Women’s rights are, of course, human rights. So why is it that we seem to need to emphasize their reality? The answer lies in the simple fact that women’s rights throughout the world are constantly being violated. Access to education, employment, fair salaries, justice in courts, land and home ownership, physical and sexual safety—within all these spheres women have been discriminated against and violated. Thus, the need for specific laws and policies both created and implemented to uphold women’s rights is an essential factor in their being realized. And that also means we need organizations who are monitoring adherence to the underlying principles of these laws as well as reporting on women’s participation in peacebuilding.
UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) works toward the advancement of women’s human rights and the achievement of gender equality worldwide. UNIFEM grounds itself on the premise that “it is the fundamental right of every woman to live a life free from discrimination and violence, and that gender equality is essential to achieving development and to building just societies.”
Nanette Braun, Chief of Communications at UNIFEM, believes this as well. She begins by sharing some of her own background and what eventually brought her to UNIFEM’s door.
“During my university studies in Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. At the time, I was a journalist writing for mainly German publications. It was a very exciting period—a time of big talks about a new world order, and people were looking very strongly at the United Nations. I thought I would like to join them, so I did an internship with the UN. Eventually, in February 1995 I started working in the Communications area. I first became involved with UN Volunteers, an organization that works with professionals from around the world who support the UN in areas like electoral and humanitarian missions as well as in development related works. As a journalist, I found myself covering UN events like the Conference on Population in Cairo, and since gender issues had always been a strong interest for me, I eventually joined UNIFEM and relocated to New York. That was seven years ago. It appears that the longer I’m with UNIFEM, the more important I find the cause. UNIFEM is a dynamic organization with a very important mandate, and I’m happy to be on board.”
An important reference for UNIFEM’s work in support of women in conflict and post-conflict situations is UN Security Council Resolution 1325. “Resolution 1325 was a landmark resolution in that it first looked at the impact of war on women and viewed it from a security perspective,” Nanette states. “What we know is that war affects women differently than men. One horrific manifestation of the impact of war on women is the systematic and widespread use of rape—something we know is happening around the world.”
Resolution 1325 highlights the following issues:
- The participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
- The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence
- The prevention of violence again women through the promotion of women’s rights, accountability and law enforcement.
- The mainstreaming of gender perspectives in peace operations
As Nanette reflects on how war impacts women differently, she emphasizes the need to look at related issues such as the process of peace negotiations and the composition of international peacekeeping missions. “There are far too few women involved in these negotiations—negotiations which will directly affect their communities and their country,” Nanette asserts. “Women are not in enough decision-making positions at either the national or the international level.” As noted, in many cases where sexual violence is the heavy fist utilized to beat the enemy, victims need special care. “We know that it makes a big difference for a woman who is a survivor of violence if she can speak to a female officer rather than have to speak with a male. “
But are UN resolutions like 1325 really making a difference? “It’s been ten years since Resolution 1325 was created,” Nanette states, “and there were other landmark resolutions that followed. In June 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1820 focused for the first time specifically on sexual violence in conflict as a threat to international security. And it certainly is. It’s horribly effective. When rape and sexual violence are systematically used as tactics, communities are disrupted. Basically you destroy the social fabric that holds them together. This degradation and humiliation of human beings is what makes populations flee. With regard to the women who are violated, in addition to the shame, there is also the stigma attached to the rape itself and the resulting pregnancy. Women are very often shunned by their families and their communities.”
The epidemic drama of widespread sexual violence will only be curtailed through watchdog efforts. Follow up resolutions—Security Council Resolution 1820 and 1889—which specifically relate to the two previous ones have resulted in a new UN office headed by Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström. In this newly created position, Ms. Wallström will lead efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated against women and children.
During her presentation as the United Nations’ first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Wallström stated:
In my view, women’s security is the best measure of national security. 1820 acknowledges this. It affirms that steps to prevent and address sexual violence, are also steps to maintain peace and security. In a way, 1820 is itself an answer to the question posed by this panel. While important progress has been made on 1325, sexual violence has continued – even escalated. 1820 represents a sharpened response to a pillar of 1325 that remains woefully weak.
Nanette Braun also indicates that although the last ten years have offered very important developments with regard to Resolution 1325 and the resolutions that followed, there still remains a need to look into how to realize their aims more effectively.
