Queen Noor of Jordan and UN's Kofi Annan

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Delegates to the United Nations’ 48th conference on the status of women, which ends Saturday, have been finding some signs of progress on the perennial issues of the rights of women to education, healthcare and property ownership. But when it came to warfare, they made it clear that there is still a long way to go.

Anne Marie Makombo, president of the commission for women, children and family of theDemocratic Republic of the Congo’s National Assembly, told the conference’s general debate that Congolese women–ensnared in a five-year old civil war that has cost 3 million lives–have yet to be allowed to participate in the U.N. international peace conference on the Great Lakes region of Africa to be held in Tanzania this November.

Makombo and others offered these observations as part of the meeting’s central task of evaluating the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1325, a call made four years ago for governments and the United Nations to provide special protection to women and children in armed conflict. The resolution also calls on the U.N. secretary-general to appoint more women to conflict-prevention activities and peacekeeping duties.

Asha Rose Migiro, minister for community development, gender and children for Tanzania, said that for centuries women had been leading peace advocates, but that they are “excluded and grossly underrepresented in formal negotiations for peace and their involvement in reconstruction after war is hardly noticeable.”

Peace Builders Unaware of Resolution

Dee L. Aker, deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, gave perhaps the most exasperated testimony, regarding how little was known about resolution 1325 around the world.

In a worldwide e-mail discussion leading up to the conference, Aker wrote: “We brought in four women on the frontlines of peace building from four regions of the world; they had insufficient awareness of 1325 and little support in calling upon its tenets.” So far the resolution has been translated into only 31 languages.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the deliberations produced a disheartening picture of women and girls still suffering as special victims of war, with more girls and women than ever picking up weapons to join in blood feuds largely of men’s making.

“The rights of these girls are under threat from their own governments, armed opposition forces and occasionally by members of their own communities and their families,” said Dyan Mazurana, the co-author of a new study presented at the conference by the Canadian rights group Rights and Democracy. The report found that between 1990 and 2003, girls were part of government, militia, paramilitary and armed opposition forces in 55 countries. They were mostly recruited by fighting forces, but some chose to enlist, the study said.

“For many, ‘joining’ is a response to violence against themselves or their community, a protection strategy or an opportunity to meet their basic needs,” the study said. In 27 countries, the girls were abducted to carry out various roles, including combat in 34 nations, the study said.

“Limiting our understanding of the roles they play to those of captive ‘wives,’ ‘sexual slaves’ or ‘camp followers’ is inaccurate,” the study said.

45 Resolutions about War Since 1945

Since 1945, there have been 45 U.N. resolutions, treaties and declarations on the protection of women in war and increasing their role in peacemaking. The slow pace of change on this front appears to spur a sense of public disregard toward all the speeches, panel discussions and press briefings inside the labyrinth of U.N. conference rooms and at nearby meeting halls.

Despite comments by headliners such as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Queen Noor of Jordan, President George W. Bush’s sister Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch and Liz Cheney, the U.S. vice president’s daughter, as part of the U.S. delegation, there was scant coverage in the English-speaking press.

Defenders of the conference say it provides a major impulse toward woman-friendly reforms that spreads out from New York through national legislatures, educational policy and public relations campaigns around the world.

“This meeting is aimed at maintaining the momentum to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women, working together with men,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Angela King, who is Annan’s special adviser on women’s affairs. “It hopes to promote greater acceptance of women as full partners in critical areas such as peace negotiations and economic development because without such acceptance there will be no true democracy, sustainable peace and enjoyment of human rights.”

But women’s activists say the underlying change in attitudes needed to enforce those reforms is often elusive. “While more and more laws are being passed and national action plans for women’s empowerment are conceived, real implementation is still lacking in many instances,” said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, one of the organizers of the conference.

More Women in the World’s Parliaments

The meeting also functions as a chance for ministers to compare notes about the condition of women in their countries and in that regard the meeting offered some bright points.

Aldo Mantovani, Italy’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, for instance, said Italian education reform had helped younger generations of men to overcome gender stereotypes about home life and family care, encouraging them to share childrearing and domestic chores.

Valerie Nyirahabineza, minister of gender and promotion of the family in Rwanda, told the conference that her country had recently adopted laws allowing girls inheritance rights.

A report on women serving in the world’s parliaments showed that as of January 15.2 percent of all members of both upper and lower houses around the world are women, the most ever, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Only 14 countries, however, have reached the 30 percent mark, commonly accepted as the level at which women have an impact on a legislative body.

Aria Seljuki of Afghanistan reported on women’s active participation in the drafting of Afghanistan’s new Constitution, which, she noted, granted equal rights for women with men under the law, obliged the state to provide free education, preventive health care and medical treatment and accorded women 25 percent of the seats in parliament.

Two days later, however, the conference was reminded of the gap between national doctrine and reality in Afghanistan when The New York Times published a front-page report about women burning themselves to escape the intolerable conditions of family and tribal life.

Joe Lauria covers the United Nations for the Boston Globe and Independent Newspapers of South Africa.

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