Tag Archives: CSW

Women’s Wear:  Sharing the Burdens of Those Who Defend and Inform, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Afghan II


To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs. Tom Rob Smith

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destiny. Takayuki Yamaguchi

If I don’t help the women in Afghanistan, they won’t be around to help me. Cheryl Benard

It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women; that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The end of this past work week was dominated by images that pointed human potential in vastly opposite directions.  In New Zealand, a mass killing in two mosques grabbed world headlines and caused many institutions – including the UN Security Council – to pause for a moment of silence, a moment that underscored both concern for victims and viceral unease at our collective inability to address — let alone eradicate — this “other terrorism.”  Indeed, the relative indifference evidenced by the government of the UN’s host nation stood only partially in contrast with the mostly muted levels of shock emanating from other states, shock perhaps due more to the startling location of this violence than to its severity.   We are collectively becoming numb to the incessant carnage, it appears, renouncing violence only when it hits too close to home, and often not even then.

On the same day, many thousands of teen-aged young people prepared to leave their classrooms and fill the world’s streets, taking adults like me to task for our negligence on climate threats.  Despite the warnings of insufficient responses, despite the scientific consensus on a threat more immediate and widespread than previously thought, we have mostly gone about our regular business as though our concerns were primarily grounded in rhetoric rather than in survival.  Moreover, we have inflicted this “business” on succeeding generations mostly stuck in classrooms and consumed with admission to next educational levels while the planet melts, millions are on the move, rights are being violated with impunity, and violent tensions are on the rise.

That said, it is especially good for all of us that young people take to the streets to protest some portion of the absurdity of “preparing for life” on a planet that might not be able to sustain life as we know it for that much longer.  Among their contributons, their presence on our avenues and boulevards is a reminder to the rest of us that the greatest gift to climate deniers is the lifestyle indifference of we who claim to accept the “reality” of climate threats, our unwillingness to reduce our ecological footprint, to care for the displaced and discriminated, to hold erstwhile “leadership” accountable for what is coming and not only what is.

The UN of course takes regular notice of threats from terrorism and violence even if it must often wait for states, especially powerful ones, to take up their own portions of global responsibility.  For this week, however, threats to and opportunities for women dominated the UN during the 63rd convening of ECOSOC’s Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), ably chaired by Ireland.  Thousands of women from around the world made the trek to New York, filling virtually every available UN space in plenary sessions and copious side events to discuss the merits of “social protection” and link “women’s empowerment” to sustainable development goals previously promised to the world through the 2030 Development Agenda.

The CSW is both a major branding opportunity and a bit of a “mixed bag” for the UN, which failed once again to secure guarantees from the host state for access by all the women registered, while also largely failing to provide levels of hospitality that women who have traveled long distances to participate surely deserve.  What these CSW delegates found instead is endless lines for coffee and basic sustenance, standing room only side events, and rest room configurations that had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate the thousands of women now in the building.  The security officers tasked with screening and providing direction for these women have often been no less stressed than the visiting women themselves.

Moreover, there is a sense in which delegates seem to have been led to believe that the CSW is breaking new ground for the UN in terms of ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, ensuring women’s participation in political and peace processes, and guaranteeing educational opportunity and social protection for women and girls.   These matters already constitute a significant portion of our regular discourse here at the UN.  This is as it should be, with the caveats that our gendered jargon (how do we know when someone is “empowered?”) might actually impede a deeper, connected understanding of the many layers of exclusion that infect our collective interests.  For all the barriers faced by women in diverse cultural contexts, theirs is but one ample portion of a number of often-interlocked exclusions associated with race, religion, ethnicity, poverty, disability and social class. These factors contribute to complex and multi-layered patterns of discrimination that impact women to be sure, but hardly women alone.

It is in the CSW side events where the complexities of human lives – women’s lives – are mostly likely to find their voice.  Two such side events stood out for us this past week.  The first, “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Women Human Rights Defenders,” featured women from Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Nicaragua and elsewhere who literally put their lives on the line to defend rights and public interests in places where most of us – including many who reside in our UN safe spaces – would not be anxious to tread.  The powerful and largely humble testimony of these women did not downplay either the threats they face in the field (including gender-specific threats) or the limited reach of UN protections against reprisals for their activities (duly acknowledged by the UN officials present).  Women defenders are expected to “navigate layers of power” while insisting that their own “layered” and often-traumatic experiences inform what one defender referred to as women’s rights discourse that has become “too predictable,” a “tool for repressive states,” alienating for many women on the front lines of change.