At the moment, UNIFEM is part of an effort do just that—to develop indicators “to improve the ways in which we track and count the impact of conflict on women and their efforts to build peace.” As Nanette explains, “One example of an indicator with regard to Resolution 1325 is the number of female peacekeeping personnel in a given situation—the number of women in peace negotiations, the number of women as mediators. Through the indicator, we can look at the baseline and how things are being monitored. Indicators help us review whether a resolution like 1325 is being implemented, which is a very important aspect of driving this agenda forward.”
An example of the ground level results of including more women in peacekeeping has already been seen in Liberia. “There is a police contingent of Indian women stationed as part of the peacekeeping mission there. Because it’s made such a difference to the women in the country, and they’ve felt encouraged by it, there is now a deliberate effort in Liberia to increase the number of women in the police force. The women themselves are also coming forward, saying they want to become policewomen. Also, Liberia now has a special unit on sexual and gender-based violence which is very important since it is necessary to have trained personnel in the police who know how to speak to victims properly. You need special training for that. You also need to know the services you can refer the women to. And that’s not only medical services, but also counseling and legal services. In addition, now Liberia also has a special court that only deals with sexual violence crimes.”
Although Nanette notes that developments like these are extremely encouraging , there is work yet to be done. The goals of Resolution 1325 are still far from being realized. “More efforts have been made through the years,” Nanette remarks, “but I think we haven’t seen as much change as we would have hoped. Yet, the fact that it’s not only Liberia that is trying to increase things like the number of female police officers, and other countries are making similar efforts, is an encouraging development. In Rwanda, UNIFEM has worked very closely with the police and the military on addressing sexual violence so that you now have gender-based violence units within the Rwandan police force and an active campaign in the military as well. This means that both police officers and soldiers are presently being trained with regard to sexual violence issues before they go on peacekeeping missions. Representatives from other countries are actually going to Rwanda to see what the leaders there are doing and how their police force and military are addressing all of these concerns. This is most definitely an achievement. “
Another incidence of Resolution 1325 in action was the conference held in Madrid, Advancing Women’s Leadership for Sustainable Peace in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Worldwide, which was supported by the government of Spain and hosted by UNIFEM and the IWC (International Women’s Commission for Just and Sustainable Israeli-Palestinian Peace). The goal of Israeli, Palestinian and international women leaders who attended the conference was to end the occupation and achieve a two-state solution. “UNIFEM helped by providing a platform for these women to meet and exchange their thoughts, ideas and opinions. It’s very important that there is a dialogue between like-minded women from all sides. This conference highlights how women can be involved in peace negotiations as well as in setting an agenda for the future of their societies.”
Nanette also notes that during the month of June, in order to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Resolution 1325, UNIFEM, together with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department for Political Affairs, and the UN Development Program, has organized Global Open Day for Women and Peace. In more than twenty post-conflict countries, senior UN officials are literally opening their doors to women peace activists and leaders. “This Open Day,” Nanette explains, “ is an opportunity for women to come forward and speak to the heads of peacekeeping missions in their countries and to voice their concerns and their recommendations.”
UNIFEM has also launched a petition, SAY NO to Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict, that people around the world can sign which will be used to show global support for the issue of ending violence against women. “There will be a high-level ministerial meeting in October on the 10th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325,” Nanette informs. “Before this meeting takes place we would like to show through these signatures that there is global support for Resolution 1325 and for its implementation. Everyone signing the petition helps make it a more powerful force in assuring that the resolution is carried out.”
In fact, the history of SAY NO – UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN is a testament to the dedication of both UNIFEM and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s commitment to prioritize the issue of women’s rights violations as well as resolving the dilemma.
“SAY NO started in November 2007 as a signature campaign,” Nanette relates. “UNIFEM put out a global call to make ending violence against women a top policy priority because it’s become an issue of pandemic proportions. This violence exists within every country throughout the world. It has nothing to do with whether that country is of the global north or the global south, rich or poor. We also realized that what was needed was something stipulated in the framework of the UN Secretary-General’s campaign on the issue. You need laws. You need national plans with enough resources to implement these laws and policies. You need more data, and you need more public events and more social mobilization. Also, you very much need to address the actual violence in conflict. So what UNIFEM did through the signature campaign was to appeal to policymakers around the world, requesting they make ending violence against women a top priority in their work. The response was astounding. Within a year, we had more than 5,000,000 signatures. Even many parliamentarians—the whole Tanzanian Parliament, for example— signed the petition.”
