The announced theme of the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women taking place in New York from February 27 to March 3 -- the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development, and current challenges -- isn't focused per se on conflict. However, many assert that much of the famine and starvation that afflicts women and children is the result of politics -- not of an absolute lack of food, but its inequitable distribution. And the politics of conflict resolution too often leaves families in dire economic straits, even when a truce prevails. More devastating, women and children have been the victims of rape, abuse, and sexual slavery during and after conflict. Women are not only the "injured bystanders" in war; they are too often its target. In too many cases, few governmental resources are devoted to dealing with the aftermath of such horrors.
Could women actually make a difference and change the equation when it comes to peacemaking in the broadest sense? They could if permitted to represent the interests of communities and families on the ground. Yet in a study of 24 major peace processes since 1992, UN Women (the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) found that women composed only 2.5 percent of signatories, 3.2 percent of mediators, 5.5 percent of witnesses and 7.6 percent of negotiators. When women's interests are not represented at the negotiation tables, in the post-resolution restructuring process, or in the governance bodies that are established, the interests of children and families are almost always omitted from discussions.
The United Nations recognized this reality when it passed UN Resolution 1325 almost 12 years ago. That resolution calls on member states to "ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional, and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict." The resolution urges not only that women be engaged in conflict resolution, but that governments "adopt a gender perspective" to ensure that the interests of women are fully integrated into any conflict resolution efforts. As many other countries adopted national action plans to implement the resolution -- 25 have to date -- the US has lagged behind. In fact, the US hasn't even ratified 1325. The issuance of a "US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security" by the State Department on December 11, 2011 is, therefore, a very welcome development.
Israel, on the other hand, did ratify 1325, but it has yet to devise an action plan. Nevertheless, the Knesset enacted a mandate to include diverse women on public bodies established by the government on issues of national importance, including peace negotiations. When the law was more or less ignored, the organization Itach-Maaki Women Lawyers for Social Justice petitioned the Israeli courts to force its implementation. Twice the court ordered the government to appoint women, and now all-male committees have pretty much disappeared. Much still remains to be done in Israel and the US. In Israel the debate continues on how to include marginalized women. In the US, while many in policy circles have argued for women's role, the public discussion is really only just beginning with the Obama Administration's plan.
Integrating women isn't always an easy task. Traditional views of women, despite their role in communal social and economic life, can discourage them from speaking up on their own behalf. Even in situations where women do enjoy equal political rights, the overarching politics of a conflict can derail the efforts to affect conflict outcome. The newfound commitment of the US to the values of Resolution 1325 could revolutionize the business of achieving peace -- peace, based for a change, on the concerns critical to half the population. Women's participation might just be what current peace-making efforts need so progressive change can be realized in the world.