Skip to main content

Interview: Why Women’s Rights are Essential for a Lasting Peace

A displaced Yezidi girl living in an unfinished building outside Dohuk, northern Iraq. Many displaced girls said they no longer attend school and have little to keep them occupied in the camps or settlements.© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Women make up half the population, yet in times of war, in peace talks, and in rebuilding efforts, women are rarely at the table. The issues that impact them and their families – from living safely in camps for the internally displaced to holding rapists accountable – are too rarely made a priority, despite a strong United Nations Security Council Resolution adopted 15 years ago this October that embeds work relating to women, peace, and security into the Council. Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Taylor talks to Amy Braunschweiger about why women’s rights are fundamental to long-term peace and how we can pressure countries to act on this.

How are women’s experiences in armed conflict different from men’s?

Once you start asking this question, you can see just how wide the impact of conflict is on women and girls.

In conflict, the warring parties may make the assumption that all men are combatants, or potential combatants. They’re often detained and killed based on that assumption. Women are also targeted for many forms of violence. Sometimes it’s rape, but it can also be forced marriage, sexual slavery, forced religious conversion, or the targeting of women activists. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) kidnapped Iraq’s Yezidi girls and forced them to marry their fighters, and it devastated the Yezidi community. In Nigeria, Boko Haram forced kidnapped Christian schoolgirls to convert to Islam. During the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, we documented multiple cases where soldiers raped women as part of a policy to “ethnically cleanse” entire communities. Within many cultures, if a baby’s biological father is the enemy, it can tear a community apart. All these attacks can weaken a community and destroy its cohesion and culture. Of course, men are also subjected to sexual violence during a conflict. But it’s women who very much are singled out.

Sometimes governments put women at unnecessary risk. For example, thousands of people have been living in informal settlements for displaced people in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, since the 2011 famine. Last March, government forces forcibly evicted 20,000 people from their settlement without warning. Many of these people told Human Rights Watch that the eviction cut them off from water, food, and day labor opportunities. Women were worried about being attacked or even raped by armed men along the route into Mogadishu.

Also, war creates more female-headed households, with men away fighting or in detention. Then, women become breadwinners as well as caregivers. But when laws discriminate against women’s economic rights – by allowing unequal pay, for example – these multiple burdens can be overwhelming.

How do women need to be supported during and after a conflict?

Although basically everyone understands the scourge of sexual violence in conflict, medical care for sexual- and gender-based violence and counselling are rarely part of the initial wave of aid sent to conflict areas.

Also, the way camps for refugees and internally displaced persons operate can leave women open to assault. For example, women often need to leave the camp to gather firewood or water. But armed fighters may be lying in wait to attack them. Our report on South Sudan shows the calculations people make when deciding who will gather fuel, for instance. They don’t want to send out boys, as they’re seen as fighters and might be killed, and they’re afraid girls may be raped. So often it’s older women who go.
Human Rights Watch has found that if displaced women and girls have problems earning money, they may travel long distances for work or beg on the streets – both of which heighten their risk of being raped or exploited.
Another problem is the location of camp latrines, often on the outskirts and not well lit. Sometimes men lurk there in the dark, waiting for an opportunity to attack. Camps also don’t have have been living in informal settlements for displaced people in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, since the 2011 famine. Last March, government forces forcibly evicted 20,000 people from their settlement without warning. Many of these people told Human Rights Watch that the eviction cut them off from water, food, and day labor opportunities. Women were worried about being attacked or even raped by armed men along the route into Mogadishu.

What should be done about this?

Make sure women are involved in camp planning, and take into consideration women’s need for their physical safety. Escorts could accompany women as they gather fuel and firewood. And camps could have civilian liaisons that women could speak to when they feel unsafe – they’d see the early warning signs.

We all need to step it up. Ultimately, we’d like it to be impossible to take any steps on peace and security without integrating women’s rights at their center.

Governments and organizations creating camps or programs should consult with affected communities and let them take part in any decision-making. The government should also be transparent in its decision-making, giving communities feedback. And critics of the government should not face revenge attacks.

Post-conflict, how else are women affected?

Women need to be a part of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs. Many people don’t realize that women often make up to 30 percent of armed groups. Yet they’re regularly excluded from programs where you get money, training, and job opportunities if you turn in your guns. We saw in Sierra Leone and Liberia that women were excluded from these processes, or only received benefits through husbands or male partners. This is especially problematic as sometimes women are forced to fight by abusive husbands, and these programs could compel women to stay with these men for the benefits.
A Somali woman walks alone in central Mogadishu. © 2013 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

People should also recognize that conflict changes communities. As the number of women heading up households increases, are laws still in place that forbid them from owning property? When roads are rebuilt, are they just for military convoys or will they lead to marketplaces, where women can sell wares and earn money? Not asking these questions and not ensuring funds to address them imperils communities.

What you’re telling me isn’t new information to people working in war zones. Why hasn’t something been done?

