Today marks the end of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, a global campaign by feminist activists to not only raise awareness and action to end gender violence, but also, importantly, to create an understanding that gender-based violence is a human rights abuse. This is an important rhetorical strategy, given historical reluctance by individuals and institutions to intervene in cases of violence against women and girls as a “private” or in some cases “traditional” matter. The significance of the 16 Days Campaign is linking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—on Nov. 26, the start of the campaign—to Human Rights Day, on Dec. 10.
Human Rights Day commemorates the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. At the time, the world was emerging from the chaos of World War II, and the declaration was primarily motivated as a function of global peacebuilding. Sixty-seven years later, that motivation has only increased in significance.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has tripled in the past decade; 80 percent of those are affected by armed conflict. Displacement is currently at the highest number on record: 59.5 million people. Girls and women are particularly vulnerable, displaced at higher numbers than ever and subject to unspeakable human rights violations including rape, child and forced marriage, and slavery, as we have seen in the latest round of horrific violence by the Islamic State.
Yet women are also an incredible force for peace, and recent scholarship points more strongly than ever to their power as peacebuilders. A recent study of 40 global peace processes shows that women increased the chances of agreements being reached, that their participation in talks contributed to better implementation of recommendations, and that they helped ensure the durability of peace. Perhaps most importantly, women repeatedly—and successfully—pushed for talks to take place where they weren’t, or to resume or conclude when they had stalled.
Still, women are routinely excluded from the peace table. From 1992 to 2011, less than four percent of participants in peace agreements and less than 10 percent of negotiators at peace talks were women, according to U.N. data.
The international community has, at least on the policy level, attempted to respond to this through the adoption of various international agreements and national laws outlining women’s human rights with regard to peace and security efforts—from protection against violence to participation in peacemaking and conflict prevention. The most groundbreaking of these, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325—which, for the first time, outlined this body of rights and committed member states to taking action to uphold it—celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this fall. A U.N. Secretary General report on the occasion of the anniversary found that 1325 and related, subsequent resolutions and policy frameworks have made a difference for women, albeit not as much of a difference as one might have hoped. Of the 664 agreements produced between 1990 and 2000 (when 1325 was adopted), only 73 (11 percent) included at least one reference to women. However, in the 15 years following the adoption of 1325, more than a quarter of the 504 agreements reached included women. The figure rises to 50 percent in agreements reached last year, a promising, though tardy, improvement.
General awareness of women’s power as peacebuilders has risen considerably, thanks to increased coverage by the media and the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize going to three female peacemakers from Liberia and Yemen. In fact, one of the laureates, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, rose to fame through the power of the media. The 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell profiles her collaborative effort to bring women together for peace across religious and political divides.
Yet the high honor of a handful of women has not been shared by the millions of women organizing to end violence and conflict in their own countries and communities—a highly risky undertaking for which many women tragically pay the ultimate price. As we push for more places for women at the peace table, we must take care not to forget the plight of the millions more who are doing the same work in the streets.
For the past 16 days, activists everywhere have reminded the global community of the devastating effects that violence has on women, families, communities and entire nations. But women are not solely victims of violence; they are also powerful leaders and catalysts for peace and social change. With Human Rights Day marking the end of the 16 Days Campaign, let us remember the women and girls in the streets and villages, defending human rights and pushing for peace, often at their own peril. Until we universally and consistently assert their rights to raise their voices and to participate in the dialogues and processes that define their lives without fear of violence, harassment or death itself, we cannot say we have arrived at real and lasting peace.
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