International Women’s Day in 2020 is a milestone in acknowledging the different impact that conflicts have on women, men, boys and girls. This year marks the 20th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which recognises the importance of women’s role in peacebuilding.
But there is still a lot to do to ensure women’s participation, and reduce the risks that women and girls face during conflict. To mark this day, we spoke to partners and communities in South Sudan, Yemen and Tajikistan to see how women are breaking down barriers, and supporting women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding.
Women across South Sudan are uniting and transcending the boundaries of class, tribe, nationality, religion and socioeconomic background to look to their future.
“We are tired of the phrase “Itti Mara Sakit” (meaning “you’re just a woman”),” said Mary, from Maridi, South Sudan. “It is time to fight these stereotypes.”
In a divided country like South Sudan, violence continues to affect people’s lives. It’s not every day that women and women’s organisations can come together to celebrate their achievements. “We have never had a day that women’s efforts in our communities are recognised,” said Mary. “This day is like Christmas for the women of Maridi and South Sudan.”
Mary is a member of the women’s cluster of a community action group in Maridi, one of four in the town. The group is supported by Saferworld and our six partners: the Community Initiative for Partnership and Development (CIPAD), Maridi Service Agency (MSA), Church and Development (C&D), Disabled Agency for Rehabilitation and Development (DARD), the Upper Nile Youth Development Association (UNYDA), and the Centre for Livelihoods, Peace, Research and Poverty Reduction (CLIP Poverty). The group works to address the security issues facing women in Maridi, transform stereotypical behaviours associated with men and women – which prevent women from participating in public life – and strengthen women’s involvement in peacebuilding.
To date, individual women and women-led groups have mobilised communities to challenge sexual and gender-based (SGBV) violence, raised awareness of the issues facing women, and ensured that women are part of peace talks. “Through the community action groups, we create awareness among women, girls and men in our community about the issues affecting us such as domestic violence,” said Angelina Simon, a member of the women’s cluster. “Working with community action groups has encouraged me to raise my voice on behalf of women at meetings,” said Veronica John, another member of the cluster.
Amani Samuel (right) and Veronica John (left), members of a women’s cluster of a community action group in Malakal, South Sudan.
Some women still struggle to have access to basic rights, let alone equality, in South Sudan. These range from a right to health, education, property and inheritance, to security, access to justice and political participation. Women’s opinions and voices are often undervalued and their contributions aren’t recognised. Across the country, men are the decision makers, while the role of women is to take care of their families. “But during times of violent conflict, women are forced to assume new roles as heads of families,” said Hakim Yoanis, Project Coordinator for UNYDA. Women and girls are also objectified though the practice of the payment of ‘bride prices’ – money or property paid by a groom or his family to the family of a woman when they marry.
“International Women’s Day is very important in South Sudan because this is the time we can reflect on our journey, look back on how far we’ve come and look to our fight towards gender equality,” said Stella Lolik, Saferworld’s Youth Coordinator in South Sudan.
“Women’s voices are crucial”
"This is the day we are reminded that we deserve equal opportunities and rights."
“Women are the most affected by conflict. We shoulder all the burden of unpaid labour, and taking care of our children and homes,” said Angelina. “We are considered second to men in everything we do. This is the day we are reminded that we deserve equal opportunities and rights.”
Despite the prevailing patriarchy in South Sudan, and the impact SGBV has had on creating fear and silence among women, women are strong advocates for peace. In Wau for instance, women from the diverse communities that reside there were able to reunite a once ethnically divided community through visits and the sharing of households goods.
Many women are role models in their communities but “the focus on peacebuilding tends to be at the higher levels and concentrates on women in the capital Juba. People forget what happens in rural areas,” said Stella.
The naming of the country’s first woman vice president in the soon-to-be formed new government of national unity has raised expectations for improving gender equality and women’s formal position in society. People are hopeful of more women being part of the government. But the transitional government of national unity is still yet to commit to a 35 per cent quota for women’s participation.
“We strongly believe that women’s voices are crucial at this moment,” said Stella. She also stressed the need for the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) “so that women’s meaningful participation and rights, as enshrined in the peace agreement, are realised.”
Another challenge to achieving gender equality is tackling impunity in South Sudan. “This might take time,” said Stella. “But as long as impunity persists, women are not going to be fully engaged, they are going to be silenced and the status quo will continue.”