Another side event this week, “Journalism and the empowerment of women,” featured women journalists whose difficult work is both facilitated and imperiled by their deep connection to and reliance on “social media.” Such platforms have become havens for “anonymous” and mean-spirited trolling of the journalists who tell the public things they would rather not know, trolling sometimes accompanied by gendered threats of overt violence that, in some instances, morph into physical attacks against individuals and families.  One of the free-lance panelists who is dedicated to covering right-wing movements cited “staggering” amounts of anti-Semitic, derogatory responses on social media in response to her body of reporting. Another journalist capably extended the discourse on exclusion and abuse, noting that when you examine issues of race, “you put a target on your back,” a target for which there is scant protection, especially from online assaults. Male journalists, it was noted, are also subject to abuse, but are generally regarded as “hated equals,” a courtesy rarely extended to women in the profession.

I was so grateful for the women on both these panels who were generally able to speak clearly about the extraordinary pressures they face without demonizing others or minimizing the generalized impacts of the recrimination and violence that characterize much of our current social climate.  But I also wondered: What keeps them going when their energy and hope have worn thin?  What allows them to do their work, day after day, knowing that they and their families risk being “hung out to dry” by those of us in much safer spaces who can simply redirect our energy to other matters?   Is it pride and determination? Have they simply “stitched their fate” with those serially oppressed?  Do they feel the hurt that can only be healed through intention?   We need to know more about their motivations and feed off their examples.

With an absence of essentialist jargon and with the recognition that too much global policy is like rain that forms in the clouds but never reaches the parched earth, women defenders and journalists are boldly sharing stories and contexts that some want to kill and too many others ignore.  If we want a world where families are safe to worship and children are confident in the health of a planet that will house their adult aspirations, we must all pledge to do whatever it takes to offer mechanisms of protection and solidarity with the eye-opening and often life-saving work of these people of courage.




Our Responsibilities to Protect and to Promote

4 Mar

Editor’s Note:  The following was written by Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a student at the University of Southern Maine and a contributor to several RtoP-related projects in New York and elsewhere.  Dylan wrote this to coincide with the opening of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 10. GAPW, mostly through the efforts of Melina Lito, has done extensive work exploring WPS-RtoP relationships.

The project of promoting and facilitating gender equality has been and continues to be a daunting undertaking. With millennia upon millennia of learned and institutionalized gender inequity, it is little wonder that this challenge persists.

There is good news however. Since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, the United Nations has worked actively and ardently on the “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS) agenda and there has been substantial progress. Despite this progress, there is still much work to be done in advancing the cause of gender equality and in addressing the unique and disproportionate burdens shouldered by women and girls in conflict situations.

Resolution 1325, the canonical WPS report published by the UN Secretary General in 2002, and subsequent Council resolutions (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122 – text available at: http://www.peacewomen.org/security_council_monitor/) all enumerate the various and diverse array of obstacles and hurdles faced by women in matters of peace and security. These obstacles span the gamut from second-class social statuses in some societies to assumptions about the appropriate “place” of women to employment discrimination to enforced domestic or sexual slavery. There are two broad categories that emerge as central to the WPS discussion: the imbalance of female representation in positions of leadership and decision-making and the continued persistence of gender-based and sexual violence. Both are crucial in tackling the malaise of gender inequity and yet each contain within them potential pitfalls and drawbacks.

The horrors of gender-based and sexual violence are undeniable and such ravages demand redress. Women and girls are often primary targets in the midst of conflict as a means of waging psychological, emotional and physical warfare against a perceived enemy. The visible and invisible scars of such violence are unimaginable, except to those who bear them. It is vital to acknowledge the disparity in the way in which men and women experience war and conflict but it is equally important to resist the temptation to essentialize women and girls as occupying the exclusive role of helpless victim. Such unintentional characterizations, most often resulting from genuine compassion and concern, can nevertheless be destructive to the aim of affirming the agency and dignity of women and girls more broadly. After all, if you are only fit to become a victim then how can you possibly be anything else, for instance, an effective peace activist or negotiator?

