Celebrating International Women’s Day in the Elliott School

by staff contributor Cait O’Donnell

For more on the day’s events, please see full videos and photos.

On the 101st celebration of International Women’s Day, the Global Gender Program of the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs partnered with several organizations to put on an all-day event comprising two distinguished speakers (opening and closing the event) and two panels. This event was co-sponsored by GW’s Global Gender Forum, GW’s Culture in Global Affairs Seminar Series, GW’s Distinguished Women in International Affairs Series, GW’s Security Policy Forum, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute North America (SIPRI North America), the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

Barbara Miller, Director of the Elliott School’s Global Gender Program, opened the day’s events by remarking on the importance of International Women’s Day as a time to recognize both the specific needs and challenges that women and girls face around the world as well as their distinct capabilities and strengths. Continuing threads throughout the day included the need for more and better gender-specific data during peace and conflict, the importance of more complex and nuanced approaches to research on victimization and empowerment, and the importance of ensuring more research and policy attention to gender dimensions of war, post-conflict peacekeeping, and women’s empowerment and livelihoods.

Louise Olsson gave the opening talk on the subject of U.N. Peace operations with special reference to her research on Timor Leste. Olsson is a researcher at Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden, where she is also a project leader for UNSCR 1325. She organized her presentation around three issues: quality peace, security equality, and the effect of U.N. Peace Operations. She pointed out the connections between the first two concepts, saying that “…peace does not automatically mean equal security. Different groups can receive different degrees of protection by way of how operations and conflict resolution processes are designed.”

The first, crucial step, however, is defining peace. Is peace defined as the lack of war, of conflict and residual violence, of all forms of physical violence, or of all forms of physical and structural violence? Such negative definitions render peace as content-less. Olsson challenged us to include equality and social justice in the definition of peace. The case of Denmark, which ranks high on the Global Peace Index yet is also at war with Afghanistan, exhibits that devising a more complete definition of peace is laden with complexity.

Post-conflict peace-making is not always beneficial to women’s rights: women’s rights and equality can be compromised or sold out during peace agreements. People involved in peace operations often avoid gender issues because they are considered “too cultural.” Olsson insisted, however, that there are common, reoccurring gender issues from Namibia to Afghanistan.

Turning to security equality and the social distribution of protection, she stated that increased post-conflict security for men does not necessarily mean increased security for women. Violence also targets men and women differently. Men tend to experience direct lethal violence while women experience indirect and sexual violence. Olsson noted, that there is poor understanding of both men’s and women’s experience of sexual violence during conflict and post-conflict situations. Related to the existing framework of “negative peace” is exclusion of attention to women’s experiences of sexual violence, domestic and other gender-based violence, and trafficking, and men’s experiences of sexual violence, forceful military recruitment, gang violence, and organized crime. Olsson suggested that, rather than asking which gender is worse off in a particular context, we should question how to prevent, assess, and deal with different forms of violence. Measures should be undertaken to enhance protections which address all forms of violence for men and women.

When conflict or war ends, neither peace nor security necessarily follows. Factors which affect peace operations with respect to security equality and quality peace include: awareness in implementation, handling local military, local cooperation, personnel behavior, gender-balanced composition, institution support (such as gender advisers), and operation leadership. If gender advisors are available, how many are there? How are they utilized by the operation’s leadership? A major failure in this arena is a lack of utilization and understanding of the competence of local women’s groups. In conclusion, Olsson asserted that claiming gender is too sensitive for the U.N. to work with “doesn’t cut it.” Gender must be included in the basic understanding of quality peace, peace operations and security equality.

A panel on Women, War, and Peace: Addressing Sexual Violence followed Olsson’s talk.  Panelists included: Kathleen Kuehnast, Director, Gender and Peacebuilding Center, United States Institute of Peace; Jelke Boesten, Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace; and Dara Kay Cohen, Assistant Professor, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. The moderators were Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, Executive Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute North America (SIPRI North America) and Kerry Frances Crawford, Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, GW.

The moderators launched the discussion by raising questions of what we know and what we need to know for more effectively preventing and addressing sexual violence especially in times of conflict and war. Kuehnast pointed to the need for definitions of sexual violence and more and better data on the incidence. Given the lack of solid longitudinal data, it is difficult to know whether there are more problems today. She discussed the need to problematize the view that men are perpetrators and women are victims. The definition of sexual violence should be expanded and new terminology for rape should move away from a focus on women, men, and genitalia. She called for more research on important questions such as: What is the impact of sexual violence on boys and men? What is the impact of sexual violence on family and social ties? How long does this type of brutality’s impact last? She emphasized that research on these issues should be mainstreamed in security studies.

