12/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's About Time: The UN Says Rape is Weapon of War

Yesterday's UN resolution condemning rape as a weapon of war is a start. Now we need a full-fledged, well-funded global campaign to support women in all ways.

A case is building that women are a major key to our world's economic stability, and momentum is growing for profound and lasting progress on boosting the fortunes of the female half. We have some important people to thank for this, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, charitable powerhouse and host of the Clinton Global Initiative, which this year focused in part on the importance of investing in women and girls.

Now the United Nations, with Secretary Clinton's urging, has come out against one of the most profoundly disempowering actions women contend with -- rape as a weapon of war. The world body passed a resolution on Wednesday in a 15 to 0 vote condemning this atrocity, appointing a special envoy to coordinate prevention efforts, and directing the creation of a team of experts to help governments figure out how to effectively prosecute offenders, according to the Associated Press.

By any account, this is wonderful news, especially after the UN's traditionally timid stance on this issue. But, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, "Any UN resolution is only as good as its follow-up." So the big question is: What now? HRW rightly states that "the UN system cannot change overnight: while it is now legally empowered to provide information on sexual violence in conflict situations, it still needs to be appropriately structured and resourced to do so."

According to Zainab Salbi, CEO and founder of Women for Women International, an organization that works to assist and empower women in war zones, being "resourced" is key. She contends that progress on women's rights is at this point largely a question of backing up promises with the funding that serious change requires.

"A lot of people know how to talk the talk," she told me recently. "But the truth is that very little money still goes to women. And this is a world where money matters."

Applauding promises in speeches is well and good, but she says we have to ask questions that point to action: "How much money have you spent on women? How many women are on your Board of Directors?" Do efforts to help women, in short, have any teeth? "There is room for actual accountability and delivery beyond the talk," she said.

To illustrate her point, she related a story about meeting members of the US Government, including the Army and the State Department, in Iraq.

They asked me to present about our program. They didn't understand why investment in poor women makes sense. They said, 'How can there be viable investment in poor women?' It's challenging when a lot of the money is controlled by a group of people who are not forwarding it in the right direction. That not only challenges me, that hurts me, to see so much money being wasted.

Her voice took on a tinge of anger. "So much money being wasted."

Indeed, there is large body of evidence that empowering women helps everybody in a society. According to Because I am a Girl, failing to educate girls to the level of boys costs developing nations $92 billion each year in missed opportunity. Moreover, educated women have fewer and healthier children, ensuring that families have more resources and fewer challenges. But girls and women are often deprived of educational and other opportunities, especially in war zones. Salbi points out that women make up 90 percent of modern war's casualties and 80 percent of refugees.

So while it is indeed progress that the UN is vowing action on something as fundamental to women's well-being as prevention of rape, the international community should see this as a beginning to a broader effort -- the first step in a global campaign to make sure women are protected, empowered and given ample opportunities to succeed. But the most important thing the global community -- and all of us -- must realize is that women, like men, want the ability to help themselves, not handouts or handholding.

"We are inspired by the very women we are there to help," Salbi told me. "They are not paralyzed in their position. They are moving on. They are saying, 'I have no choice but to stand up on my feet. I have kids.'" Women for Women, she said, asks "How can we support them?" The support women need, as Salbi sees it, is not only the proper legal protections for their well-being but also to be given opportunities that allow them to act on the inspiring strength they already have.

I asked Salbi how she carries on with such a demanding project year after year when people have such a hard time getting the message. HRW points out that it has been almost a decade since the UN passed resolution urgently calling for nations to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account. But only now has the body acted to formally condemn rape.

Salbi said for the second time in our conversation that it is the women themselves that inspire her. "I see the resilience and the beauty of the human spirit in the midst of darkness," she told me. "It's challenging, but life is beautiful."