As we mark International Women’s Day, there are reasons to be hopeful. The impact of women’s involvement in peacebuilding in South Sudan is significant. Our role now is to combine community-led efforts with initiatives at the national and international levels. “If women are involved from the start of peacebuilding efforts and the international community support women and women’s organisations, their work will have a much greater impact on communities and contribute to peace and development,” said Stella.
Illustration by Anastasya Eli.
“My message to young women is that active participation in their communities is not only their right but also their duty, to take part in building their communities.”
Ashgan Shuraih is the president of Saferworld partner Alf Ba Civilization and Coexistence Foundation, a Yemeni-led organisation working to strengthen civil society and promote equality, respect and inclusion. Ashgan rehabilitates and educates women and young people about international laws and human rights, to build peace and renounce violence.
"There was an urgent need to work for the community and reintroduce a culture of that is accepting of others."
“Because of Aden’s geographic location* and the diversity of its social fabric, my city is characterised by coexistence. But Aden was one of the conflict fronts between the parties, which has had a direct effect on my life and my role in society as I chose to focus on relief work. Even after the withdrawal of Ansar Allah from Aden, we witnessed chaos and the spread of armed groups. There was an urgent need to work for the community and reintroduce a culture of that is accepting of others.”
During the conflict in Yemen, women’s roles and experiences have changed. Increased insecurity and hardship has affected women’s social, political and economic opportunities.
“Generally, Yemeni society is described as a closed tribal society in most of its regions. This brings social standards that restrict the role of women and impose specific roles. Socially, women are often restricted to housework and raising children. There are also places where women are deprived of their inheritance such as Yafe’a in Lahj governorate. Outside the home, usually women are only allowed to work in education and nursing.”
Alf Ba and Saferworld work together to support community initiatives that tackle security and safety concerns. We work to make sure women play an active role in community action, from attending skills training, to advocating with local authorities and leading initiatives. Initiatives have included reviving public spaces like the Khor Makser walkway in Aden, setting up street lighting to reduce incidents of harassment particularly against women, and finding solutions for unequal electricity and water distribution that were causing local conflicts.
Alf Ba deliver a gender training.
“The role of women in bringing peace to Yemen is pivotal, not only because women have suffered the most from war and its effects, but because women constitute half of all of our communities.
Four years before the outbreak of the war (from 2011 until 2014), feminist activism in Yemen reached its peak. An important outcome during the National Dialogue Conference was the approval of a 30 per cent quota for women’s participation in all fields and at all levels. I was part of the dialogue advocating for the rights of all civil society, despite being the only representative of the Hirak (Southern Movement) which was dangerous for me. But after 2015, there was a decline in women’s participation. The important indicator of this has been the minimal participation of women in the peace negotiations currently under way.
"Now we can say that the effective feminist movements have started to recover to some extent..."
Now we can say that the effective feminist movements have started to recover to some extent, as feminist groups have been active at the local level and at international forums. However, the international community have the important and urgent role of supporting the participation of women for peace in Yemen. Despite the existence of frameworks that support women such as UNSCR 1325, women in Yemen find their implementation difficult due to the disappointing role of political and societal forces in Yemen – especially the negotiating parties – in supporting women.”
With international attention on peace efforts in Yemen focused on high-level negotiations, the voices of Yemenis and the efforts of women on are often neglected. Saferworld advocates for the international community and donors to directly support Yemeni civil society including women’s organisations, to build the bridge between local-level peacebuilding and formal political change.
“The international community should on one hand exert more pressure on all parties in Yemen towards women's participation, and on the other they should provide direct support to women to enable them to effectively participate in achieving peace in Yemen.”
We hear from two of our civil society partners in Tajikistan, Jahon and Munis, about their work in promoting women’s rights, the role of women in peacebuilding and the challenges of marking this important day in Tajikistan.
Can you tell us about your work?
Shahlo: I am the director of the civil society organisation Jahon. Since 1999 we have been advocating for women’s rights. We work to improve their knowledge of the law and work with law enforcement agencies to promote their rights; increase transparency of how the government implements laws that affect women; and raise awareness of the law among other minorities in Tajikistan. We work in partnership with Saferworld on addressing the problems and tensions that can lead to domestic violence. We also encourage women’s participation in peacebuilding.
