Special Report: Women Confront War, Build Peace

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Awut Deng Acuil

(WOMENSENEWS)–This week, Women’s Enews presents a special report on women asserting their leadership for peace and the unique consequences of war that women bear.

First, three short profiles of women working to end orchestrated violence: a Jew in Israel advocating for peace with Palestine; a Sudanese mother traveling in her strife-torn nation to bring others to the negotiation process; a grandmother in Zimbabwe risking jail for protesting the nation’s new harvest of violence.

Finally, a report on the first-ever documentation of the extraordinary toll that wars–all wars–take on women: as targets of rape, as pregnant or lactating survivors in desperate need of medical care and food, as survivors charged with caretaking of others, and as refugees coerced into prostitution.

In Jerusalem: As the fight for freedom, land and autonomy rages between Palestinians and Israelis, one woman stands as the buffer. Human rights lawyer and activist Gabi Lasky has been a beacon of hope for 13 years on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Being a Jew has shaped her vision as a defender of injustice and degradation.

“The moment you are aware your people were unjustly violated, you understand you cannot do the same to any other people,” Lasky says.

In Israel, which since 1948 has been a refuge for Jews around the world, Lasky is leading the fight for the recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Palestinians have the right to a nation, self–determination and to lead their lives as a free people in their own country,” Lasky argues. She became an activist while in college 13 years ago and was the secretary general of Peace Now, with about 500,000 supporters, and serves on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, which encourages dialogue between both groups.

In her capacity as the legal advisor to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, she responds to claims of torture, ill treatment and brutality by police in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority.

After fighting for peace for more than a decade, her determination is unwavering.

“Peace will come,” she says. “If I did not have hope, I would not be fighting.”

In the Sudan: At the male-dominated Sudanese peace talks around the world, tall, slim, dark-skinned Awut Deng Acuil is a prominent figure.

For 20 years, she has made working for peace her life. Awarded the InterAction Humanitarian Peace Award last year, Deng has helped start the Sudanese Women Association in Nairobi and the Sudanese Women Voice for Peace, groups that work for peace and women’s rights. The widow of a former vice president of Southern Sudan and mother of seven knows the pains of war intimately.

Deng was born and raised in South Sudan where she completed her elementary school before getting married in 1979. She completed her secondary education while being a mother. The onset of the armed civil unrest in the 1980s disrupted her education and made her a refugee in Kenya. There she took English classes and later received a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the United States International University in Nairobi.

Deng traveled throughout the nation–initially carrying her 17-month-old toddler with her–advocating for peace in a nation torn by ethnic and tribal rivalries perpetuated by the ongoing conflict between two of Sudan’s largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Deng says the cry of desperate women and children drives her to do what she can to end their suffering.

She has helped the New Sudan Council of Churches establish conflict resolution and peace agreements between these and other groups through the church-supported “People-to-People Peace Process,” which encourages the Sudanese people to face each other, discuss their differences and search for agreements to make peace. Practical agreements are also hammered out over issues such as access to animal grazing areas, water points and the return of abducted children and women.

Such local peace agreements have also emphasized that all military and militia groups should respect the civilian population, allow displaced people and abducted women and children to return to their homes, and allow for freedom of movement, trade and communication across tribal areas. Deng’s particular ability to bridge the divides that split local communities “gives courage and hope to others that most problems can be resolved through sensitive dialogue and understanding,” says a leader in the peace process there.

“Women in Sudan endure extremely difficult situations. They lose their children and husbands to war and slavery. The war is bad,” Deng says.

In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: Zodwa Sibanda is a tiny woman with three grown children, a “gogo” or grandmother in the local idiom of her Ndebele culture.

Zimbabwe police threw her in jail on Feb. 14 with 16 other women and two men for daring to protest. Their crime was walking on city sidewalks on Valentine’s Day, passing out roses with notes calling for an end to Zimbabwe’s state-sponsored violence.

“Women need to stand up and fight for themselves,” she says, explaining why she and others founded Women of Zimbabwe Arise, which organized Friday’s march.

“Most women don’t know how powerful they are,” says Sibanda. Apparently this was not an issue for this spouse of an opposition political leader. She has spent a lifetime campaigning for women’s rights, first as a freedom fighter during Zimbabwe’s war of independence and later in government and civil society. Today, as Zimbabwe spirals into economic and political crisis and the government cracks down on political dissidents, Sibanda is again leading women to stand up against political oppression. This was her fifth time in jail, but the first where police showed so little respect to female arrestees that they forced them to strip in the presence of male officers.

“It’s a sign of how bad things are getting here,” she says.

These women are fighting for peace for all, but as women have a far greater vested interest in reducing armed conflict in their nations. A recent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Fund for Women provides documentation to the growing realization that women–as non-combatants–pay an extraordinarily high price for war.

