The involvement of women in anti-war actions and in support of peace activism worldwide is a critical part of modern history, yet the vulnerability of women in conflict situations to violence of all forms is perhaps the most brutal manifestation of patriarchy in modern times. We must probe the areas of ambivalence in women’s activism for peace and human rights, argues Sunila Abeysekera.

Militarism, Violence and Conflict is one of the themes of the AWID Forum 2012 ↑ which opens tomorrow in Istanbul with 2000 women from around the world meeting to discuss processes of ‘Transforming Economic Power to advance women’s rights and justice’.

The links between militarism, militarization, violence and conflict have been widely explored by feminist scholars and others engaged in the study of conflict from a range of perspectives. During the past decades, women’s movements worldwide, and especially women living and working in conflict situations or working with women affected by conflict, have devoted a great deal of time and energy to unravel the links between, for example, violence against women in the family, community and society, and violence against women in conflict situations. Their critique of militarism has focused not only on the economics of war and the huge profits being made by the military-industrial complexes of the world but also on the geo-politics of wars. Women’s groups have analysed how expenditure on arms and on armies constitute a major part of national budgets and fuel the global economy; their work has also emphasized the clear linkages between conflicts and the desire of multinational interests to gain access to, and control extraction of profit from, natural resources such as land, forests, oil, water and ‘rare earth’. Processes of militarization, of ‘normalizing’ the role of the military in civilian life and in governance, have also come under the scrutiny of the feminist lens.

The involvement of women in anti-war actions and in support of peace activism worldwide is likewise a critical part of modern history. From the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF ↑ ), which was founded in 1915 in the Hague at a Congress of over 1000 women from Europe and North America to Women in Black ↑ , which spread from the original non-violent protests for peace in Palestine in 1988 to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and also to many other locations around the world, women’s activism for peace has helped draw the attention of the world to the injustices and inhumanities wrought by wars and conflicts and to the specificities of women’s experiences in conflict situations. Many women’s formations working against war as well as networks of women human rights defenders continue to draw on the positive symbolic role of women as mothers and wives, primarily in order to protect themselves from hostile responses. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo ↑ in Argentina, the Meira Paibis ↑ in Manipur, India, the Mothers Fronts ↑ of southern and northern Sri Lanka and Nuestra Hijas de Regreso a Casa ↑ in Chihuahua Mexico are but a few examples. However, in recent times, attacks on the leaders of the group in Mexico, for example, show that authoritarian regimes and non-state actors have moved beyond respect for motherhood as a restraining factor.

The engagement of women in a continuing global dialogue on the impact of conflict on women has led to conceptual work that analyses the context, the causes and consequences of conflict on women, looking at both women’s victimhood and agency in conflict situations. The portrait of the displaced woman struggling to keep her family alive is juxtaposed with the iconic image of the woman bearing a gun in one hand and a baby in the other. At the same time, women are involved in continuous advocacy and lobbying against wars, and against militarization, bringing women from around the world on to the streets and on to social media sites to raise their voice against the continuing use of violence by states and by non-state actors to crush democratic dissent and opposition to authoritarian rule.

The emergence of strong networks among feminists working against war and against militarization in different parts of the world has enabled the formation of several initiatives focusing on the creation of international frameworks for accountability and justice in the context of wars and conflicts.

In 2000, a coalition of women from around the world played an active role in creating UN Security Council Resolution 1325 ↑ , which has become the foundational framework for ensuring the full and equal participation of women in issues relating to peace and security. This engagement led to the formulation of the framework ‘women, peace and security’ as a means of ensuring the implementation of the SC Resolution 1325. Since 2000, there have been several other Security Council Resolutions -1820 ↑ , 1888 ↑ , 1889 ↑ , 1960 ↑ – that primarily address the situation of sexual violence against women in conflict situations.

The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security is a broad alliance that continues to monitor the implementation of Security Council resolution pertinent to women affected by conflict. In 2009, in response to requests from women’s groups around the world, the Committee monitoring the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW ↑ ) began a process of defining a General Recommendation on Women affected by Conflict, in association with civil society groups working on the issue.

Much of the conceptual work around women and conflict relies on analysis of the persistence of patriarchal norms and frameworks around the world, in all cultures and societies, which exacerbate the impact of conflict on women and also shape the form and nature of the conflict itself.