Boesten focused on the continuum between sexual violence before, during, and after conflict. Sexual violence, she pointed out, is effective as a strategy of war because it involves trauma, intimacy, and social understandings which allow it to be both hidden and normalized. Links often exist between patterns of violence before and after conflict. Questions of the veracity of women’s rape testimony and of what constitutes “real” rape are just as prevalent in war and peace time. Focusing on Peru, Boesten discussed the motivations of perpetrators. Military culture is linked to sexual violence because higher up leaders encourage soldiers, if not by words, then by high acceptance. Race and class are important factors in determining how rape is perpetrated for both soldiers and victims. Violence against the LGBT community occurred as a means to re-establish heterosexuality as the norm. A key problem is that even though the Peruvian legal framework criminalizes sexual violence, the judiciary is not able to follow through with convictions.

Cohen spoke about the significance of magnitude and variation in sexual violence pointing to a spectrum of sexual violence ranging from shaming a woman by cutting off a woman’s hair to rape. She raised a question about data challenges related to categorizing sexual violence including when rape is counted as such when it can include multiple rapes of sexual slave in captivity over months to a single incident with a single victim. According to Cohen, sexual violence varies across conflicts and within specific conflicts as well as temporally and regionally. Sexual violence as a unit-level action is more likely to be used in groups with low central cohesion in order to create bonds among fighters. Increasing evidence shows that people abducted into armed forces commit sexual violence and that males can be victims and females can be perpetrators.

The panelists agreed that rape is not universally a strategy of war. They concluded that a gender-specific view of sexual violence should include not only women and girls, but men and boys — all of humanity.

The next panel was devoted to Improving Gender Equality: Informing Better Policy through research in the Middle East, North Africa, and Beyond. Panelists included: Rola Abdul-Latif, Senior Research Specialist, Applied Research Center, and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); Jane Henrici, Study Director, Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and Professorial Lecturer in International Affairs, GW; Patti Petesch, Consultant, World Bank; and moderator, Heidi Hartmann, President of IWPR.

Abdul-Latif and Henrici presented key findings on a recent research project on the status of women in the Middle East and Africa, a joint venture between IFES and IWPR that is funded by CIDA. The SWMENA project focuses on Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen. The project collected data on a wide range of topics, some consistently asked in all countries in the study and some country-specific. Common to these are how women see themselves as members of society, the economy, and the political system, and differences in men’s and women’s views about aspects of women’s status. Details about the research can be accessed on the IFES website.

Henrici presented highlights from the findings. In general, women who speak the dominant language and live in urban areas have higher rates of participation in the work force; working women tend to feel that they can care for themselves and for their households; and more educated women tend to be more politically aware and involved. One product of the study is a toolkit to help in-country NGOs conduct further research and advocate more effectively for policy change.

Petesch presented preliminary highlights from a 20-country World Bank global qualitative study which explored trends in gender roles and norms; women’s and men’s decision-making patterns about work, family, and education; and how women and men gain and lose power and freedom. Focus groups generated data on how people think a woman and a man can lose or gain power and freedom, ideal definitions of a good woman and good man, and the best and worst jobs for women and men. The data are still undergoing analysis.

She also described a four-country USAID study on women and conflict. Preliminary findings indicate that women report higher empowerment in communities directly affected by violent political conflict and that the most rapid poverty reduction and recovery (in middle income countries) were in communities where women could participate politically and economically.

The final segment of the day’s presentation was a talk by Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, on Gender and Civilian Security, sponsored by the Elliott School’s Distinguished Women in International Affairs Series. Otero, the first Latina Under Secretary in U.S. history, oversees foreign relations on global civilian issues such as democracy, human rights, population, refugees, trafficking in persons, rule of law, counter-narcotics, crisis prevention and response, global criminal justice, and countering violent extremism. She is also the President’s Special Representative for Tibetan Issues.

Otero emphasized the need for increased civilian protection in both stable and conflict countries. Because terrorism is usually caused by non-state actors, the line between engagement and resolution is blurred. Civilians are increasingly the casualties of war. Conventional conflict resolution is not working: over half of all treaties fail in the first five years, ninety percent of conflicts occur in already scarred places, and conflicts are increasingly challenging to extinguish. Calling for a stronger link between gender and security, she stated that women must be seen, not only as victims, but as agents of prevention and peace.

Otero emphasized the “institutionalization” (one of her favorite words) of women in making and keeping peace. Her recommendations include: partnering with women in places vulnerable to conflict; strengthening participation for women and girls during and after conflict in peace-making institutions; decreasing war as a rape tactic by holding perpetrators responsible and addressing political dynamics which pertain to sexual violence; and updating trainings and policies for troops and diplomats.

She underscored the necessity to understand the distinct needs for women and girls in man-made and natural disasters and to allow vulnerable populations (including the LGBT and disabled communities and ethnic and religious minorities) to have a say in creating solutions. She pointed to the problem of statelessness and nationality laws, requesting reforms from governments and civil society organizations. These laws, which prevent women from being able transmit their nationality to spouses or children, affect 12 million people worldwide.

In closing, Otero called for commitment, inspiration, and questioning. She stressed the need to discuss women’s issues together with men and to find allies in men to create change. She called for action and dedication to work that pertains to women and to humanity.

Cait O’Donnell is a program assistant for the Global Gender Program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Ukraine, 2009-2011), a University of California, Berkeley graduate and a Blum Center for Developing Economies fellowship recipient.

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