This is one of the great frustrations of this issue, as there is a great deal of development at the policy level. And yet, over and over again, when it comes down to specific conflicts, we see the hard work being pushed aside. Funding often isn’t forthcoming. And it’s hard – humanitarian organizations do amazing work in crisis situations, but it’s difficult to provide support for rape survivors in a chaotic setting.

Then, there are the political issues. Governments are often the perpetrators of these crimes, and it’s tough to get them to hold each other accountable. You need look no further than the Security Council to see how politics prevent necessary action. Human Rights Watch has documented terrible rights violations, including mass rape, by the Sudanese government, and yet the Security Council has been unable to take decisive steps, not least because of the stalemate brought on by Sudan supporters, China, and Russia.

Nyanial, 22, nurses one of her three children in the UNMISS camp near Bentiu in June. Soldiers and militia attacked her town in Koch county in May 2015. “We thought that women and children would be safe but we were very wrong… They asked us, ‘where is your beer, your money, and show us any weapons.’ They started beating us.  ... They burned the tukul. They took our 20 cows.”  © 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

But what about instances where the presence of women could scuttle peace talks? Right now, Afghanistan is looking at talks with the Taliban, and I doubt the Taliban would react well to women being at the table.

I don’t think that the vision of a peaceful Afghanistan is dependent on the exclusion of women. I don’t think you can make a legitimate argument that a peaceful future for any country is dependent on the exclusion of half the population. Let’s remember that donor countries and the Afghan government have been excluding Afghan women from peace talks. And actually the Taliban has been willing to talk to women and discuss women's rights. That doesn't mean they have changed their horribly oppressive views on women, but they do seem to be willing to talk to them.

When you really look at places where women and respect for their rights have been excluded, I’d argue that it hasn’t worked. No women from the former Yugoslavia were involved in the peace accords, which has likely exacerbated the huge challenges for rape survivors and women who bore children of rape.

But just because there’s good language in a peace agreement, that doesn’t mean it’s implemented. Take Guatemala, where among other atrocities, the government committed genocide against its indigenous population in the 1980s. There was promising language in the 1996 peace accords, including some reflecting international treaties on women’s rights. Yet, after the agreements were signed, there has been little accountability for the mass rapes and killings of women that were part of how the war was waged.

And, just because women are in a peace process, it doesn’t guarantee respect for women’s rights. You need to ensure people who abuse women are prosecuted. You also need judicial reform that embeds women’s rights, and to train judges, prosecutors, and investigators on these issues. Colombia’s peace process over time became more inclusive of women than most other such negotiations. But there are real concerns about the result of those negotiations, including regarding accountability for violations of women’s rights, particularly as gender-based violence has been characteristic of Colombia’s long conflict. In the September 23, 2015 agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) guerrillas, in exchange for confessions, those who committed war crimes may escape prison. The question also remains as to whether victims will receive the support services they need.

Special Prosecutor for Crimes in Darfur Yasir Ahmed Mohamed (R) and his team talk to women during an investigation into allegations of mass rape in the village of Tabit, in North Darfur, November 20. © 2014 Reuters

Fifteen years ago the UN Security Council passed a resolution – 1325 – that addresses this. Isn’t it working?

It’s a resolution that embeds work relating to women, peace and, security into all international peace and security efforts – including in the UN Security Council. There has been a lot of effort to put this policy into practice. Some governments have developed national-level plans on 1325, and donor countries and humanitarian actors have established good practice for responding to women in crises. The UN recently came up with a way to collect ongoing information on much of what 1325 covers. The challenge is getting the Council and others to act on violations of women’s rights in specific conflicts.

The resolution’s 15th anniversary is in October, and it’s going to be a big deal. There will be a massive new UN report and days of meetings and speeches. Throughout the month women from around the world will be in New York, trying to get policy makers not just to listen, but to take action. The danger is that, despite this hoopla, we will continue down the same path of great policies, but where Afghanistan’s women don’t have a say in the peace process and where the Sudanese government isn’t held responsible for attacks on women in Darfur.

Members of the Loya Jirga, grand council, attend the last day of the Loya Jirga, in Kabul on November 24, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

We all need to step it up. Ultimately, we’d like it to be impossible to take any steps on peace and security without integrating women’s rights at their center. The UN needs to get its act together. It needs to show it’s seriously investigating human rights violations against women and supporting local civil society groups that are working in situations of armed conflict. Donor countries should ensure they’re devoting long-term resources to defending women’s rights. It should be unimaginable to establish a UN peacekeeping mission that doesn’t have senior experts on women’s rights. World leaders shouldn’t be able to discuss a conflict in the Security Council without addressing women’s rights.

What is Human Rights Watch doing to change this?

We’re highlighting the research we’ve done on these issues, old and new, to expose governments that fail to respect women’s rights. I’ll be advocating across UN bodies – the departments of peacekeeping and of political affairs, human rights, women’s affairs – and talking to governments, both those supportive of these issues and those less so. We’re working together with civil society groups from around the world, highlighting their local research at an international level. We’re holding advocacy meetings in Washington, DC, and in London, which has a leadership role on women, peace, and security in the Security Council. And we’re focusing on reaching leaders in various capitals, because none of this will work without country-level commitment and investment.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country