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INTERVIEW: Being at the Table: Interview with Carolyn McAskie

Friday, December 31, 2010 - 19:00
Central Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Initiative Type: 

Carolyn McAskie had a long and distinguished career with the United Nations, her positions including Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) for Humanitarian Affairs, ASG for Peacebuilding and Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Operation in Burundi. Prior to working for the UN, Ms. McAskie worked with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). She is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Director of CANADEM and the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.

SGI Quarterly: How important is the inclusion of women in all aspects of building, maintaining and restoring peace?

Carolyn McAskie: Peace talks are nearly always amongst those who fought the war, whereas they should be among those who will build the peace, the peacebuilders; and women are an important component of that. Women also need to be represented in post-conflict planning and governance to make sure that women's issues are addressed. The basic concept here is that if women aren't at the table, the chances of their issues being addressed are very low.

I think it is an important point not to assume that there is a women's view--like any other group there are a whole variety of views, and it's not a case of "OK, here's the gender aspect, let's make sure we include it." No. You just have to make sure that women are at the table; then you get the whole variety of views and information. Women are often excluded because they haven't had the background or the training. But get the women to the table and you'll discover they can do just as well.

SGIQ: When you were in Burundi, there were quite a few innovative developments regarding women.

CM: One was getting the women involved in elections. My mission put together a very lively program of going around the villages and involving people in mini dramas about why it was important for women to be represented. There were scenarios where you'd have the men and the women talking and the women saying, "I'm going off to vote," and the men saying, "Oh no, no! Women don't vote," and the women saying, "Are you kidding? We're all off to vote!" and the village claps and supports the women--very lively and very supportive of the women's role. When you go down to the village level and make the case, the women are just absolutely there. These are not women who need to be told they have rights. All they need is a framework where they know what their rights are, and then they'll carry it.

Something we saw there was that before the elections, when the country needed to vote on a new constitution, the turnout of women was very high. This was a very complicated constitutional document, not many people there actually read it. But at the polling stations as we went down the line asking women, "Why are you here?" they said, "We're here to vote for peace." This was the message from the women.

A critical element for my mission was what we were able to do in terms of reinforcing the code of conduct for UN peacekeeping forces. The code determines appropriate behavior vis-a-vis the local population. There is a policy of "zero tolerance" of sexual contact, including no access to prostitutes. Some missions have had serious problems. I had one of the best missions from that point of view. As a leader, I made a point of going around to all the military contingents and saying, not in a harassing way, "We're part of the solution; peacekeeping is a noble profession--you have to live up to that ideal." And it's amazing the response we got from that. They behaved themselves.

There was an interesting incident on my mission, where my gender adviser came to me and said, "I've got a problem here. There are a lot of women coming in with the rebels, who have been attached to the rebels, and our guys are not including them in the disarmament program because they are not in uniform or carrying a gun." She said there is a very clear policy that has been developed for women who have been associated with armed groups and may not necessarily be fighters. But she said she couldn't get our disarmament team to give them the same benefits of reintegration into society that the male rebels received. So I called in my chief of the disarmament unit, my gender adviser and my political deputy, and I said, "Listen to my gender adviser," and she explained it. I turned around to the disarmament chief and I said, "We're going to do this, right?" and he said, "Yes ma'am!"

So when you have a woman in a leadership position who is prepared to call the managers to account, the men have no difficulty in implementing your instructions. The one thing I learned about the military is they're great at following orders. So this is an absolutely classic example of why having a woman in a management position matters. My gender adviser said that she was the envy of all the gender advisers, because she had a female boss who wasn't afraid to make sure the men understood why they had to look at issues from a gender point of view.

I'm not trying to say I was doing anything wonderful, what I'm trying to say is I was doing it differently. And that's why having women at the table matters.

Men see things through their own perspective and believe it is a universal perspective. They expect the women to follow along and don't realize that women see things through a different perspective. One may not necessarily be better than the other. The issue is: why can't we automatically have both? I'm not trying to say that it's important to have women there because women are better. It's important to have women there because women haven't been there, and that's criminal. It's about being at the table. Without that you're forgetting a whole perspective.

I think the important thing is not to look for anything amazingly different or scientific, but when people say, "Why is it important to have women at the table?" the answer is, "How can you do it without women and men at the table? Would you do it without men at the table?"

SGIQ: Has your involvement in the SGI influenced your approach?

CM: Well, I really felt in being part of the SGI, which looks at everything from the point of view of world peace, that there was something tremendously karmic for me to be heading a peacekeeping mission. I was there for a reason. It was an amazing culmination of my Buddhist practice and my career coming together--absolutely. And being a Buddhist was very grounding in that sense, as it helped me deal with difficult situations.

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