It is far more important to achieve gender balance and inclusivity at all levels of institutional, organizational and societal structures. Such structures can vary in nature widely, from legislative bodies to dispute resolution entities to peacekeeping missions to UN organs. The critical point is to internalize gender sensitivities and responsiveness within all contexts, be they post-conflict transitions or peace negotiations or economic development efforts. It is widely understood that the exclusion of women from positions of leadership and decision-making prior to conflict in a given community will likely be mirrored in post-conflict settings. The UN is often a presence in all phases of conflict and can serve a vital function in leading by example. The obvious concern to deal with in these efforts is tokenism and patronization, which must be avoided.

Gender does not refer primarily to biology or physiology. It is a social construction, informed by the particular values, customs, traditions and assumptions attendant to a given community or society. The important thing to note, and something that the Secretary General noted in his report in 2002, is that these social constructions are learned and changeable. As is true with any other idea or conception, the law of dynamism is at work. Ideas are not static but rather are subject to constant reinterpretation and re-imagination. It is the provision of new ways of thinking about gender and the revision of old ones that will ultimately yield the lasting and sustainable changes to gender norms that currently form the core of discriminatory and repressive conditions across the world.

As already mentioned the UN is in a position to lead the way in the WPS movement and is doing so in some positive ways. The goal of 50/50 representation among men and women at medium to upper-level official positions within all organs and entities is a work in progress but laudable in that it is a codified and stated objective. Annual reports from the Secretary General on the continued advancement of WPS and its constituent line-items helps track progress and highlight gaps. The appointment of women to prominent high-level positions – including Mary Robinson, former High Commissioner for Human Rights and now Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, and Jennifer Welsh as the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect — function as good-faith efforts to ensure that women have seats at the various tables that form the basis for global governance. The creation of UN Women, an entity dedicated to the promotion of issues that affect women uniquely and to presenting policy prescriptions and analyses aimed at mitigating those issues, is yet another substantive and promising endeavor toward achieving the broad mandate set forth by the WPS framework.

It is also important to recognize the indispensable role that civil society plays in actualizing the WPS agenda. As an emblematic example, consider the efficacy of a coalition of women’s groups in Kosovo in 2013 that lobbied successfully to identify women and girls who were the victims of gender-based and sexual violence as war victims, thus rendering those affected eligible for compensation and reparations previously only available to mostly male combatants. Such activism and civil engagement highlights the power that women possess in catalyzing change and asserting their agency and relevance in post-conflict and transitional justice environments.

The UN and other official governance bodies do not possess sole proprietorship over WPS as a norm or its policy extensions. The goal of promoting gender justice belongs to us all, at every level of society and in every nation in the world. The lack of said justice is one of the most durable and pervasive disequilibria to afflict humankind and its ultimate resolution requires collaborative and innovative solutions. The first step is to recognize that women play diverse roles in all peace and security contexts, ranging from Sierra Leone women organizing peace marches to Guatemalan women facilitating community-based dispute resolution processes. Women are potent agents of positive change but of course they can also be both victims and perpetrators in the midst of armed conflicts. Regardless, women must be included in all processes designed to resolve such conflicts and must be consulted in crafting gender sensitive and responsive policies in all policymaking efforts. Normalizing the presence of women in positions of leadership can help undermine traditional assumptions that relegate women to secondary roles and lay the groundwork for new societal understandings about gender, which are essential to achieving gender equality in the long run. Peace and security and the maintenance thereof wil only be feasible when women are equal participants in all phases of relevant endeavors. Until then, advancing the WPS normative agenda and leading by example are the most vital and viable means of reaching the goal of gender justice.