For more information:

UNIFEM: “Women, War and Peace:
The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building”:
http://www.unifem.undp.org/resources/assessment/

U.N. Draft on Iraq–
STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL
10 December 2002
“LIKELY HUMANITARIAN SCENARIOS”:
http://www.casi.org.uk/info/undocs/war021210.pdf

Women In Black:
http://www.womeninblack.net/mission.html


Women Suffer Disproportionately from Displacement and Sexual Violence

For their study “Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building,” researchers Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spent a year interviewing women in 14 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, East Timor, Kosovo, Israel, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

Outlining their research in a 155-page report, the authors contend that women face particular challenges not often addressed by government and humanitarian groups. Additionally, Rehn and Sirleaf offer dozens of proposals to ensure that women are protected during conflict and included in the peace-building process.

Across the world, researchers found that woman are more likely than men to end up displaced as a result of conflict and often become the sole caretakers for children, the sick and elderly.

Displacement hampers women’s access to medical supplies. When half a million Rwandans fled the border into North Kivu in 1994, almost 50,000 people died largely from diseases caused by lack of sanitation, with the highest death rates occurring in children under five and in women.

At the same time, researchers found that displaced women, facing a lack of financial resources, often traded sex for money, food and shelter. Refugee camps offered little relief, with unsanitary conditions and high incidences of discrimination and sexual violence.

Furthermore, researchers found that the creation of refugee or humanitarian camps often precipitated an increase in prostitution. The report documents repeated instances of sexual abuse at the hands of humanitarian groups, citing camps in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Repeatedly, the researchers found that rape is a systematic tactic of war used to terrorize women and “dilute” the population as a form of ethnic cleansing. Tens of thousands of women have been raped in Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Sudan. In Rwanda, Hutu men who knew they were HIV positive raped Tutsi women to infect them with the virus.

These women have little recourse, notes the report. Local authorities often have no power, and, while International Criminal Tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda helped raise standards of accountability for crimes against women, researchers contend that women need a stronger voice in the judicial process on local and international levels.

Women’s Voices Absent from Government and Media

Among their 64 recommendations, the researchers call for the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to appoint experts to assess the shortcomings of international and national laws and standards pertaining to the protection of women in post-conflict situations. They also call for the United Nations to support a 30 percent quota for women candidates in general elections.

The researchers also suggest increasing journalists’ and editors’ sensitivity to gender issues. Media coverage of war is often slanted, tending to portray women as victims or sexual objects. Images of women huddled in doorways or grieving over their dead children have become synonymous with images of war, say the researchers, who cite an instance in Bosnia where reporters asked only to interview rape victims who had been gang-raped.

Additionally, the researchers highlight significant gender disparity in the media, citing a 1995 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report that women make up just 3 percent of the media worldwide. Another survey, conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, found an under-representation of women in the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post in the weeks following September 11. At the Washington Post, women wrote seven of 107 commentaries; at the Times they penned eight out of 79.

The media also overlooks women’s contributions to help communities heal in post-conflict countries, say these researchers. After the genocide in Rwanda, a group of women banded together to create the “Duhozanye” Association, which means “Let’s Console Each Other,” and helped rebuild each other’s homes. In Bosnia, women created mobile health clinics to provide gynecological and psychosocial help to rape victims. And across the globe, chapters of Women in Black have provided a visible alternative to violence and war.

But these efforts go unrecognized by the media and government, according to the researchers, as does women’s role in peace-building. The report calls for specific measures to ensure the inclusion of woman at the peace table and recognize their involvement in humanitarian operations.

Looking Towards Iraq

“Women, War and Peace” comes on the heels of last month’s leak of an internal U.N. report forecasting the need for humanitarian aid to Iraq in the event of U.S. attack. According to the report, 500,000 Iraqis could require treatment as a result of injuries directly or indirectly caused by military action.

Children under five and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding “will be particularly vulnerable because of the likely absence of a functioning primary health care system in a post-conflict situation,” reads the report, which predicts a dire nutritional status for some 2 million children and 1 million pregnant and lactating women.

“Furthermore, the outbreak of diseases in epidemic if not pandemic proportions is very likely,” researchers conclude. “Diseases such as cholera and dysentery thrive in the environment.”

According to a U.N. spokesperson, the leaked report–made public on the Web site of the British Campaign against Sanctions on Iraq, a student-led group opposed to military sanctions–is authentic but preliminary, and the numbers cited may be revised.

Facing a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.N. is seeking $37 million in additional funding to provide emergency medical aid, housing and food rations to Iraqis.

“We would be amiss if we were not preparing for some type of humanitarian aid to Iraq,” said the U.N. spokesperson.

New Yorker Dakota Smith covered the United Nations report; Peroshni Govender filed from Jerusalem; Fredrick Nzwili reported on peace in the Sudan and Nicole Itano covered events in Zimbabwe. All are free-lance correspondents for Women’s Enews.


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