- Laurie Richardson
By Madaline Keros, UN Representative Geneva
Palais des Nations, March 22, 2017
The forces of the Arab Spring in 2011 unleashed surprising responses and events—some positive and some negative—in an area of the world that many experts and politicians considered to be “resistant to change”. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) organized a side event on March 22nd that gave an inside look at the work and persistence of women peace activists on the front line of conflict. With the title “Human Rights in Yemen and Libya,” the four female panelists presented their research findings—based on interviews and first-hand assessments—focusing on two areas: first, how the violence negatively impacts and impacts women, and second, how women have been excluded from the peacemaking process.
The first panelist, Ms. R. Jahrum from Yemen began by describing the two dynamics that have lead to increased radicalization and terrorist activities in her country: tensions between northern and southern Yemen and the sectarian divisions present in both areas. She explained that communities in both regions are experiencing increased radicalization which feeds terrorist activities and leads to conflict between armed militias financed by Saudi Arabia. Women are also trained to fight in militias; gender-based violence has increased. Moreover, 30% of militants are children; mothers fear the recruitment of their children. At the highest political levels, she reported significant resistance to allowing women to participate concretely in negotiation proceedings. Women both as IDPs (Internally-Displaced Persons) and as actors in the security sector and in civil society organizations are however, involved in community peace and security efforts in two ways. First, women have been smuggling supplies, people and other resources to aid areas most affected by the fighting. Second, as IDPs, women have focused on disarmament and countering radicalization by developing and implementing a tool that identifies key “warning signs” of radicalization in a community.
The second panelist, L. Salim, also from Yemen, echoed many of the points presented by Ms. Jahrum. Her research approach entailed speaking with 43 women with the goal of understanding women in security roles and as civil society actors. She explained that cooperation with civil society organizations had existed in several communities until government forces lost control in those areas, at which point, these organizations ceased to operate. She called for gender-based responses in the security sector. Furthermore, she explained that a major obstacle to women’s involvement in the political peace process is the external, male-based pressure to prove their credentials and legitimacy as stakeholders and participants at the negotiating table.
Speaking about the situation in Libya, the third panelist, Ms. I. Miloud’s research focused on three cities in the west and south and targeted two main areas: women as peace activists and women at the grassroots level. Her findings revealed that women felt that the first priority was disarmament. All of them sought an immediate end to weapons dealing and armament financing (mostly from Saudi Arabia). At the ground level, women often have to live in conditions that minimalize the impact of their voices and engagement: many communities suffer from lack of adequate food, water, security and access to reliable political information. The majority of negotiators in Libya are men who, at high political levels, also appear to generate obstacles to women’s full participation in brokering political peace from procrastinating on the issue to belittling women’s negotiating power as effective actors in the peace process.
Representing WILPF, Ms. V. Farr expressed grave concern at the inaction of state and international actors and organizations in supporting women’s involvement and defending their right to participate at the political level in the peace processes of both countries. She also expressed frustration at the current responses to quell the conflict which entail primarily increasing military measures and armament in areas that are already heavily militarized. Women were not only direct victims in the violence but, as the primary caregivers and leaders in the community fabric, are also the ones who will have to deal with the aftermath. At the end of her presentation, Ms. Farr made the following recommendations: to protect civilians and migrants from further violence by ending foreign state financed militarization and arms dealing (often coming under the guise of “ending terror”), to reinforce arms control, to support women’s participation in mediation and peacebuilding and to “focus on supporting highly localized, community-based approaches to understanding and combatting extremism and the violence [which gives rise to it]. A crucial and currently missing element […] is the meaningful inclusion of women in both diplomatic and local level efforts to identify and implement economic, institutional, social and political interventions that can support stabilization and future growth.”