Gender-Based Violence in the Arms Trade Treaty

8 Apr

After two separate negotiating conferences, in July 2012 and March 2013 respectively, an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has finally been adopted. The text (hereinafter “Final Text”) that was adopted on 2 April 2013 in the UN General Assembly by majority vote (155-22-3) contains strong references to gender-based violence (GBV). The objective of the ATT is to create a “comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional a

[1] This process, which began in 2006, came to an end just a few days after the conclusion of the “Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty,” which took place 18-28 March 2013. Although this Final Conference was unable to reach consensus, the draft text was brought to the UNGA and passed by an overwhelming majority of member states. This short brief provides an overview of the role of GBV within the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations as well some concluding thoughts about the significance of its inclusion in the Treaty.

In our policy brief on Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Policy Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA, GAPW highlighted the effects that the illicit trade in arms can have on domestic violence, conflict-related sexual violence, and how such arms can be mis-used in ways that deter women from participating in social and political life.[2]  Given the pervasive effect of the illicit flow of arms in perpetuating violence against women and limiting women’s participation, sufficient attention to a gender perspective is essential in effective disarmament and arms control discussions in order to create a reliable security sector.[3] Special attention should be paid to women’s agency because women in many countries tend to be under-represented in social and political life and tend to have limited access to education, employment, health-care, and judicial processes. [4]

The relationship between violence against women and the illicit flow of small arms was highlighted in the recent agreed conclusions of the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57)[5] as well as in the statement issued by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on 24 July 2012.[6] Moreover, women’s participation in disarmament processes was highlighted in the UNGA First Committee Resolution on Women, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control.[7]

As states agreed by consensus in the recent CSW57 conclusions, GBV is “a form of discrimination that seriously violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women and girls of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[8] Member states also agreed by consensus at the CSW57 that violence against women “means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering to women and girls, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”[9]

It is worth noting here the ATT is not a disarmament treaty per se, though there are clear linkages between the central purpose of the ATT – ending diverted transfers – and efforts to end arms-related violence against women. In this context, there are two relevant GBV references in the ATT text. In the Preamble, states parties recognize “that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict and armed violence.”[10] This reference is not significantly different from the one found in the 26 July 2012 “Draft Treaty Text,” (hereinafter “Draft Treaty Text”) which formed the basis for March 2013 negotiations. The Draft Treaty Text recognized that “women and children are particularly affected in situations of conflict and armed violence.”[11] The reference to “armed conflict” was included in the Final Text at the request of many states, including the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate the reference to women and children as a homogeneous group is still included, as this suggests that women and children are affected by conflict and violence in the same way.

Additionally, the preambular paragraph in the Final Text does not include the link between GBV and international humanitarian law (IHL), which had been included in the Chair’s Non-Paper from 22 March 2013. The Non-Paper underscores that “recognizing acts of gender based violence may constitute violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”[12] This was particularly relevant and important given the discussions to strengthen the relationship between gender and IHL. Furthermore, the Final Text does not include any language on women’s participation and the role of women as agents of change.  Even though there has previously been agreed language on women’s agency within disarmament processes,[13] the disregard for participation reinforces the notion of women as vulnerable. This omission also continues to place emphasis on women as victims of violence, as opposed to their capacities, skills and experience as leaders in prevention and protection strategies.

The second reference to GBV is in the risk assessment section, Article 7 in the Final Text. In the Draft Treaty Text, GBV was to be taken into consideration after the state assessed whether or not a particular export would violate IHL and international human rights law (IHRL).[14] In making its decision to authorize the export, a state party could establish risk mitigation measures, and would not authorize the export if there was an “overriding” risk. The state party could also take “feasible measures” to ensure that the export would not lead to diversion or be used “to commit or facilitate gender-based violence or violence against children.”[15] One of the challenges with this reference was that it treated GBV as a less important criterion than the IHL/IHLR considerations. Additionally, the reference called for ‘feasible measures’ to be taken, although there was much ambiguity around what that could entail and there was a concern that the “overriding risk” standard allowed too much discretion on the part of the exporting state.[16]  Finally, there were concerns that due to the placement of the GBV provision in the Draft Treaty Text, its location raised questions about the relationship between GBV and IHL.

