Women, War and Peace


UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet delivered the 2011 Phyllis Kossoff Policy Lecture at Roosevelt House, Hunter College, New York City, on 3 March 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Thank you, President Raab, for extending such a warm welcome. I am honoured to have been invited by Hunter College to deliver the Phyllis Kossoff Lecture for 2011.

It is a particular pleasure to address you here in the home of one of the 20th Century's great campaigners for human rights, one of the leaders in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt's work built the foundations of international human rights law grounded in the equality of all individuals, regardless of race, creed or sex.

“Women, War and Peace, the subject of my address this evening, was in fact a topic on which Eleanor Roosevelt held characteristically strong convictions. During the first UN General Assembly in 1946, Ms. Roosevelt insisted passionately that women should seek, and be granted, the opportunity to “share in the work of peace and reconstruction as they did in war and resistance.

Her plea, as you may have guessed, was not immediately taken up.

In fact, it would take nearly half a century for the Security Council to translate Ms Roosevelt's insight into international law.

In 2000, the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1325. This landmark decision recognized, first, that women's experiences of war were different from men's, and second, that a nation's women were an untapped resource for building peace.

Resolution 1325 called on all actors, national and international, to fully involve women in preventing, resolving, and recovering from conflict; and to ensure that all peacebuilding efforts are consistent with principles of gender equality.

Resolution 1325 thus articulated in the security field precisely the two objectives that UN Women, still just two months old, pursues: to empower women and to promote gender equality. (This is reflected in our official name — which is too long for anyone to remember, so I will remind you: the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.)

As UN Women's first leader, I am committed to accelerating our collective efforts to promote women's empowerment during transitions from war to peace.

UN women will seek to influence decision-making at the highest levels of UN policymaking — through an organization whose sole mandate is to facilitate women's realization of their human rights.

And, UN Women will work in the field, where women's lives are lived. We will:

  • work with governments to make public institutions more accessible, responsive and accountable to women;
  • support women's economic engagement through initiatives that address formal and informal barriers to expanded market access; and
  • advise on how to make national laws consistent with international obligations relating to women's rights.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Tonight I would like to share with you how UN Women will play these roles, working together with all our peacebuilding partners — national and international, public and private, women and men.

My instinct is to look forward, but before doing so, we must see where we stand.

We must ask ourselves: More than a decade after resolution 1325's passage, how has its call for women's engagement in the work of peace been answered?

Let me say that the international community's response has been, at best, “mixed.

On the one hand, those parts of the resolution that address women as victims of conflict — particularly as victims of systematic and widespread sexual violence — have in recent years been considerably elaborated. A series of additional resolutions beginning in mid-2008 — resolutions 1820, 1888, and 1960 — broke new ground by:

  • first, affirming that there can be no impunity for those who command, condone or commit such crimes; and
  • second, by pledging the international community to prevent and respond to sexual violence perpetrated during and after conflict.

The UN has begun the long journey from an exclusive focus on humanitarian reaction — responding to women's needs as victims — to a protective response. This means recognizing the need for customized security measures to prevent mass atrocity crimes against women.

Progress on this agenda accelerated following the appointment last year of a Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Margot Wallstrom, with whom I work closely on this element of UN Women's portfolio.

An example of our joint work with Ms. Wallstrom is our engagement with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to develop scenario-based training materials for peacekeepers on how to protect women in conflict situations from high levels of sexual violence. This pre-deployment training is designed to produce tactical readiness in conflict. It is intended to help produce intelligence to generate reliable warnings of security threats against women, and encourage peacekeepers to use the full range of actions available to them in defence of communities threatened with sexual violence. It is a powerful example of the paradigm shift in thinking about the protection of civilians that is required when we recognize sexual violence as a tactic of warfare.

An indicator of greater alacrity in protecting women is the recent conviction of nine government soldiers, including the commanding Lieutenant Colonel, of mass rapes committed on New Year's Day this year in the Fizi area of Eastern Congo.

These are important achievements. UN Women will build on them. But they tell only part of the story.

If we reflect not on the victim-centred portions of resolution 1325, but on those provisions that emphasize women's role as agents and leaders of conflict-resolution and long-term peacebuilding, a very different picture emerges.

Frankly, when it comes to promoting women's engagement in peace and security, the international community has performed poorly. Too many doors have remained closed. Lately, the main institutional actors have admitted these failings. But we still lack initiatives that would make a major change in the size and impact of women's presence in peace and recovery processes.

