NEW YORK, June 13–Thousands of women boarded planes here Saturday to return home after an experience most thought was of unmatched and unmatchable significance: the United Nations Special Session on women’s rights.
Some had souvenirs and presents for family members in their bags; others, lists of new friends. Most had new ideas and techniques on how to lobby their governments for change.
Some had, however, tucked away in the hearts and minds methods to change how peace is made and treaties negotiated and a determination that in the 21st century, women will have seats at the table.
"What does it mean that the breakup [of the Soviet Union] is accompanied by wars and armed conflicts? It means that women and children suffer," said a representative from Azerbaijan, a survivor of its war with neighboring Armenia, during the panel discussion on women and armed conflict.
Those present agreed and, with the power of the global women’s rights movement present throughout the special session, determined that it was up to women to gain sufficient authority and to design processes that would end the suffering.
"Women have a particular role in peacekeeping agreements," said Mu Sochua, Minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs in Cambodia. "Men always have an agenda. Both sides talk to us, and they see: we have no other agenda but peace."
Inclusion is the overall goal of International Alert’s global campaign: Women Building Peace–From the Village Council to the Negotiating Table.
"Five years after Beijing, why are women continuously excluded from the peace table during negotiations?" asked Alice Adrian Paul of International Alert adding that the campaign’s first goal is a U.N. Security Council special session on women, security, and Peace-Building, to be held by the end of 2000.
"The questions are clear. How will we get to the table? And how do we stop impunity for violators?"
Sochua has one answer to that question. She believes increasing women’s political participation is the real key to a more peaceful future and she is now preparing for Cambodia’s elections, the first in 30 years.
Sochua was a community activist until the U.N. special session held in Beijing five years ago. There she found the support and encouragement to participate in national elections.
"I want to encourage all women to become more involved. The war is not over, the country has not had a chance to heal. It needs all of us. I talk to women who never thought of themselves as the sort of person to run for office, and I say to them: Why not? I was able to do it."
In Guatemala–in another direct outgrowth of Beijing–women’s organizations were involved in the peace process from the first day.
Luz Mendes of the National Union of Guatemalan Women outlined the way women influenced a nation’s developing calm after 30 years of war.
"The peace process consisted of parallel dialogues, with women involved on every level: on one hand, the government versus the rebels, on the other, a diverse representation of civil society. We went back and forth–all agreements were subject to approval of civil society." Mendes herself was both at the formal negotiating table and in an organizational tent.
Many present acknowledged the Beijing conference made one crucial achievement for women caught in wars: the classification of rape and sexual violence as a war crime, which is now being invoked at the international tribunals on war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Most believed that an effort must be made to take into account in any post-war assistance the trauma of rape and the despair of women who lost husbands and sons in the hostilities.
One expert pointed out that women refugees who had been raped in their homes might not wish to return, not even after cease-fires. Others added that distribution of home-building bricks to returnees may be of little use to women who have no construction experience in a village where the men had been the builders.
"We are overwhelmed by the need for services," said Samila Chaudrakirana of East Timor.
Amy Smythe, former Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs of Sierra Leone, said her country, like Cambodia, has an enormous number of children in comparison to the number of adults, again, as the result of the wars there.
"We are building a new country; we have to start all over again."
Smythe assailed the lack of female participation in her country’s reintegration program, designed to return former combatants to civil society, as well as the country’s South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"Solutions must be local and homegrown. They must include women’s rights and peace organizations," she said.