Presentation by Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, to the U.N. Mediation Support Unit Seminar, Women, Peace and Security: The Indispensable Role of Women in Ending Conflict and Building Peace

Friday, March 15, 2013
Women, Peace and Security


It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to speak to U.N. Special Representatives, Department of Peacekeeping Operations officials, and members of the U.N. Mediation Support Unit on the role of women in international peace and security issues. I salute your dedicated efforts to end armed conflict around the world and lay the groundwork for restoring peace, security, strong economies and democratic governance. If the name were not already taken, I would re-name the people in this room, the “Peace Corps.”

From more than three decades working in international conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction the clearest lesson I’ve learned is that women must be fully engaged in peace processes if they are to succeed. Given that half of all peace agreements fail within a decade of signature, the case goes beyond the question of fairness or rights. Simply put, our international security interest in peace, justice and stability abroad depends on using these processes to redress dangerous past patterns of exclusion and to empower the contributions of women.

Let me be very practical. If you’re charged with monitoring or enforcing a cessation of hostilities and you want to know where the next rebel attack is going to occur, don’t just talk to regional governors or military commanders -- ask women in the marketplace whose families’ safety depends on having the latest information. If you want to know whether your justice and security sector reforms are working, don’t just talk to the judges or the generals -- ask women trying to access that justice system or seek protection from the police and army. If you want to know whether your programs to reintegrate ex-combatants are effective, don’t just talk to the camp managers or demobilization organizers -- ask the women who are the eyes, the ears and the conscience of the communities to which these fighters are being returned.

And don’t just ask for information: involve them in all programs as planners, implementers and beneficiaries under the watch-phrase, “Nothing about them without them.”

I learned this lesson the hard way. In summer 1994, while serving as President Clinton's special assistant for Africa, I supported the negotiating of the Angolan peace treaty to put an end to three decades of civil war that had cost a half lives. Those negotiations bore fruit in November 1994 with the signing of the Lusaka Protocol.

Addressing an audience of African scholars on the Lusaka Protocol in late 1994, I was asked about the role of women in the negotiation and implementation of the Protocol. I responded that not a single provision in the agreement discriminated against women. "The agreement is gender-neutral," I proclaimed, a little too proudly.

President Clinton then named me as U.S. ambassador to Angola and a member of the Joint Commission charged with implementing the peace accords. It took me only a few weeks after my arrival in Luanda to realize that a peace agreement that calls itself, "gender-neutral," is by definition discriminatory against women and far less likely to succeed. The exclusion of women and gender considerations from the peace process proved a key factor in our inability to implement the Protocol and in Angola's return to conflict in 1998.

Consider the evidence. Most telling was the exclusion of women from the Joint Commission charged with implementing the agreement. At each meeting of this body, 40 men and no women served on the delegations of the Angolan government, UNITA, the United Nations, Portugal, Russia and the United States. Not only did this silence women's voices on the hard issues of war and peace, but it also meant that the Commission gave short shrift to such issues as psycho-social assistance to victims of sexual violence, accountability for abuses by government and rebel security forces, trafficking in women and girls, a displacement-related burgeoning of HIV/AIDS, and the rebuilding of social services such as maternal health care and girls' education.

Those in the Joint Commission seeking to address gender issues encountered other barriers. The peace accord was based on 13 separate amnesties that excluded the possibility of prosecution for atrocities committed during the conflict. One amnesty even excused actions that might take place in the future. Given the prominence of sexual abuse and exploitation during the conflict, including rape as a weapon of war, these amnesties meant that men with guns forgave other men with guns for crimes committed against women. This flaw also undercut a return to rule of law and accountability, and introduced a cynicism to efforts to rebuild and reform the justice and security sectors.

Similarly, as we launched disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs for ex-combatants, we soon realized that the agreement defined a combatant as anyone identified as such by their military's leadership. The thousands of women who had been kidnapped or coerced mostly into the rebel forces were largely excluded by their leaders, since most of them were exploited as cooks, messengers, bearers, and even sex slaves. Thus, we had to scramble to provide any support to these victims.

Male ex-combatants received a little money and demobilization kits consisting mostly of seeds and farm tools. We then shipped them back to communities where they had no clear roles, since they lacked marketable skills and the communities had learned to live without them during the decades of conflict. As elsewhere around the world, the result was a dramatic rise in alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, and domestic violence, and the breakdown of coping mechanisms that gave women some protection during the conflict. Thus, the end of civil war unleashed a new era of violence against women.

Even such well-intentioned efforts as clearing major roads of landmines to allow the more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes backfired against women. Angola was plagued by up to a million landmines planted by a dozen separate military forces throughout its conflict. But road clearance demining efforts often preceded the demining of local fields, wells, and forests. So as newly resettled women went out to plant the fields, fetch water, and collect fire wood, they faced a new rash of landmine accidents.

Faced with these challenges, we brought out gender advisers and human rights officers to guide our efforts to protect and promote women. We launched programs in maternal health care, girls' education, humanitarian demining, transitional justice and micro¬enterprise. We supported women's non-governmental organizations.

But it was too little, too late. The peace process was already viewed as serving the interests of the warring parties rather than the Angolan people. Thus, when the peace process faltered in mid-1998 because of insufficient commitment from both the government and especially UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, civil society stayed on the sidelines and did not press the leaders to prevent a return to conflict. The country went back to war, and another three years of fighting ended only with Savimbi's death in 2002.

Let me summarize by stressing five practical lessons. First, bring women to the peace table and to peace implementation bodies. The United States can help here. We have established a fund that provides financial support for women’s participation, including payment of stipends and per diem costs, training, and even physical protection, since we all know that one of the most dangerous professions in the world is a woman peacemaker.

Second, be sparing with amnesties, remembering that this seemingly innocent quick-fix can alienate civil society and put cancer at the heart of efforts to build for true reconciliation.

Third, apply a gender lens and insist on a rigorous gender analysis for all projects, especially with respect to reconstruction programs and post-conflict donors conferences.

Fourth, use the inflow of resources that surrounds a successful peace negotiation to rebuild civil society institutions, including women’s associations. Such groups can link people across ideological, religious and ethnic divisions and provide the glue that keeps society together in times of political and social stress.

Finally, eliminate from your thinking the supposed hard-line between “hard” issues of national security and “soft” issues of human security. This line has vanished forever.

Remember that there’s nothing “soft” about going after traffickers who turn women and girls into commodities. There is nothing soft about preventing armed thugs from abusing women in IDP camps, or holding warlords and government officers alike accountable for their actions against women, or forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence, or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations, peace operations, and post-conflict reconstruction and peace operations.

These are among the hardest responsibilities we face in peace processes, and let me pledge again that the United States will be your full partner in achieving them. Thank you.

Last updated: November 07, 2016

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