The Final Text is much improved. In the text adopted on 2 April 2013, under Article 7, GBV is listed as a binding criterion. In making its assessment under Article 7, the exporting party shall consider if the export contributes to violations of IHL, IHRL and shall also take into account the risk that the transfer will be “used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.”[17] This reference is much stronger than in the Draft Treaty Text as it makes the GBV criteria binding and the ambiguity surrounding “feasible measures” eliminated. Additionally, as Ray Acheson notes in the Arms Trade Treaty Monitor, this binding criterion “requires states to act with due diligence to ensure the arms transfer would not be diverted to non-state actors such as death squads, militias, or gangs that commit acts of gender-based violence.”[18] At the same time, however, the reference discusses GBV and violence against women in the same sentence which may be somewhat redundant, and the recurring homogeneous reference to women and children continues.

Overall, it is undisputable that the final text of the ATT contains a strong reference to GBV and one that is a good starting point for further improvement, certainly much better than the July 26 Draft Treaty Text. At the same time, the GBV references must be seen in the context of the rest of the Treaty and the loopholes that remain, including but not limited to the limited definitions of arms included in the scope, the limited scope of activities covered, the lack of an unambiguous prohibition regarding mass atrocity crimes, the “overriding risk” consideration and the lack of public reporting.[19] These factors are not only important when considering the objectives of the Treaty, but also when considering the ability to detect, prevent and monitor instances of GBV stemming from the unauthorized arms trade. As discussions move on to interpretation, ratification and implementation, the effectiveness of the GBV provisions will have to be determined based on how effective the Treaty will be in holding states accountable to its provisions. Given the lack of a strong accountability mechanism within the Treaty, this can prove to be challenging.

Additionally, from a gender perspective, the two-week negotiation process that ultimately brought about the adoption of the ATT reaffirmed the limited priority the GBV issue still has for some states, the challenges that remain regarding mainstreaming gender in relevant disarmament and security-related processes, and the recurring hesitance to talk about women’s participation, despite previously-agreed language (by consensus) promoting their agency. While over 100 member states supported a stronger GBV reference in the ATT, there were still some states that objected to the inclusion of GBV in the text, and preferred “violence against women” as well as states that promoted the inherent inclusion of GBV within IHL, but did not support a specific reference to women.

As attention starts to shift to the post-2015, including the passage of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) deadline, the challenges that were evident in the ATT negotiations, as well as in relevant processes such as the CSW, must be taken under consideration in forming appropriate policy strategies. Some valuable recommendations include:

  • More support for women’s participation in relevant processes, including but not limited to security, judicial, and development forums.
  • More attention to and support for mainstreaming gender issues within relevant processes to promote gender as a priority issue and to be addressed as main issues are negotiated.
  • Increasing awareness on the legally and politically binding instruments that are in place to support the advancement of women’s rights.
  • More attention to and support for promoting collaboration between instruments and processes that share complementary mandates on combating GBV.


—Melina Lito


[1] A/RES/61/89 (2006), paras. 1 and 2.

[2] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief.

[3] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief.

[4] See, Gender and Disarmament: Making Important Linkages to the ATT and UNPoA: A Policy Brief.

[5] See, Commission on the Status of Women, 57th Session, March 2013, Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, Agreed Conclusions, Advance Unedited Version, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/CSW57_agreed_conclusions_advance_unedited_version_18_March_2013.pdf

[6] Statement of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the Need for a Gender Perspective in the Text of the Arms Trade Treaty, Adopted on 24 July 2012 during the 52nd sessionhttp://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/statements/StatementGenderPerspective.pdf

[7] A/C.1/67/L.35/Rev.1

[8] Commission on the Status of Women, 57th Session, March 2013, Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, Agreed Conclusions, Advance Unedited Version, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/CSW57_agreed_conclusions_advance_unedited_version_18_March_2013.pdf

[9] Commission on the Status of Women, 57th Session, March 2013, Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, Agreed Conclusions, Advance Unedited Version, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/CSW57_agreed_conclusions_advance_unedited_version_18_March_2013.pdf

[10] Final United Nations Conference of the Arms Trade Treaty, Draft Decision, 27 March 2013, available at http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/docs/Draft_ATT_text_27_Mar_2013-E.pdf

[11] United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, Draft of the Arms Trade Treaty, 1 August 2012, available at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.217/CRP.1&Lang=E.

