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World: Conference Seeks to Assert 'Gender Justice' In Conflict Zones

  • Robert McMahon --> Women have suffered disproportionately in the civil wars of the post-Cold War period. A UN conference this week in New York attracted a number of prominent women from postconflict societies who sought to highlight gender justice as an issue requiring urgent attention. Their goal is to end widespread impunity for abuses committed against women in times of war and to involve women more closely in peacemaking. RFE/RL talked with leading female figures from the Balkans and Afghanistan about the challenges they face.

United Nations, 17 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It has been four years since the UN Security Council passed a landmark resolution, Resolution 1325, calling on governments to protect the rights of women in areas affected by conflict.

But women in conflict zones continue to face the same abuses -- including rape and human trafficking -- that prompted the resolution.

A conference organized this week by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) brought together women leaders, UN and government officials, to try to produce an action plan to end these abuses and assert what they termed "gender justice."

Elizabeth Rehn, a former Finnish defense minister, is co-author of a UN-commissioned report that recommends a series of steps toward improving women's access to justice in conflict and postconflict zones. Recommendations include establishing special police units to investigate crimes against women and setting up local truth-and-reconciliation commissions to address rape and sexual violence.

Rehn told RFE/RL that in her experience as a UN special representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina she found that the international community made a mistake in subordinating gender issues to security ones. Bosnia stabilized but problems like trafficking in women continue to haunt the country nearly 10 years after the signing of the Dayton accords, she said.

"It took too much time before [gender equality] was found to be the subject that you really should also work with, and that meant that too much of the trafficking happened, too many [members] of the international community were involved in trafficking," Rehn said.

Rehn noted the widespread instance of rape in Bosnia. She suggested international peace-building programs should make sure all law-enforcement officials are sensitized about such crimes. "The justice for women and the gender justice altogether should come into the picture much earlier, at the same time when you are starting to repair infrastructure," she said. "All this…is easy to do if you have money, if there are donors. But the reconstruction of the human mind and what she or he has gone through, that is much more complex and needs less money, but much more effort."

Trafficking in women is also a serious problem in Kosovo five years after a UN mission took over the administration of the province from Belgrade.

Nekibe Kelmendi serves in the Assembly of Kosovo with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and is former co-head of the department of justice of the joint interim administrative structures. She told RFE/RL there would be more progress on gender justice issues if the UN mission handed over judicial authority to local officials.
"Poverty generates domestic conflict, especially between the spouses, because sometimes they face issues of supporting the children, very basic issues of child support."

"First, you know, we have better knowledge of the issues than the internationals and given the fact that there is a plethora of [nongovernmental institutions] and other institutions set up near the local governance institutions, they would have actually done a lot to promote the [gender issues] within these institutions and there would have been changes," Kelmendi said.

The UN mission has also been criticized for implementing economic reforms too slowly, especially in privatizing state-run industries. But that effort has been impeded in part by legal questions surrounding the province's status.

Kelmendi said Kosovo's problems with domestic violence in the aftermath of conflict can be attributed in part to the lack of economic development. "In general, if you have a certain economic security in your family life, then domestic life is also better," she said. "Poverty generates domestic conflict, especially between the spouses, because sometimes they face issues of supporting the children, very basic issues of child support."

Kelmendi, who is running for reelection in next month's provisional elections, did note a fairly highly proportion of women -- 27 percent -- serving in the local legislature.

In a country like Afghanistan, just emerging from decades of conflict, human rights for women is an especially difficult issue to promote. The state minister for women's affairs for the Afghan Transitional Administration, Mahbuba Hoquqmal, told RFE/RL that many problems stem from the widespread illiteracy of men and women, which hampers their ability to understand new laws.

She told the conference that it is within families that the rights of women and girls are often violated. She noted the custom among some tribes of forced marriages and women being exchanged like property between the male heads of families.

Hoquqmal told RFE/RL that despite the stress on legal reforms for women, it will take time to overcome old customs. "I think the [biggest] problem is a cultural problem for us, because according to the Islamic law and also according to our…constitution and civil court, the women have rights, equal rights, with the men, but according to the customs our [rights are] destroyed, I think," she said.

But Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, the former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, believes that governments have a responsibility to be the agents of reform rather than wait, or hope, for customs to adapt.

McDonald told RFE/RL that she believes it is unrealistic to expect people to change deep-rooted attitudes voluntarily. "The governments, it seems to me, of states, have an obligation to look to international standards and incorporate those standards into their laws with the expectation that [their] 'culture' -- that may have some basis in traditional law or just years of condoning practices -- will then come along," she said. "We can't wait for these cultures and attitudes to change voluntarily because that just doesn't happen."

UNIFEM will transmit the recommendations from this week's conference to the UN Security Council for consideration during the council's debate on the fourth anniversary of the women and conflict resolution next month.