The United Nations was created by a war-torn generation, convinced that conflict could be prevented. By providing a venue where political developments would be routinely monitored, debated and acted upon, the founders of the United Nations anticipated that early warning signs would be heeded to prevent conflict. When the Security Council first debated its role in the prevention of armed conflict in November 1999, Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the international community to move ‘from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention.'1 Two years later, the Secretary-General issued a comprehensive report on conflict prevention that underscored the importance of early warning and gender equality.2 This article will review recent developments in the conflict prevention debate, emphasizing the role of women in early warning and UNIFEM's efforts towards mainstreaming gender into the early warning efforts of the United Nations.
Early warning has been described as ‘any information from any source about escalatory developments, be they slow and gradual or quick and sudden, far enough in advance in order for a national government, or an international or regional organization to react timely and effectively, if possible still leaving them time to employ preventive diplomacy and other non-coercive and nonmilitary preventive measures.'3 By providing time to prepare, analyse and plan a response, early warning is an essential precursor and prerequisite for effective conflict prevention. Not always about predicting a conflict or episode of violence before any such incidents have broken out, early warning information is also used to predict a resurgence or escalation of conflict and violence. P
eace and women's organizations have asserted that effective preventive strategies must consider information and early warning from and about civilians. The significance of the threat and violence inflicted on civilian women in conflict situations has underscored the need to incorporate gender analysis into early warning activities. Such steps must be based upon timely and accurate information, knowledge of facts, an understanding of developments and global trends, and the economic, social and political causes of the conflicts.
Influential authorities in the field have bemoaned information overload, and a dearth of analysis and response options, however, this perspective overlooks a rich source of information that is not being tapped. Experts interviewing women in conflict zones have identified women's experiences and perceptions as an under-utilized set of resources to prevent deadly conflict and its resurgence. Conflict- affected women spontaneously describe and refer to early warning indicators. The two accounts below illustrate the kinds of information women have about weapons, and the kinds of dangers and barriers they face in presenting early warning information.
In Kosovo we met Zlata who told us that when she saw arms caches growing in early 1998, she realized that armed conflict was imminent. But she had no one to tell and doubted that her concerns would be taken seriously. ‘At a certain point, the boys—young men I suppose, my own nephew also—went up into the hills and got trained,' she said. ‘That was the beginning. Then there were guns, first only some, which is usual, but then a lot of weapons being talked about. I didn't see them, but I heard about them. We knew all this, but still nobody was watching or listening to us in Kosovo.' Sometimes, women have nowhere to turn with their information. In Sierra Leone, a young woman named Amy told us that in her village, ‘we knew roughly where and when the RUF were planning something big against the peacekeepers. My friend and I, we wanted to tell someone, but it was hard, we were watched, it would take a long time to walk in the night, and it was dangerous. It was a big pity too, because the RUF took the guns and the pride of the UN that day, but it took our hope too. We were scared again, which is exactly what they wanted.'4
These accounts represent the potential reservoir of experience and insight that women have about weapons accumulation and proliferation, one of the principal signs of impending conflict. Women often know about the location of arms caches, the routes used to transport them, and the social changes brought about by an influx of guns. Additionally, women have been documented as voluntarily or forcibly carrying or concealing weapons under clothing or in shopping bags as part of the smuggling operations of gunrunners. This covert militarization of traditional gender roles has increased women's familiarity with weapons, and has sometimes carved out a niche in which women have received social and cultural approval and status, some of the benefits gained from being considered brave and courageous by one's community in a war situation when these qualities have enhanced value.5 It is possible that the fixed gender roles in war that have traditionally associated men with guns have blinded those searching for weapon-specific and gender-specific early warning signals to vital sources of information in this and other areas. It follows that listening to women and learning from their experiences can correct gender blind spots in early warning information collection and analysis, and can contribute towards conflict prevention.