[12] United Nations Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, President’s Non-Paper, 22 March 2013, Draft of the Arms Trade Treaty, available at http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/docs/Presidents_Non_Paper_of_22_March_2013_(ATT_Final_Conference).pdf,

[13] See for instance the First Committee Resolution on Women, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, A/C.1/67/L.35/Rev.1 (2012).

[14] See, United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, Draft of the Arms Trade Treaty, Article 4(2),  1 August 2012, available at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.217/CRP.1&Lang=E

[15] United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, Draft of the Arms Trade Treaty, Article 4(6)(b), 1 August 2012, available at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.217/CRP.1&Lang=E.

[16] Ray Acheson, Demanding more from An Arms Trade Treaty, Arms Trade Treaty Monitor, 27 July 2012, Vol. 5, No, 18.

[17] Final United Nations Conference of the Arms Trade Treaty, Draft Decision, 27 March 2013, available at http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/docs/Draft_ATT_text_27_Mar_2013-E.pdf

[18] Ray Acheson, Maria Butler, and Sofia Tuvestad, Preventing armed gender-based violence: a binding requirement in the new draft ATT text, Arms Trade Treaty Monitor 6.9.

[19] See, Ray Acheson, A Tale of Two Treaties, Arms Trade Treaty Monitor, 28 March 2013, No. 6.9.

Profile of Activist Luz Mendez: Legal Case on Sexual Enslavement of Indigenous Women in Guatemala

15 Mar

Women’s rights activist from Guatemala Luz Mendez has been presenting her legal case on the sexual enslavement of women during Guatemala’s civil war at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this month.

Luz Mendez was 15 years of age when she decided to become involved in her home country’s political course of action. Guatemala had been torn by a civil war for nine years at the time Mendez decided to no longer simply accept the status quo. “The numerous years of political oppression and the lack of liberties were the call to action for me”, Mendez explains retrospectively.

Mendez became the President of her High School’s Student Association creating “a small democracy within my school”, Mendez states. It was the year 1969 when the world was shook up by a politicized, international youth that was not willing to accept military dictatorships, questionable wars and the ongoing, and further growing, already vast economic imbalance between nations and entire continents.

Her position in high school put her in touch with many more student leaders from other schools. “That really opened my eyes and I understood how much power we have, when we organize for a good cause and start advocating for our rights.” She moved on to become a noteworthy activist, soon to establish international recognition, by participating in the peace negotiations as the only female member of the delegation of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRC), contributing to the incorporation of unprecedented commitments for gender-equity in the accords. In 1996, she was the only woman representative signing the peace agreements for socioeconomic development and democratization in Guatemala.

Mendez joined this year’s CSW in order to present comprehensive details about the legal case she is trying to establish for indigenous Guatemalan women who have been victims of sexual violence during Guatemala’s civil war. It would also be the first trial of this kind brought to a national court.

The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Guatemala lasted thirty six years total, from 1960 to 1996. All this time the government was fighting left-leaning rebel groups that were supported by Mayan indigenous people. About 50,000 Guatemalans disappeared and up to 200,000 were killed or went missing. According to a UN report released in 1999, called “Guatemala: Memory of Silence”, 83 percent of those Guatemalans killed were Mayan. The Guatemalan government to this day is hesitant to acknowledge the commitment of genocide, although it has been internationally condemned in the past. According to UN resolution 260A, genocide is defined as follows: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life

calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

A truth commission that had been installed in Guatemala after the civil war and was supported by the United Nations stated that “over 80 percent of the atrocities were committed by the army”. Current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, to the contrary of his predecessor Álvaro Colom, has also promoted the view that genocide did not take place in Guatemala. Only in 2009 the former Military Commissioner Felipe Cusanero was sentenced to receive a 150-year jail term, for the disappearance of six farmers in the years of 1982 until 1984. “This was hailed as a landmark prison sentence in Guatemala,” Reuters wrote back then.

In February this year, the news that former General and Guatemalan Head of State Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be on trial at home for the crime of genocide, found great international support and positive acknowledgement. It is the first time in history that a domestic court is sentencing a former chief-of-state for genocide. “The Rios Montt trial also marks an important development in an evolving arena of international human rights,” comments News Network Al Jazeera.