The hard fact is that the “work of peace, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, is still overwhelmingly carried out by men. UN Women researched 24 peace processes since the mid-1990s and found that women averaged fewer than 8 percent of the members of negotiating delegations representing parties to a conflict. A similar pattern holds if we look at what kinds of experts are supplied to peace talks. Very rarely have mediation support teams included specialists on how to shape peace agreements so that they preserve women's rights and ensure women's participation in the decision-making bodies that oversee the transition to a new political order.

Let us not forget, as well, that to this day no woman has been appointed as chief mediator of a UN-managed peace process.

Let me say that it is hard to believe that the lack of women at the highest levels of mediation does not account, at least in part, for the near-invisibility of gender issues in peace agreements. A study of 585 peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 found that just 16 percent contained any reference to women at all.

Just 3 percent of these peace accords contained a reference to sexual or gender-based violence. In just six ceasefire agreements, ever, has sexual violence been identified as a ceasefire violation. In two important cases — in Nepal and in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan — the result was improved monitoring protocols, staffing arrangements and, ultimately, security for women. And yet these innovations have not become standard practice. This is an institutional failure of the highest order.

To these shortcomings in the area of peacemaking and peacekeeping could be added a litany of broken promises concerning women's engagement in peacebuilding. Let me give just two examples

  • In post-conflict economic recovery we find that employment creation programmes disproportionately allocate work opportunities to men. Women have constituted as little as 8 percent of such workers in some post-conflict countries. This is despite UN guidelines encouraging gender parity in employment programmes, which can provide women an independent income — at least temporarily — and thus a chance at social, political or economic entrepreneurship. Yet little on-the-ground effort has gone into redesigning jobs programmes so that they benefit women.
  • The international community's approach to political representation in post-conflict situations has been similarly underwhelming. We have furnished inconsistent support to national authorities on how quota systems can increase the proportion of women in elected bodies. This has occurred despite clear evidence that, particularly in war's aftermath, electoral quotas — suitably adapted to national circumstances — are by far the fastest means of bringing women's parliamentary representation to the “critical mass point of 30 percent — the target set by the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Our research into post-conflict parliamentary representation has found that, in quota-based systems, 34 percent of elected representatives were women; whereas in countries without electoral quotas, women were just 12 percent of parliamentarians. In spite of increased awareness of the value of quotas, the pace of international action has been glacial.

Much more could be said about missed opportunities for women's engagement in the work of peace.

But rather than looking backward, let us focus on the way ahead. And what I see on the horizon are many opportunities for women's empowerment waiting to be seized.

Underlying these opportunities is the new international consensus the Secretary-General has built around issues of women, war and peace.

The Secretary-General has appointed an unprecedented number of women to senior peace and security positions, both at headquarters and in the field, where the number of women serving as Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, overseeing complex peace operations, continues to grow. Nowhere has the Secretary-General's commitment been better reflected than in his 2010 Report on Women's Participation in Peacebuilding, which president Raab referred to earlier.

The report contains a comprehensive Action Plan for Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding, to which the entire UN system has pledged its support. The Action Plan consists of clear commitments made by the Secretary-General on behalf of the United Nations. I will not detail them all here, but they include:

  • assigning responsibility within the UN system for ensuring women's access to peace talks, post-conflict planning processes and donor roundtables;
  • a requirement that at least 15 percent of UN expenditure in conflict and post-conflict situations be devoted to investments in women's empowerment and gender equality — if this seems rather modest, consider that current allocations for women's empowerment is about 5 percent of post-conflict spending;
  • mechanisms for providing appropriate gender expertise to peace talks and post-conflict statebuilding initiatives, whether for electoral support, constitution drafting, or civil service reform; and
  • institutional changes to advance women's empowerment through economic recovery and rule of law interventions.

This Action Plan was submitted to the Security Council last autumn, just before I took up my post at UN Women. This permitted me, from my earliest days in New York, to focus on figuring out how to advance implementation, how to make things happen for women caught up in war and its aftermath.

At the centre of UN Women's work in this area will be our newly formed partnership with the Peacebuilding Support Office. The PBSO shepherded this Action Plan through the process of securing UN-wide agreement. I would like to recognize the leadership demonstrated in the process by Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Judy Cheng-Hopkins.

The Peacebuilding Commission, an intergovernmental body for which the PBSO serves as the secretariat, has lately expanded the number of post-conflict countries on which it focuses, adding Liberia and Guinea as the fifth and sixth countries on its agenda.