When lawmakers publically express their will and intention to act on an issue, it’s a powerful statement. Nanette expressed UNIFEM was a bit overwhelmed, although positively, by the response. “We thought we would stop after a year,” Nanette divulged. “We were then urged by many of our partner organizations to continue, but to continue in a slightly different way. As I mentioned, the UN Secretary-General had launched a campaign on the issue, UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. It was at that historic moment that we realized how we could bring our own constituency to the Secretary-General’s initiative. That brought us to the second phase of SAY NO which we call SAY NO—UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. “
And SAY NO-UNITE focuses on action—individual and group. “UNIFEM’s partners wanted to be able to publicize the different advocacy actions occurring throughout the world. This resulted in providing partners with tools to build their own web sites, thereby getting the message out to more and more people. Obviously a web site allows even the smallest group to make others aware of the issues as well as to basically alert people to events that they are organizing. So now, if you fundraise you can talk about it. If you go to schools, like in Thailand, and start to interact with the school children and develop a curriculum together with the authorities, then others can be aware of that action. In the end, it all feeds back into the global whole.”
And that’s the crux of the idea—individual and small group empowerment—linking the local to the global. “Being inspired and encouraged by what others are doing is an important aspect of building a web site and using the advocacy tools UNIFEM provides. If you find a particular action interesting, you can then replicate it. It’s a kind of cross fertilization. It also gives a platform for small, local initiatives that are driven by individuals. They can now reach a global audience.”
UNIFEM has also seen the SAY NO project embraced by the European Parliament. “They took SAY NO as an occasion to adopt a declaration of zero tolerance on violence against women,” Nanette states, “and to call for an International Year within the European Union on ending this violence. So that is a breakthrough. It was adopted by the parliament through a majority decision so we knew that meant the parliamentarians were fully behind it. Eva-Britt Svensson, chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has been instrumental in driving this agenda. She says that through the engagement on SAY NO, there is a new awareness within the European Parliament. Her own testament actually involved a quite moving moment. When the declaration was adopted in the European Parliament, she gave an interview and basically talked for the first time about the fact that she was a violence survivor herself which is why she is so strongly behind this agenda. Actually, on the SAY NO site, we have an interview and video of Ms. Svensson. She is a very avid supporter of women who have been in the same situation and gives them a lot of encouragement. Of course, in her function as a parliamentarian in the European Parliament, she is now able to carry this agenda forward .”
And highlighting such an important message is of great importance. Nanette recognizes that no organization can stand alone and UNIFEM has a number of partnerships—enabling them to strengthen the advancement of gender equality through collective power.
“One strong relationship we have is with Amnesty International,” Nanette mentions. “Amnesty has their own campaign on ending violence against women and has reached out to all their chapters. So basically, we’ve joined forces on that agenda. We’re also working with The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, The World YWCA, and a number of other groups. In the end, you can only work on an issue of this magnitude and drive it forward effectively if you have a network of partners.
Making people more aware of these types of issues can be difficult. UNIFEM’s Goodwill Ambassadors—persons of international stature from the world of art, music, film, sports and literature—volunteer their time to accent important agendas to the public. Celebrated and famous individuals such as HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand, HRH Princess Basma bint Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Hon. Mrs. Phoebe Asiyo, Chair of the Women’s Political Caucus of Kenya and Member of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, work tirelessly to advance gender equality. Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman, also a Goodwill Ambassador, is the spokesperson for the SAY NO-UNITE initiative. “We are very happy to have her on board as a Goodwill Ambassador who supports this cause so strongly,” Nanette says.
Yet, although fame offers a powerful platform to proclaim the need for advocacy, all of us can use our voices to highlight and resolve a devastating and horrendous practice—the sexual violation of women and girls as a military tactic. And it’s all the more imperative that we do. Let us remember that those violating women have their own public platform—a world stage where they voice their agenda loudly and forcefully. They know that in the wake of war, a raped woman is a potent message:
Flee or there’ll be others like her. We can get to your women, we can get to your soul.
If we are to attain peace anywhere it means we must protect that soul. In the sphere of human rights, Nanette reminds us that “women’s rights are violated more often and to a larger extent. But in essence, we are still talking about the same thing. There is no divide. Women’s rights are human rights.”