“Reaffirming the important role of women in the prevention
and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stressing the importance
of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the
maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their
role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution”
(UN SCR 1325)
In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325. Building on previous resolutions and the promises of the Beijing Declaration, the resolution sought to recognize and reaffirm the particular impact of conflict on women and girls and the need to address the role women play in conflict prevention and resolution – both in terms of recognising their role thus far and increasing their influence in decision-making at all levels.
Both the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain have implemented UNSCR1325, but notably neither has included within their national Action Plans the conflict closest to home – that of Northern Ireland. To ignore a conflict literally on its doorstep, in which women, as in any conflict, played a central role as mothers, carers, survivors, community workers, security personnel, combatants, and prisoners is blindsighted in the extreme.
In response to this Hanna’s House, an all-Ireland feminist group, has been lobbying the British and Irish governments to fully include Northern Ireland in their action plans. Their failure, thus far, to do so has led, as Shirley Graham (peace project coordinator of Hanna’s House) states, to the continued under-representation “in those institutions set up under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, particularly in leadership and decision-making roles in areas that can make a difference to communities still living with the aftermath of conflict”
On November 5th, Hanna’s House organised a highly successful cross-border conference to draw attention to the resolution and to encourage political and community engagement from both sides of the border as well as both sides of the Irish Sea with the resolution in regard to Northern Ireland.
President Michael D Higgins, a women’s rights activist himself, delivered the conference’s opening address, noting the historical thread of resolutions and conventions that had led to this resolution and strongly insisted that the mettle must now be fully grasped to follow the promise of this resolution through to full implementation, and warned against the ‘seductive glow of rhetoric’ that could threaten people’s motivation to keep fighting for it and leave it open to the “accusation of history”.
Professor Christine Chinkin, LSE, spoke on “bringing women in from the margins”, recognising the UNSCR1325 as being part of a post Cold-war shift in the response to peace processes (a shift that has also been noted in the growing popularity of truth commissions) with an emphasis on society building. She emphasised the importance of implementation to avoid the silence that “perpetuates and institutionalises [women’s] exclusion” in processes “defined by the parameters of men”. She also warned against the over-emphasis on women as victims of gender-based violence which, while a serious problem that must be tackled, threatens to identity women’s roles only as the victim, a role that focuses on muted passivity and ignores the strong voice they can bring to the table. In terms of their place at the negotiating table she emphasised the need to have a significant female influence in peace processes; The UN has never appointed a female mediator and the Security Council has never drawn attention to the absence of women in peace processes – of which only 15% have ever made specific mention to women. For Professor Chinkin the resolution is only the beginning, she noted that it does not go far enough in outlining how it might be implemented – pointing to the need for international institution training for women. Furthermore she criticised the governments that have implemented the resolution but have then failed to implement it properly in their own peace processes (citing Britain’s failure to include NI in its action plan).
Long-time Women’s Activist, and oral archivist of stories from the NI conflict, Claire Hackett paid tribute to the various roles played by women during the conflict in Northern Ireland and highlighted the complexity of levels of experience of the conflict among women where social and economic class as well ideological positions has drawn strong dividing lines, “class complicates the picture and so also does relationship with the state”. Women and their role, she emphasised, has often gone unrecognised. While men (as in most conflicts) accounted for the vast majority of the dead and the imprisoned, these absences created a harsh and often traumatic reality for those left to carry this burden, often Ms Hackett put it, in a context of little or no state support and often in the context of state hostility and harassment. Significantly, she also drew attention to the need to recognise the role of those women, though they were a minority, both state and non-state who took up arms and the impact this had on them. She also made timely reference to the recent arrest of Paraic Wilson and the impact this would have on his wife – a clear reminder that these are not issues only of the past, and that for many women the conflict is still alive and their role in it still continues.
The impact of the conflict is still seen, she argued, in the inter-generational poverty (often a side-effect of the death/imprisonment of the chief breadwinner in the family) and trauma still visible today. Thus, she concluded that rather than depend on the “piecemeal” approach of the HET or various inquiries a truth recovery approach should be applied, one that allows for the widest number of experiences, including gendered experience of women, to be revealed and recognised to prevent the ‘perpetuation of silence and injustice’.
Fiona Buckely from the 50:50 group at UCC, arguing for the need for gender quotas in politics, addressed the familiar response that women should ‘get in on merit only’. It is, she noted, interesting, and indeed biased, that such importance is placed on the merit held by women who might be elected while there seems to be no consideration of the level of merit of our male politicians – many of whose level of qualification for the job seems more related to celebrity or their place in political family dynasties. The absence of women at high political level is likely to have a knock on effect on the place of women in peace processes and conflict prevention.
Judith Gillespie, Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, discussed her own difficulties in being a minority within the security forces in Northern Ireland, relating how she was twice turned down to join the RUC because of her gender and as a woman was not allowed to carry a firearm until 1994 when legislation changed. Again, her story was imbued with the lack of recognition of the gendered experience of the conflict, the very particular experience she would have had as a woman responding to the conflict and people’s perception of her (both within the security forces and outside).
Disappointingly, Seán Barrett TD, co-chair of the North-South Inter-parliamentary Association, as the only poltician and man to speak at the conference, was by far the weakest in terms of content. However, it may be that the vagueness of his presentation simply reflected the work that needs to be done to include women in his association’s mandate. He did express willingness to hear more from the women’s groups and something that there is no doubt he will be taken up on!
Professor Monica McWilliamswas the final speaker and discussed the non-Conflict related violence and abuse that festered amidst the violence and turmoil of the conflict. Domestic violence and sexual abuse was often side-lined during the conflict, with women often reluctant to go to the police when they did not trust the state security forces nor wanted to be seen associating with them. Thus, as Professor McWilliams pointed out, further controls were placed on these women because of the conflict. McWilliams, as leader of the Women’s Coalition party, was able to relate the particular experience of having played a vital role in the peace process negotiations in the mid-late 1990s.
I had accompanied a group of people from Kashmir to the conference. They were visiting Northern Ireland (as part of a Conciliation Resources project) to meet with groups and individuals who could speak to them about women’s roles in the conflict and responding to the conflict. During the days in Belfast after the conference, we heard a story of how armed paramilitaries had come to a women’s refuges to ‘get their wives back’, about the verbal abuse and threats experienced by those who ‘put their necks out’ as community workers and activisits, about ordinary women who refused to ‘know their place’ and were active, resiliant and key players in their response to the conflict. The group from Kashmir were in Northern Ireland because they recognise the relevance of these women and see how they can learn from their experiences and hopefully apply some of it to their own conflict experience.
These are the stories we don’t hear and theirs is a role that has long been assigned to the sidelines. President Higgins’s paid tribute to the “grit and determination” of the women who have played such a key role in the response to the conflict in Northern Ireland. A response which was movingly portrayed in a video especially commissioned for the conference . This video and this conference should only be the beginning. The round-table conversations held as part of the conference clearly expressed the mulitude of expertise and the frustration at not being heard. Not recognising the importance of women’s roles as Professor Chinkin put it, “undermines women’s full citizenship in the post-conflict state”, it is time to stop talking and start doing.