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War Is Hell, Especially for Women

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 20 2010 (IPS) - As the United Nations commemorates the 10th anniversary of a landmark Security Council resolution (1325) on the protection of women in war zones, a new study details the successes and failures of a long-drawn-out effort to battle gender-based violence and provide women a key role in male-dominated peacekeeping and peace-building operations.

“Women rarely wage war, but they too often suffer the worst of its consequences,” says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which released Wednesday its 108-page annual ‘State of World Population’ on the impact of conflicts on women worldwide.

In many of today’s conflicts, women are disempowered by rape or the threat of it, and by the HIV infection, trauma and disabilities that often result from it, she said.

Obaid said that experience shows that gender-based violence does not occur in a vacuum.

“It is usually a symptom of a larger problem, one of failed institutions, of dangerously skewed gender relations and entrenched equalities,” she said.

War and disaster, she argued, do not cause gender-based violence, “but they often exacerbate it or allow it to strike with greater frequency.”

The UNFPA says its study is based, for the first time, on reports from the field from countries and territories that have experienced, or are experiencing, conflicts or disasters. These include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Uganda, Timor-Leste, Haiti and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Among the many success stories since the adoption of the 1325 resolution in October 2000 are the national action plans by member states to protect and empower women in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The Philippines wrote its own 1325 action plan; in Colombia, the UNFPA created a task force to mainstream gender issues and sensitise the armed forces and police to issues of gender-based violence.

In Nepal, the U.N. agency is supporting the development of a national action plan to implement 1325, while in Rwanda it is supporting the national police force to effectively address gender-based violence.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, responding to a request from the Security Council, appointed in early 2010 Margot Wallstrom of Sweden as the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Last March the United Nations also established an expert group, co-chaired by former Irish President Mary Robinson, to coordinate U.N. support for the implementation of resolution 1325.

Since hundreds of peacekeepers have been accused of rape and sexual violence in several countries, including Sudan, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations has declared “zero tolerance” on such crimes.

Still, the chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, said last year: “From Congo, to Bosnia, to Darfur, peacekeepers have been unable to prevent the use of rape as a weapon of war and even genocide.”

In several peacekeeping missions sexual violence has become so pervasive that the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) keeps track of such crimes – on a quarterly basis.

During the third quarter of 2010, there were 19 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, of which five concerned minors.

The DPKO said Tuesday that during the first three quarters of 2010, 64 allegations were reported, compared to 81 allegations during the first nine months of 2009: a decrease of 21 percent.

To counteract the incidence of sexual violence, the United Nations has also gradually increased the number of women peacekeepers.

“The proportion of women on the military and police side (in peacekeeping operations) has grown steadily since resolution 1325 was passed,” says the UNFPA report.

At the end of 2006, there were 1,034 women in the uniformed ranks. By December 2007, the number had increased to 1,360. And a year later, there were 1,794.

Still, says DPKO, there’s “only a fraction” of women in uniform compared to a total of more than 86,000 peacekeeping troops, 2,200 military observers, 13,200 police and 5,830 international civilians.

Bangladesh and India, the two top contributors to peacekeeping operations, also had the largest contingents of women, including all-female Indian police contingents assigned to Liberia and an all-female Bangladeshi unit assigned to Haiti.

Pakistan and Nigeria are expected to follow suit with all- women units.

Barbara Crossette, the lead author of the UNFPA report and a former U.N. bureau chief for the New York Times, told IPS that national governments are wary of any kind of tribunal or treaty or other formal mechanism to include women in peace negotiations.

“There is nothing that can be done about this. It is up to the governments of member states to take these recommendations seriously,” Crossette said.

However, she pointed out, some countries have made gains – South Africa, for example, has the largest percentage of women in their contingents. Nigeria has the highest number of women in peacekeeping/police.

The fear for many years, especially since peacekeeping started to grow, is that the United Nations actually had to beg for peacekeepers.

“As a result, they had to take what they got, but it’s unfair certainly to say that all peacekeepers have been somehow involved/guilty of something,” Crossette added.

She said it’s also true to say that there have been some spectacularly effective peacekeeping contingents.

“I was in Cambodia in the early 1990s where Bangladesh had a battalion there that was wonderful. The locals still think of them with great affection, they had a commander – it’s the commander often – who said anyone who misbehaves here, off you go,” she recalled.

“Then the second question is, if they send them home, will they go on trial? Almost 100 percent no.”

*With additional reporting by Kanya d’Almeida.

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