Women at the Nexus of Conflict and Development
Having lived in El Salvador for about 6 months during the civil war and over 9 years post-conflict and seen firsthand the aftereffects of conflict resolution, I was quite interested in the Society for International Development (SID) Congress July 30th panel on the “Nexus of Conflict and Development.”
Tessie San Martin from Plan International USA served as the moderator. Arthur Keys, President and CEO of International Relief and Development introduced the panel by noting the changing, fluid environments in conflict zones and their inherent complexities. Can development be done in a conflictive environment? Is settlement of conflict needed before development can take place? Can development assistance be used as a tool for peacemaking?
Within that context the panelists discussed a variety of issues: the changing nature of conflict and violence, the pillars of post-conflict reconstruction, local ownership and local government credibility and legitimacy, the role of the military in ‘delivering’ development, frontloading funds in conflict areas, and USAID branding in conflict zones. Listening to the discussion, I realized many of the questions that we were asking ourselves 20 years ago in post-conflict El Salvador remain unresolved.
One of the most interesting conversations of the panel was catalyzed by San Martin’s question on local ownership and legitimacy. “We’re talking about ownership and local voices, but one question is whose local voice? There are a number of vulnerable groups,” she said. “How do you deal with the question of ‘whose voice’?”
Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator of USAID, answered by telling the story of his experiences negotiating a peace agreement in Angola under Bill Clinton: “When I was asked how this agreement benefits women, I answered that not a single part of this agreement discriminates against women,” he said. “But what I learned is that a peace agreement that calls itself gender neutral is actually working against women.”
The Angola agreement was based on 13 separate amnesties. “I learned that ‘amnesty’ means ‘men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women.’”
Steinberg went on to comment that the closest woman to the peace process in Angola was a female interpreter, who would “raise her eyebrows when we men did something stupid.”
He described the peace agreement as “come and hand in your weapons and you get benefits.” However, most women involved in the conflict were not bearing arms but were playing other roles. So when demobilization came, they got no benefits. “We sent men back to communities where women had become very empowered in their absence,” he said. “The men returned and there was no role for them. Many drank off all their benefits. They started beating their wives. The incidence of sexual aggression rose. So you saw that the end of the one conflict brought about a new insidious form of violence against women.”
Peace agreements also forgot about women in de-mining activities. “We cleared the roads of mines,” said Steinberg. “But we didn’t clear the fields. The water points. Places where women gathered wood. As communities returned home, and women went back to collecting water and firewood, they were blowing their legs off with remarkable regularity.”
The peace process started to fall apart a couple years later, he said, but by then it was too late to bring women’s organizations into the process. “We tried to work with women’s groups but they would say, ‘This isn’t about us, it was about the men with guns. It hasn’t involved us at all.’” The country erupted into war again.
Steinberg said he was happy that USAID is addressing these issues now. “The first thing I put into place was support to women’s participation in peace processes and to provide them with protection to do so, as it’s dangerous for women to be involved in this work. Nothing about them without them – this is our phrase,” he said, and cited UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as a strong influence
Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the UN, agreed that the role of women is critical: “It starts with who’s negotiating the peace process.” Barton noted that the percentage of women in peace negotiations is 5-7%, and that it’s a recurring concern. “If you are not there at the start of the race, it will be designed in a certain way and you will be disadvantaged. I’m hopeful that the UN Women’s Commission will bring attention and focus to this issue.”
“What about men and boys?” a woman in the audience asked. “It’s great to empower women, but what are you doing to change the attitudes and beliefs that men have? How can we get them to realize we are equal?”
Barton agreed that getting men’s attention is critical. “These are not women’s issues, they are society’s issues. Men and boys need to come a long way.”
“It’s easy to work on gender with this administration,” commented Steinberg, noting that USAID is trying to institutionalize it through the position of Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. “It’s not only about protecting women or about victimization,” he said. “It’s about changing attitudes and instilling into our DNA the notion that women are key to building stable societies, ensuring sustainable growth and recovering from conflict situations. We need to focus on gender in addition to women.”
Sitting, there, listening to the panel discussions, I kept thinking about a Salvadoran friend from 20 years ago. She was from a ‘conflict zone’ but would have never called herself an ex-combatant. For several years, she had moved around with the guerrilla, cooking and supporting the cause, but didn’t carry a weapon. She had lingering health problems stemming from that period, when she had been chronically malnourished. During her time with the guerrilla, she had contracted glandular TB, a condition that embarrassed her. At 34 years of age then, she had the ruddy, freckled and fresh face of a young girl, but she wore dentures as she had lost all of her teeth. She worked cleaning an office and always struggled financially; I’m not sure she ever got any benefits from demobilization.
I am also reminded of a rather large post-conflict program that I was responsible for monitoring at the time, together with a few other privately funded donor agencies. Aimed at providing community-based psycho-social support to returning ex-combatants in several zones formerly held by the guerrilla, the program ended up mostly supporting women and children who were suffering domestic violence at the hands of the demobilizing men. Community psycho-social support agents recognized that they were treating a secondary effect and not addressing the real causes of the violence, as the male ex-combatants either didn’t feel they needed support or didn’t want to face the stigma of seeking it out.
According to a 1994 article by Betsy Morgan in On the Issues Magazine, ”Nearly one third of the FMLN guerrilla forces, who fought for 12 harrowing years in the mountains, were women. But neither of the restructuring plans [that of the government or that of the rebels] directly addressed women’s issues: equality in education, health care, job opportunities, and legal justice in instances of rape and domestic abuse…. Two female commandantes from the FMLN were on the negotiating team. However, when the peace accords were signed on January 16, 1992, all the signatories were male. The subsequent reconstruction plans called for demilitarization, but neither the government nor the FMLN addressed the hidden violence – domestic abuse, rape and incest – that invariably accompanies a military climate of violence, and neither side made provisions for the fair treatment of female ex-combatants, particularly in terms of land tenure. It can only be concluded that for all of the women’s influence during the war, at the point of peace, the women’s movement was still seen as a thing apart from the arena where real decisions were made.”
There were women involved in all aspects of the war, including the negotiation of the Peace Accords in El Salvador, but it didn’t guarantee that women’s needs were addressed during the negotiations. It didn’t ensure that the post-conflict programs agreed to in the Accords were fully funded or that programs were designed and planned with participation of those they were meant to benefit. It did not guarantee that the different efforts were non-politicized or that they were well-implemented. As Keys remarked when introducing the panel, the nexus of conflict and development is a complex place, with every element impacting every other; and as Steinberg and Barton pointed out, it’s not only about women, it’s about gender.
I’m glad to see the discussions taking place, and I hope that experiences, failures and successes from places like Angola, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many others are fully examined and shared to see what more can be done to create environments where women are in decision-making roles before, during and after conflict; where the broader implications of gender and gender roles are considered; and where both women and men who achieve positions of power are really reaching out to, listening to and representing those who don’t have a seat at the table.
Members of the panel:
Tessie San Martin, President and CEO, Plan International USA and SID Board Member (moderator)
Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations
Alonzo L Fulgham, Vice President, IRD
Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, USAID
Tom Wheelock, Vice President and Sr Director, Communities in Transition, Creative Associates