"We focus on protecting the rights of women and girls by helping women in their fight for property rights, as well as girls who face domestic violence and early marriages. This is a major problem."
Mavjuda: I am a member of the civil society organisation Munis based in Hissor, a town close to the capital Dushanbe. I have also recently been elected as a deputy parliamentarian in Hissor. We started our work after the civil war in Tajikistan [which ended in 1997]. We focus on protecting the rights of women and girls by helping women in their fight for property rights, as well as girls who face domestic violence and early marriages. This is a major problem.
Why is International Women's Day important in Tajikistan?
Mavjuda: Our president has declared this day as ‘Mother’s Day’ – because mothers play a special role in our society. We celebrated this day as International Women’s Day for 90 years until 1998, when it was changed to Mother’s Day. But it is still widely celebrated among the population as International Women’s Day.
Shahlo: It is not as politicised as around the world. We made it about community, about family. It is more of a family holiday. We say that mothers play a special role in communities, they educate the next generation. We don’t talk about women activists or change makers or about women’s rights during this day – we just talk about the role of mothers. But unofficially, in our circles we do talk about it, we refer to history and share important articles.
What role do women play in peacebuilding?
Shahlo: Our government has joined the United Nations Resolution 1325 [on women, peace and security], and they regularly report on its implementation. During the civil war, women played an important role in peacebuilding. Those who were active during the war are now involved in the implementation of Tajikistan’s national action plans under UN Resolution 1325.
Mavjuda: The contribution of women in the civil war in the reconciliation between the opposition and the government forces was significant. Women politicians and public figures played an important role by establishing a dialogue between the groups involved in the conflict. They contributed to the establishment of peace in the country.
Shahlo: We now have an excellent platform for women peacebuilders. We have a coalition called ‘From equality de jure to equality de facto’, consisting of 41 organisations from all over the country. They develop shadow reports to the government’s reports on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Under CEDAW, we work on a range of things including access to education for girls, domestic violence and women’s access to politics.
Mavjuda (left) and Shahlo (right) discuss gender issues in Dushanbe.
What is the role of women in politics?
Mavjuda: Our government tries to increase the involvement of women in the political sphere. In our recent parliamentary elections [on 1 March] there were many women nominated to become deputies at the local level – which was an instruction of the government. We expect that 38 to 40 per cent of members of parliament will be women at this level. Currently [as of 29 February] the percentage of women members of parliament is 11.6 per cent at the regional level, and 17.5 per cent at the national level.
Shahlo: On the one hand it will be a victory if more women are in parliament after the elections, as more women will be involved in decision making. On the other hand, we need to make sure that their participation is meaningful. It is not just a matter of numbers.
What barriers do women face in society and how do you work with women to overcome these?
Shahlo: In 2005/6, we conducted research into why women weren’t participating in elections at the local and national level. We found that they lack support, mistrust the political system, and they don’t have the support of their family who don’t believe they can become members of parliament. We thought we should work on increasing their participation. We created a manual for women leaders and we enhanced their skills in different areas so they could go even further in politics. We worked with journalists that explained how women can better express themselves so they can promote themselves
"We need to involve and engage men in ending domestic violence. Often these men listen to religious leaders."
Mavjuda: In rural areas, most people are very traditional and don’t let their wives, sisters or daughters go out and get an education. Even if a woman is educated and marries a man, and they live with his family, members of his extended family or even their husband won’t let them work. This can cause arguments and can sometimes even lead to domestic violence. The government makes efforts to increase women’s participation in socio-political life by providing a quota on accessing education and work. But if a husband and his family prevent this, it’s not possible. We need to involve and engage men in ending domestic violence. Often these men listen to religious leaders. So it is important to work with religious leaders on how religion can promote respect for women’s rights. If a woman in a situation of domestic violence wants to divorce but doesn’t have access to property or a place to go, and is financially dependent, she might commit suicide.
What are your hopes for the role of women in peacebuilding?
Mavjuda: Equality for women and men in all spheres. I want each woman’s rights to be respected and not violated. I want to see all families happy.
Shahlo: I would like to see laws that protect and promote women’s rights implemented and enforced. This will increase their confidence in the government, and reduce conflict and grievances.