participants were women. Many told us what it meant to be in a working group with conservative mullahs and other traditional tribal leaders and to put women’s interests on the table. And the women had impact. President Karzai noted that the women were accepted and saw this as a sign of progress.

Just days ago, the Kabul Conference took place in the Afghan capital—co-hosted by the United Nations and the Government of Afghanistan. Some 70 international officials gathered to launch the Kabul process—the government’s commitment to ensure greater accountability in the Afghan-led strategy to improve development, governance and security for the Afghan people.

Secretary Clinton co-hosted a pre-conference meeting with Lady Ashton from the European Union to hear from Afghan women about their concerns relating to the reconciliation and reintegration process. Secretary Clinton recognized the heroic work of the women to strengthen their communities and country, and reiterated the United States Government’s commitment to ensuring that women are directly involved in all aspects of Afghanistan’s development. She noted that in any reintegration and reconciliation process, those reintegrated must renounce Al Qaeda and violence and uphold the Constitution—including women’s rights. Upholding the Constitution means supporting women’s equality—the right of women and girls to go to school, participate in government and business, and live a life free from violence in their homes, workplaces, and communities.

During her intervention at the Kabul conference, the Secretary of State reiterated: “I want to emphasize the importance of President Karzai’s statement that the rights of women, Afghan ethnic groups, and civil society will not be sacrificed in pursuit of reintegration and reconciliation.” She added: “Over many years, I have observed and participated in post-conflict reconciliation efforts – in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and Latin America, and I speak from my own experience when I say that the work of Afghan women and civil society groups will be essential to this country’s success. If these groups are fully empowered to help build a just and lasting peace, they will help to do so. But if they are silenced and pushed to the margins of Afghan society, the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted.”

The initiatives we have launched and commitments made in Afghanistan reflect our ongoing commitment to 1325. They include:

  • Providing leadership and skills development for women at local levels to build their capacity to take on leadership roles. Over 400 women are registered to run for Parliament in the upcoming election.
  • Providing training to female Parliamentarians and Provincial Council members and their staff, and assisting the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in strategic planning, communications, and institution building.
  • Supporting reservations for women’s participation in jirgas and other decision-making processes.
  • Working with both women and men in law enforcement and in the judicial system, to diminish the impunity that allows the threats, intimidation and violence to continue that keep women out of public life.
  • Training female police officers and women working in the justice sector.
  • Engaging religious leaders and local officials to promote women’s political participation.

Let me briefly turn to Iraq where we are deeply committed to empowering Iraqi women in all sectors of Iraqi society. We have been reaching out to women in the provincial councils to help build their capacity and assist them in networking. The potential for strong leadership of women at the provincial and local levels needs to be nurtured.

Since 2004, the Department of State’s Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative (IWDI) has worked through U.S. NGO partners on the ground in Iraq to build the capacity of Iraqi women. To date, programs under this initiative have trained nearly 10,000 Iraqi women in several key skill areas in support of women’s leadership, coalition-building, negotiation, and constitutional rights. In 2008, we expanded our efforts to include areas such as women in justice, women and peace building, and increasing women's political participation, advocacy and leadership. As the transition takes place and troops draw down, it is even more critical for women to take their place in the political life of Iraq.

Afghanistan and Iraq are not the only places we are working to increase women’s participation in conflict resolution and peace building. Several weeks ago, Secretary Clinton sent a cable to all U.S. embassies and missions urging their support in accelerating U.S. implementation of the four Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security. The cable provides strategies for implementation, urging embassies to utilize the full range of diplomatic, defense, and development tools to advance this agenda. The cable also requests embassies to provide a description of significant actions and programs related to women, peace, and security. This stocktaking will help us collect good practices and identify gaps to inform U.S. government priorities moving forward.

The cable included the following recommendations:

  • Reinforcing with governments that women need to be included at the negotiating table and that they need to be full and equal participants in peace building efforts.
  • Advocating to include issues of concern to women and their families in peace and reconstruction efforts.
  • Meeting with women’s organizations, particularly in countries affected by conflict, to hear their views, and to raise their concerns with host governments.
  • Identifying and training key women leaders by arranging meetings, seminars, conferences, and including women participants in USAID, ECA, DRL, and other programs.
  • Encouraging governments to increase the number of female military and police personnel they contribute to UN or regional peacekeeping missions.
  • Engaging “non-traditional” allies, including religious leaders of all faiths, as partners.
  • Working with governments of countries in conflict, as well as other humanitarian actors, so that they take special measures to protect women and girls from sexual violence.
  • Providing assistance to survivors of sexual violence.
  • · Emphasizing to leaders of conflict-affected countries the need to end impunity.
  • · Collaborating with other donor countries on efforts to involve women in all phases of peace building.

U.S. efforts are directed to respecting women’s rights, safeguarding them from sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflicts, and recognizing the critical role of women in peace and security. In other words, we are committed to fully implementing 1325. To paraphrase the woman activist in Afghanistan: “We need to look at women—not as victims—but as the leaders they can and must be if we are to bring about an end to conflicts and create sustainable peace.”