Women, Peace and Security

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
XXIX OAS Policy Roundtable
Washington, DC
April 7, 2011

Rocío, thank you so much for your kind introduction. It is a wonderful pleasure to be here at the OAS for this policy discussion on Women, Peace, and Security. I would also like to thank Carmen Moreno and Irene Klinger. They are both very dedicated leaders here at the OAS.

The newly-announced theme of this year’s General Assembly that will take place in June is appropriately named “Citizen Security in the Americas” and I believe ties directly to today’s topic. I believe it is important that the particular issues facing women in post-conflict societies are addressed in the General Assembly meeting, as women in the Americas confront some of the toughest challenges while at the same time they are so critical to sustainable solutions.

I am also pleased to be here for the launch of the DCAF’s Gender and Security Sector Reform Toolkit. I want to welcome to Washington my good friend Anja Ebnöther. I have been acquainted over many years with her and DCAF’s leadership and contributions to enhancing security sector governance and security sector reform. I am especially grateful for their work on gender and security. Women are still all too often excluded from security decision-making, from participation in security sector institutios and reform processes. DCAF has been instrumental in helping to build the capacity of the security sector to include a gender perspective and to enable women to be active partners – as they must be – in all levels of the security sectors.

Today women are on the frontlines of change around the globe, and they are changing the world by taking on the hardest issues--including those of war and peace – in the hardest environments. I remember being with a group of women in Afghanistan one night, and one of the women started our conversation by saying “don’t look at us as victims but as the leaders that we are.” Women can say that anywhere in the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Colombia.

I am happy to come here to the OAS – a place that I have been many times over the years. But this is the first time I’ve come here in my position as Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. This is a new position for my government. President Obama and Secretary Clinton recognize that we can’t possible tackle -- let alone address – the challenges that confront us around the globe – whether having to do with economics, the environment, governance, or security – if women are not participating at all levels of society.

It is a fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. Secretary Clinton has emphasized that women are critical to solving virtually every challenge we face as individual nations and as a community of nations.

I spent yesterday and this morning with the new head of UN Women, the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. She is a woman I greatly admire, and as the new Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, she is working on many critical challenges, including the elimination of violence against women, and fortifying the participation of women in conflict resolution. She is a strong and essential partner in implementing Security Council Resolution 1325, which represents an enormous conceptual breakthrough in how the international community views women not only as victims of conflict, but also as agents of change in sustaining peace and preventing war.

Just last week in El Salvador, Vanda Pignato, the Minster for Social Inclusion and First Lady of El Salvador, inaugurated the opening of Ciudad Mujer, which our own First Lady Michelle Obama visited during her husband’s recent trip to El Salvador. This is a holistic social services center for women that aims to liberate women from gender-based violence and to provide them with the tools of empowerment to become leaders in their post-conflict communities. As former President Bachelet said in also attending the opening, the facts show that when women have access to a good education, job, health care, access to land and other basic provisions, this not only improves their lives and the lives of their children, but also leads to growth in the economy and to national security.

I could add that all of society prospers when women prosper. Yes, women certainly thrive – but so do men. Girls make gains and so do boys. Investing in women is a high-yield investment with enormous dividends for society.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton are fully committed to advancing the agenda of women as agents of peace and stability. The concept is embodied in the President’s National Security Strategy which says, “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.” Gender issues are also mainstreamed throughout the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review (QDDR) to guarantee the institutionalization of the gender lens in the State Department’s diplomacy and development efforts. Obviously, the real test will come in the QDDR’s implementation over time, but the process represents a strong, solid commitment to incorporating a gender perspective to achieve effective outcomes.

The United States is also taking steps to develop a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in response to UNSC Resolution 1325. Development of the National Action Plan has begun under the coordination of the National Security Staff as a collaborative interagency effort among the Departments of State, Defense, and USAID. The Plan’s goal is to advance international security and sustainable peace by ensuring justice for acts of violence against women, and ensuring women’s participation in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, recognizing that the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity are strengthened when all members of society are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity.

More than 50 percent of all peace agreements fail within the first 10 years. In large part, this is because negotiations and accords focus on the short term goal of bringing an end to fighting, rather than addressing the root causes of conflict or focusing on the range of issues that bring about genuine peace, justice, reconciliation, and a shared vision of a prosperous future. Evidence shows that integrating women into peace building processes helps promote long-term peace by ensuring focus on a broader set of critical priorities and needs. Numerous case studies demonstrate that women’s leadership in peace processes positively correlates with the reduction of violence and armed action, the sustainability of peace agreements and post-conflict political frameworks, the evolution of democratic systems of governance, and the long-term security and recovery of communities and nations.