Identity and conflict

There is consensus around the fact that the emergence of identity-based politics has played a key role in shaping conflicts in many parts of the globe. Using a specific identity – whether on the basis of sex, religion, geographic location, ethnicity, language or one’s sexual orientation and gender identity and expression – to organize and mobilize around calls for equality and justice has been historically a method by which many groups and communities marginalized from the mainstream of democratic praxis have challenged their marginalization. This resistance has been both non-violent and violent, depending on historical circumstances. The feminist discourse on inter-sectionality and multiple identities has evolved in this context of identity politics, and has been critical in defining a more complex and sophisticated understanding of the role of identity in human life.

From the point of view of women, in most cases identity-based political formations are embedded in patriarchy and therefore often reduce women to a reproductive role (socially and biologically) and impose limitations on women’s mobility and on their rights to freedom of expression, opinion and choice, especially with regard to marriage and children. The role of women in radical militant organizations is often as circumscribed by patriarchal norms as the role of women in ‘ordinary’ communities. The use of sexual violence including forced impregnation and forced abortions as a weapon of war became most visible in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the 1990s, as well as in, for example, the attacks on Indonesian women of Chinese origin in Indonesia in 1997 and the attacks on Muslim women in Gujarat, India, in 2002. Many examples from around the world also show how gender-based violence and violence against women, including domestic violence, escalate before, during and after wars. In addition, in contexts where armed paramilitary groups and organized crime control territory and communities, the murder of women, especially of women’s human rights defenders, has become a terrible phenomenon, for example in countries like Mexico and the Philippines. The experiences of women in conflict situations where at least one of the combatant groups espouses an extreme and fundamentalist form of religious belief and practice are also experiences of brutality and patriarchal control. This vulnerability of women in conflict situations to violence of all forms is perhaps the most brutal manifestation of patriarchy in modern times.

In more recent times, the use of anti-terror laws by states in ways that undermine civil and political rights enshrined not only in international human rights laws but in most national Constitutions, has led to intense repression of protests against authoritarian rule and denial of rights to minorities, whether it is in Belarus or Tibet, in Iran or in Egypt. In many of these situations, women who play a leading role in public life, as media persons, as politicians, as human rights defenders, face an array of attacks and abuse, and restrictions on their freedoms, once again revealing the patriarchal nature of the nation state and of state-like entities that are becoming an increasingly common global phenomenon.

Feminist discussions around issues relating to women, peace and security in more recent times have focused on the ways in which conflicts that set out to ‘emancipate’ or ‘liberate’ a community become just as brutal and repressive in their tactics and conduct of warfare as the state against which they are fighting. This has led to a sometimes acrimonious debate between feminists and mainstream human rights organizations, for example, on the basis of arguments as to what can constitute a ‘just’ war or a defensive ‘jihad’, and what concessions are to be made to armed militant groups using terrorist tactics, including against women, when it comes to amnesties that are negotiated as a part of a formal peace process.

This brings us back again, full circle, to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325. The shift in focus from the vision of women as active agents playing an equal role in mainstream political processes, which was set out in SCR 1325, to a conceptualization of women primarily as victims of sexual violence in conflict, which is how it is articulated in SCR 1888 and 1889, is perhaps an indication of feminist losses in the first decade of the twenty first century.

In the face of these challenges, the discussions scheduled for the AWID Forum will raise questions about the areas of ambivalence in women’s activism for peace and human rights, pushing for both internal reflection and external consolidation. Addressing the specific challenges faced by women’s rights defenders in the contemporary world, as well as identifying strategic interventions devised by WHRDs themselves will also be a critical part of the agenda.

Among the issues that will concern us will be: the shrinking economic power of women; the impact of reductions in budgetary allocations of governments, of multilateral institutions as well as of private philanthropic foundations on women’s organizations; the failure of transitional justice initiatives to adequately address gender-specific concerns including those of economic and political inequalities that are embedded in many post-war reconstruction and resettlement processes; and the inherently masculinist and patriarchal paradigms that shape many modern peace building processes.

Developing a multifaceted vision of ‘peace’ and ‘security’ that will encompass all existing human rights for all individuals and that will enable realization of the social and economic rights of women and of all marginalized and subaltern groups and communities will be, we hope, a goal for which the AWID Forum will lay a substantive foundation.