There are important lessons we can draw regarding women's peace leadership from a number of countries. In so many countries, even though women are instrumental in supporting peace processes, they are asked to wait when it comes to addressing women's urgent concerns. These include justice and reparations for war crimes against women. They also include special measures to ensure women can participate in public governance, and they include the demand for land and property rights. Women are often told that these are special concerns to be addressed once stability is achieved. But delay has consequences for peace.

Guinea provides an interesting contrast. In late 2009, a political crisis unfolded in Guinea that constituted a clear threat to the peace. The international community reacted with unusual speed to reports of serious human rights abuses. More than 100 women had reportedly been raped by armed personnel at an opposition rally that also left over 100 people dead at a stadium in Conakry. Graphic videos taken on cell phones, freely circulated on the internet, lent credence to the charges. An International Commission of Inquiry was quickly constituted and dispatched by the Secretary-General.

The Commission had a mandate to investigate claims of targeted sexual violence. This sent a message to all concerned that women's rights would be central to the international community's engagement with Guinea from the outset. And this, in turn, created opportunities for women's groups to demand inclusion in political discussions that would shape the subsequent transition process.

Women in Guinea still face serious challenges. But the international community's reaction in the case of Guinea stands out as an example of how early engagement on gender issues can bring payoffs down the line — particularly for women's political assertiveness, the key to improving their economic fortunes, enhancing their physical security, and upgrading their legal status.

We must internalize this lesson of early engagement. As the case of Guinea and other countries like Burundi, Guatemala, and so many others show, it is never too early to involve women. It is never too soon to hear their voices. We cannot afford to delay their inclusion.

I refer those who say we have to wait to another great American champion for human rights, the Reverend Martin Luther King, who stated unequivocally, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.

And, yes, “It is always the right time to fight for women's rights.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If UN Women is to make a positive contribution to women's efforts at conflict-resolution or long-term peacebuilding in countries, we need to do more. There are urgent priorities to amplify women's peace leadership.

First, we need to be on the ground. We must be pre-positioned to respond rapidly to calls for support from women organizing themselves to demand their rights. It is among my highest priorities to strengthen the field-based dimension of our work.

UN Women will not maintain a presence in every country, though gender inequality exists — in one form or another — everywhere. But in the coming months, I will prioritize the building up of our field-level engagement in countries and regions that most require our support, including those countries affected by conflict. In some places women's associations have been severely damaged; in others they have lost basic functional capacity, with a corresponding diminution of women's voices.

A primary purpose of deepening UN Women's field presence in these settings will be to build the political voice and institutional capacity of autonomous women's organizations.

Second, a concrete action that UN Women will support to ensure women's enhanced engagement in crisis and conflict situations is the establishment of an expert capacity to support women's institutional participation.

In response to a Security Council request, the UN is already developing a rapidly deployable team of judicial experts to support national efforts to combat impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. This is an example of what I mentioned earlier regarding the UN's recently improved capacity to address women's protection.

But this must be complemented by a similar initiative focused on supporting women's engagement in public agenda-setting and decision-making. The international response facility I am proposing will consist of on-call experts, ready to work with local women to facilitate their involvement in any and all official processes.

UN departments and agencies are working to realize the commitments on women's participation that are in the Secretary-General's Action Plan on Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding. Rapidly deployable interdisciplinary teams can help to bridge the divide between grassroots women and official processes. They can assist women's associations to organize themselves in ways that will leverage their voices and sustain substantive participation. The international response facility would act as a force multiplier for local women's movements that have seen their ranks decimated by conflict and instability.

Let me be clear — what we are talking about here is not only support for women's engagement in mediation and conflict-resolution, but also for the direct involvement, on an ongoing basis, of women and gender-equality specialists in all transitional institutions. This will create durable consultation structures that can be sustained over time, and the development of legal and technical capacity. We are working in partnership with the Department of Political Affairs and other UN entities to make this happen, including through the increase in the number of women mediators.

Finally, women's peace and human rights movements need our support and strengthening, particularly for building organizational capacity, especially while a conflict or crisis continues to rage.

Sometimes, crisis and conflict thrust women into new, unconventional roles, as leaders of peace, liberation and democracy movements, as we see so vividly in the Arab States region right now. But despite phenomenal and even heroic engagement by women during peace processes and in democratization struggles, this can dissipate quickly as members of women's groups return to pick up neglected domestic roles.

This is what happened during the process of political liberalization in my own country. Women triggered and led the democratization struggle. At the moment of transition, however, women leaders, and women's concerns, were sidelined. It took a long time for some of us to climb up through male-dominated party hierarchies.

