Amidst a rise in sexual violence in the world's war zones, the United Nations has begun appointing women to head some of the key political and peacekeeping missions in conflict areas – and also created Gender Advisers as a second line of defence.
Still, there is growing scepticism among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activist groups that much of the progress is scarcely more than window dressing.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proudly claimed the appointment of five women as heads of U.N. peacekeeping missions, in Liberia, South Sudan, Cyprus, Cote d'Ivoire and Haiti.
But Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), a programme partner of the International Civil Society Action Network, told IPS, “We also need to look beyond the top leadership positions. We need to examine where women are in the overall architecture of peacekeeping missions.”
She said the middle level positions are just as critical because they are the ones who directly interact with the local populations who are directly affected by the conflicts.
Regarding Gender Advisers, she said it is equally critical to know where these advisers are located in the hierarchy of peacekeeping missions.
“They are the ones who ensure that a gender perspective is fully integrated in the functions of the peacekeeping missions,” she noted.
The problem is that often, the Gender Advisers are very low in the pecking order of the missions, said Cabrera-Balleza, whose GNWP is a coalition of women's groups and civil society organisations from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, West Asia, Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe.
Last month, the secretary-general said that more women occupy the senior ranks of the United Nations than ever before.
“And this year I want to mention a new milestone in the participation of women in our work for peace and security: for the first time, one-third of our peacekeeeping operations – five of 15 — are headed by women,” he added.
These include Hilde Johnson in South Sudan, Karin Landgren in Liberia, Lisa Buttenheim in Cyprus, Aïchatou Mindaoudou in Cote d'Ivoire and Sandra Honoré in Haiti.
Ban has also appointed the U.N.'s first woman lead mediator in a peace process: former Irish President Mary Robinson as the special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa.
“We have more distance to travel,” he admits, “but we have never been this far before.”
Cora Weiss, U.N. representative of the International Peace Bureau, told IPS the secretary-general's “words are fine and welcome but I wish we could feel his heart in this issue.
“When civil society women drafted what became the landmark Security Council resolution 1325 on women peace and security, we were looking at a future world without war,” she said.
Weiss also pointed out that while at least half the world's population is female, Mary Robinson is the only woman lead mediator in a peace process: “And it's 2013.”
“We need more women in decision making and peace making, but they need to be peace- and justice-loving women. The days of resort to force have to be over,” she stressed.
Addressing a Security Council meeting last June, Zainab Hawa Banguda, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, said that when she visited Bosnia early this year – “where an estimated 50,000 women had been targeted with rape and other forms of sexual violence” – she found that to date only a handful of prosecutions had occurred.
Thus, the victims of those crimes “continue to walk in shadow and shame, unable to lay the past to rest, and move forward,” she added.
After visiting the war zone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) early this year, Ban admitted he met women and girls who had been raped and maimed by armed groups on all sides of the conflict.
He said many had a condition called traumatic fistula. In plain terms, they had been torn inside. Experiencing great pain and often unable to control bladder and bowels, they are disabled and often shunned by society, he added, pointing out the horrors of sexual violence in war zones.
The international community, through Security Council resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) and 1960 (2010), has put in place a solid framework for responding to conflict-related sexual violence.
The mechanisms carry out global advocacy through U.N. Special Representatives, in collaboration with the U.N. Action Network against Sexual Violence in Conflict, comprising 13 U.N. entities.
Last month, the Security Council adopted yet another resolution (2122), also aimed at strengthening women's participation in all aspects of conflict prevention.
“The argument that we in civil society have with the U.N. on the issue of women's leadership remains: Practice what you preach. Lead by example,” Cabrera-Balleza told IPS.
“We also want to see more women with civil society backgrounds who have been working on peace and security issues for decades appointed to key positions in peacekeeping operations,” she said. “As we've seen in the past, bureaucratic experience has not contributed much in improving peacekeeping operations.”
She also said that while checking the list of peacekeeping missions again, she couldn't fail to notice that there are three women deputy Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs): for the U.N. Office in Burundi ( BNUB), the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA), and the U.N. Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
“Will these three women ever become heads of peacekeeping operations?” she asked.
There's no shortage of qualified women. “There is just a shortage of political will to see women in positions of power,” she said.