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Women Responding to War

Whatever would Aristophanes, the Greek playwright of antiquity, think of the new PBS documentary, Women, War and Peace? In his play Lysistrata performed in the fifth century B.C., Aristophanes depicted women tired of war and angry over its devastation of their and their families’ lives, uniting marching, occupying the Acropolis and withholding themselves to force men to the negotiating table. They triumph: the warring parties sign a peace agreement and the women propose some of its terms. For Aristophanes and his Greek audiences, women in war did not have to be victims but rather potentially powerful agents of change.

Fast forward twenty-five centuries to the PBS documentary whose five riveting segments also show that when women join hands, they can rise above enormous odds in wartime. Here is some of what they achieved:  

  • An end to the war in Liberia—women come together to stage sit-ins and demonstrations and play a substantial role in forcing opposing warlords to conclude a peace agreement in 2003;
  • The halting of evictions in Colombia—a peasant woman organizes impoverished communities and with the help of advocates in Washington prevents the forced removal of Afro-Colombians from their land.
  • The sentencing of rapists from the former Yugoslavia—women provide evidence and serve as prosecutors and judges on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and bring to justice key perpetrators.
  • Gaining access to education in Afghanistan—women and girls find ways to go to school despite Taliban violence and intimidation.

But PBS unlike Aristophanes shows the world as it truly is: a world in which women cannot generally stop the drumbeat of war nor halt the flow of arms nor prevent the mass uprooting of their families or the use of rape as a weapon of war. In 2008 and 2009 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 30,000 women were raped in a deliberate effort to destroy families and communities, humiliate the victims and uproot people. Most perpetrators have gone unpunished. And in Afghanistan, despite the appeals of Hillary Clinton, the hopes of women and girls for education, employment and political participation will more likely than not be sacrificed in any peace agreement between the government and the Taliban.

Nonetheless, international exposure of the impact that war has on women can help in a number of ways.

First, greater international attention to the forced displacement of women and children in wartime has resulted in national, regional and international efforts to protect and assist them. There are today 27.5 million persons internally displaced by conflict, 70 percent of whom are women and children. While prevention is the weakest link, far greater awareness now exists that arbitrary displacement from one’s home, community and livelihood is a life-altering event that ought to be addressed on humanitarian and security grounds. To hold governments and armed groups accountable, a legal framework has been developed—the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the 2009 Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa (soon to be in force). More than 20 countries also have adopted national laws on forced displacement, some with special clauses to protect women, if implemented. This includes a new law in Colombia which will restore land forcibly taken from IDPs and compensate the victims of civil conflict. International organizations have become directly involved as well with programs for the protection of women, while most peacekeepers’ mandates today include IDP and civilian protection in their mandates. Reinforcing this, 192 governments in 2005 endorsed the collective responsibility to protect (R2P) when governments fail to defend their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. In Kenya in 2008, R2P did succeed in halting the ethnic violence and displacement that erupted following electoral conflict. In sum, standards and tools now exist for addressing displacement but need further strengthening at the national, regional and international levels.

Second, there is movement toward including women in peace processes. Women’s organizations worldwide are demanding a greater role in negotiating peace agreements and challenging the notion that peace can be decided only by the warring parties. They point out that the sidelining of women can undermine recovery and reconciliation. In 2000 for the first time, a United Nations Security Council resolution (1325) called for women to be included in all phases of peace negotiations and in post-conflict rebuilding. While implementation has a ways to go, women’s concerns—in particular their access to land, inheritance, property and security—are making their way into peace agreements.   

Third, impunity from gender based violence in wartime is beginning to be challenged.
The Nuremberg tribunal in 1945 failed to prosecute rape as a war crime or crime against humanity, but the international courts today—set up after the Balkans Wars and the Rwanda genocide—sentence sexual violators. And the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court specifies that rape can be prosecuted as a war crime and crime against humanity. This is a far cry from what a senior UN official said to me at the height of the Balkans Wars—“What’s so terrible about rape, you don’t die from it.” No longer is rape considered a regrettable but unavoidable part of conflict. In fact, there are conflicts where mass rape is not a factor at all. And there are IDP camps where watch teams and patrols curb sexual violence. International assistance with forensic evidence and documentation of rape is beginning to boost national capacities. UN peacekeepers charged with protecting women are now being taught that sexual violence and exploitation of women are unacceptable under the UN’s “zero tolerance” policy. Female police and military are being added to international forces to protect and prevent rapes while those committing crimes are now more likely to be sent home for prosecution, and the UN has begun to arrange for compensation to the victims.

At a deeper level, attitudes toward women must change for them to be treated more humanely in wartime. How many centuries it will take, I cannot say. Some women advocates go so far as to claim that countries will be less likely to go to war when there is gender equality. What I do see is a movement to better guarantee women’s protection as women worldwide become more vocal. If Aristophanes were to pay a visit today, he would no doubt be surprised to find that it has taken us all so long to learn the lesson he offered—and have done it so imperfectly.

On November 8th, 2011, PBS aired “War Redefined,” the capstone episode of the series Women, War & Peace. In the program Roberta Cohen provided analysis on internal displacement during conflict, the long-term consequences of displacement and the importance of including women in peace agreements. View the full program »