New Zealand must work for – and with – women caught up in conflict

18 August 2015, 09:16 UTC | New Zealand, Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan
Woman's rights advocate Samira Hamidi, a member of the Afghan Women's Network, from Kabul in Afghanistan at a protest outside City Hall in Cardiff, ahead of the NATO Summit Wales 2014. © PA
Carsten Bockemuehl - Advocacy and Research Coordinator, Amnesty International NZ

One of the key things I remember about my grandmother is that, unlike my grandfather, she never talked about the war. Having grown up in Poland she had experienced first-hand the murderous onslaughts by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on her hometown. Many years later, her pride wouldn’t allow her to recall times fraught with traumatic experiences. This is not surprising given that some of her darkest memories involved rape.

Throughout history, sexual violence committed against women has been a key feature of conflict. When 70 years ago World War II ended, up to 200,000 "comfort women" who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military were released into freedom.

70 years onwards, countless women still face the same violence and humiliation those “comfort women” once did. Amnesty International’s research has found that, for example, since 2014 more than 2000 women and girls have been kidnapped, raped or forced into marriage by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In an equally shocking incident in late 2014 Sudanese military forces raped more than 200 women and girls in Tabit with total impunity. These are only two of many sad examples.

Surprisingly, the key solution to the problem of sexual and gender-based violence is straightforward: We must ensure that more women have a say in shaping their country’s future. It can’t be stressed enough that women in conflict-affected and fragile countries are more than just victims – often they are powerful peacebuilders, working tirelessly at the grassroots level to end, prevent and rebuild from conflict. Engaging them as equal partners will not only help improve their own security but also the well-being of their country. Alas, examples from around the world demonstrate that women continue to be shamefully underrepresented in formal peace and political processes. In Afghanistan, no women have been included in more than 20 known rounds of talks between the international community and the Taliban. Closer to home, very few women across the Pacific serve in leadership positions while the region continues to suffer from the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world.

This year presents a unique opportunity for New Zealand to bring about positive change. In October, the UN will convene all member states around the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security – a landmark document which for the first time in history acknowledged the unique and devastating impact of conflict on women. Since the resolution’s adoption in 2000, many governments have begun to recognise the central role women play in addressing conflict - however, much work remains. The upcoming anniversary and review in the UN Security Council will allow New Zealand to renew its commitment to women’s rights and formulate ambitious targets to that end. At the same time, New Zealand is also developing its first National Action Plan to integrate UNSCR 1325 into its foreign policies – a process Amnesty International is critically watching.  

New Zealand prides itself on its record of advancing gender equality. But will the country live up to its reputation in 2015 and make a meaningful contribution to this important issue? With its voice on the most powerful body in world politics, New Zealand should demonstrate a serious commitment to UNSCR 1325 and empowering women caught up in conflict. For example, New Zealand could offer more practical support to women peacebuilders and human rights defenders in conflict-affected countries, improve access to key health services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, strengthen efforts to bring perpetrators of abuses to justice, and consistently bring women’s issues into the UN Security Council’s work. As to New Zealand’s engagement in Iraq, promoting greater respect for women’s rights should be a core feature of training the Iraqi security forces.  

2015 is a year full of opportunities not to be missed. New Zealand’s leaders should ensure that when it comes to making peace, women - not warlords - have their voices heard.

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