Yet women are rarely present at peace talks in significant numbers or in meaningful roles. In 2009, the UN Development Fund for Women found that women comprise less than 10 percent of negotiators and less than three percent of signatories to peace agreements. In case after case, women who have risked their lives to engage armed actors in negotiations and build the necessary trust to initiate a formal peace process have found themselves excluded when the official talks began. This exclusion is not only to the detriment of women, but to peace and international security as a whole.

Violence against women, particularly when used as a tactic of war, is an additional obstacle to peace and security. As Secretary Clinton has described, “The dehumanizing nature of sexual violence doesn’t just harm a single individual or a single family or even a single village or a single group. It shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings. It endangers families and communities, erodes social and political stability, and undermines economic progress.” Many countries in this region are still struggling with many of the challenges faced by post-conflict societies.

As the latest report on Human Development in Central America notes, violence against women is the principal silent contributor to citizen insecurity in Central America. One half of Central American women have been objects of violence during their adult lives and violence against women has been increasing at an alarming rate.

Guatemala is an example of a post-conflict country in which all the legal frameworks are in place – for example, laws against femicide and domestic violence. Yet laws go unenforced and femicide, for example, is rampant. Impunity cannot be tolerated – violence breeds violence. Fortunately, there is an impressive network of NGOs in Guatemala who are working together, as well as a newly appointed Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, for whom tackling violence against women is a top priority. Whether we’re talking about Guatemala, Haiti or any other country, if governments are not prepared to carry out the police reform process not only will critical opportunities be missed, but security challenges will worsen. We know there can be no democracy without a responsive justice system.

Research shows that high levels of violence against women correlate with fragile states. The security of women is one of the primary indicators of state security – even beyond indicators representing levels of democracy and wealth – illustrating that eliminating violence against women by prosecuting the perpetrators is one of the single most effective state security interventions.

In Haiti, there is an all-female Bangladesh Peacekeeping unit. This is an example of efforts to improve security for women by having more women peacekeepers. Security in camps is still an enormous challenge, but this is a step in the right direction.

So too is the story of Malya Villard-Appolon of Haiti who joined her voice to that of other women leaders and testified at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the abuses against women in the camps and the broken systems that are supposed to protect them. Their testimonies persuaded the Commission to call for urgent “precautionary measures” to protect women and girls in the camps, a legally binding ruling for the government of Haiti to support Marlya and other women in Haiti.

As Secretary Clinton has noted, the oppression and marginalization of women and denial of their rights and the instability of nations go hand in hand. Countries that exclude and oppress women do so at their own peril. The development of a country simply is not possible if half the population is excluded.

Women are the largest-growing economic force worldwide. No country, especially one emerging from war, can afford to exclude and suppress this vital driver of economic recovery.

Women employed outside the home drive economic growth across all sectors, having a multiplier effect. For every dollar a woman earns, up to 90 percent of it is reinvested into her family, as compared to say 30 to 40 percent for men. When girls go to school, even just for one year, their income dramatically increases for life, their children are more likely to survive, and their families are more likely to be healthier for years to come.

Women’s capacity to contribute economically is directly correlated to their ability to exercise equal rights, with inheritance and land rights bearing particular significance. Ultimately, access to equal economic opportunities for women and men forms an integral dimension of lasting stability and prosperity. Investing in women’s protection and participation in all areas of society – in ensuring that violence against women is prosecuted – is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.

Right now, this very afternoon, there are some 30 active conflicts worldwide. Many of these conflicts are recurrent. Of the 39 conflicts that arose in the last decade, 31 of them were part of a repeating cycle of violence. These are hard facts and hard realities that have, in too many cases, a disproportionate impact on women and their children. And yet throughout the Western Hemisphere, women everywhere are taking courageous steps to make a difference and to respond to their circumstances.

We are at a critical juncture in marshalling humanity’s best efforts so that we can march ahead toward equality, peace and prosperity. There may be setbacks, but there is no turning back on what we know to be true. Women’s rights are human rights; they are non-negotiable. And women’s contributions to society – all societies – are indispensable, whether in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, North America or anywhere else in the world. We need women’s leadership; we need women’s voices and full participation.

Thank you for all you do to advance the role of women in peace and security in the hemisphere.