International security institutions must increase massively our engagement with women at the grassroots. And for this, we must find a means of financing and supporting women's organizational development in fragile states, long before conflicts end.

Donors often have difficulty supporting women's groups because the transaction costs are very high. Women's groups often need considerable support simply in organizational establishment — the costs of setting up accounting and reporting systems for instance. In a conflict context, the problems are compounded by security threats to women activists, and the massive challenges of coping in crisis contexts.

Yet how can we expect women to be ready to seize opportunities for engaging in peace talks, constitutional reform, democratic transitions, if they are not organized? How can women realistically represent other women without going through the task of constituency-building, debating women's interests as a group, and finding effective means of representation? This cannot be accomplished overnight.

UN Women has supported women in these difficult situations through a model that works in Afghanistan and Haiti. These funds finance small grants to women's groups combating violence against women.

An essential feature of this model is its focus on financing basic operating costs for women's associations, including developing capacities for accounting, documentation, and constituency-outreach. UN Women will review this model for potential for scaling up where there is a need.

Funding the organizational strength of women's associations is a sound investment in inclusive peace. For this reason, I have included funding to women's organizations as a key indicator of progress in the women, peace and security agenda. This is one of almost 30 indicators that we will track as a means of building accountability for meeting international commitments to women's protection and participation in conflict.

I have mentioned some key initiatives we are taking to ensure women are leading and transforming conflict resolution and recovery. An example of how these initiatives can generate a changed approach to women's rights can be seen in the case of transitional justice.

Victims and survivors of serious human rights abuses committed during or after conflict theoretically possess a right to obtain redress or reparation. In practice, efforts to provide reparations have been uneven and underfunded. They have also tended to marginalize women. This partly reflects pre-existing legal biases, including property ownership and inheritance laws that discriminate against women.

But part of the problem is that, even where women gain access to peace talks, gender equality advocates are excluded from the process of designing and operating transitional justice institutions. Is it any wonder, then, that such institutions lack the legal provisions and governance arrangements that would permit a more gender-responsive approach to repairing the damages suffered by women in conflict?

The initiatives I have discussed this evening would provide technical support for translating women's concerns into lasting institutional reforms to build women's rights and maintain women's participation.

I emphasize reparations not because women's lives can be repaired through legal processes alone. In fact, I am hesitant to stress women's roles as victims at all.

But reparations, paradoxically, are also about empowerment. Whether symbolic or material, directed to communities or individuals, reparations can enable women to make active claims on the state. Reparations can also involve public acknowledgement of abuses suffered by a country's women. If well-designed, reparations programmes can break the silence that imprisons too many survivors of sexual violence.

Let me quote an extraordinary survivor of multiple gang rapes committed by armed groups over several years in eastern Congo — a woman who currently runs a shelter for rape survivors. At a hearing conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights last year, she told an audience of her fellow citizens:

“What reparation do I want? I do not want money. The only reparation I want is that you all see rape not as MY problem, but YOUR problem.

In other words, a gender-responsive approach to reparations can demonstrate that women's security and their equal enjoyment of rights is central to an inclusive approach to national rebuilding. But like other examples I have mentioned tonight, attention to women's rights cannot be an afterthought if these positive results are to be achieved.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I close, I cannot help asking how Eleanor Roosevelt might have regarded the creation of UN Women. My guess is that she would not have welcomed it — at least not now, not in 2011, not this late.

Mrs. Roosevelt would likely have been shocked that, six and a half decades after humankind declared universally the equality of all people, it would still be thought necessary to create a specialized agency to serve as tribune for half of them.

The Commission on the Status of Women, which tomorrow concludes its 55th annual session, was the sort of norm-shaping body that Mrs. Roosevelt championed. And even that august body, I am sure, she would have hoped to see redundant before now. As Mrs. Roosevelt knew, obtaining formal equality was not the same as enjoying substantive equality, just as having one's rights officially recognized is not the same as being able to exercise them, much less to effect social change.

In 1934, Ms Roosevelt said:

“Fourteen years [since women's suffrage] have now gone by and everywhere people are asking, ‘What have the women done with the vote?' I often wonder why they don't ask the men the same question … . [B]ut, Mrs. Roosevelt added, “I realize that it is a high compliment to women that evidently they were expected to bring about some marked change in political condition.

And indeed, it is women themselves, working together with men, who, in the end, will bring about change in their own political condition. In UN Women they now have a steadfast, committed partner.

I thank you.