Although several international courts established in the past 20 years have prosecuted individuals involved in genocide, the events in Guatemala are exceptional because the trial has been brought “home” and also because no ranking officer of the former totalitarian Guatemalan government has been held responsible thus far. The first public hearing will be held on 19 March.

Furthermore, the brutal victimization of indigenous women in Guatemala has not been rectified in any noteworthy manner as of now. Activist Luz Mendez wants to change that. In September of last year, fifteen Guatemalan women from the indigenous q’eqchí people testified before the High Risk Court in Guatemala City, with their testimony establishing the first criminal trial for sexual slavery and rape during an armed conflict in front of a domestic court. Moreover, as it applies to indigenous women, this testimony is ultimately helping thousands of women victims all over the world.

Mendez describes in her article, “I don’t want to die without seeing justice’: Sexual Slavery During Guatemala’s Armed Conflict,” the atrocities committed against indigenous women during the civil war:

“The history of Dominga Coc made a profound impression on the enslaved women in Sepur Zarco. Dominga, a twenty year-old woman went to the military camp with her two little daughters, Anita and Hermelinda, in search of her husband who had been captured by members of the army in 1982. After arriving at the base, she was captured and raped repeatedly by soldiers in front of her husband and her daughters. After several weeks of being brutally raped, she and her daughters were forcibly disappeared. Her body was found, in early 2012, on the edge of the river and exhumed. Dominga’s husband survived. He presented the testimony in the court. The story of Dominga Coc resonated for years among the women enslaved in Sepur Zarco and became a permanent warning of what could happen to any one of them at any time.”

According to the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, a “general pattern” exists that holds for indigenous women worldwide—that they have a particular “vulnerability to sexual violence.” In areas of conflict, indigenous women have often fallen victims to abuse by members of the military and are often subject to sexual enslavement, forced pregnancy, gang-rapes, sexual mutilation and killings. The International Indigenous Women’s Forum points out that “Historically, violence against women was used as a weapon in colonial conquests of indigenous lands, but as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, 1,400 indigenous Samburu women of Kenya were raped by British soldiers on their lands. In the 1980s, indigenous women were targeted for rape as a weapon of war in Guatemala.” In the 1990s, indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico were subject to compulsory servitude in paramilitary camps. In times of crises, indigenous women are often forced to leave their communities and search for shelters and jobs elsewhere, which results in cultural and spiritual isolation as well as their exposure to sexual trafficking and prostitution as well as exploitation as domestic workers.

Nevertheless, Mendez is optimistic about her case. “We have any reason to be,” she explains. She is naming several groups of Guatemalan society that have been teaming up and are actively supporting the process. “Not only are the survivors strong women who have been waiting for public recognition for more than a decade, but women lawyers, psychologists and last, but not least, my group the Advisers’ Council of the National Union of Guatemala Women (UNAMG) have been closely working together to try and achieve justice for Guatemala’s indigenous women.” Mendez also points out that Guatemala has undergone a shift in dealing with its own history. “The fact that Rios Montt is now standing trial is giving me a lot of hope to also achieve public recognition and justice for indigenous women in Guatemala.”


–Lia Petridis Maiello

ECOSOC Discusses the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

10 Aug

For those who followed the discussions of the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on the theme of “The Empowerment of Rural Women and their Role in Poverty and Hunger Eradication, Development and Current Challenges,”it was disappointing to see that there were no agreed recommendations. It was disappointing not only for the process, but also for what the lack of agreement says about the importance of the issues of rural women. CSW is part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is a global policy-making body focused on gender equality and the advancement of women. Annual meetings are held during which member states evaluate progress and establish global standards on these issues.

At the recent ECOSOC session, after a statement made by Ambassador Kamara of the Republic of Liberia who chaired the 56th session of CSW, member states discussed the progress that has been made with regard to mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programs in the UN system. While many applauded the creation of UN Women and the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), states were nevertheless frustrated about missed opportunities and felt that much more work needed to be done to advance women’s rights. Mexico, El Salvador, the United States, Belarus, Israel, Australia, Indonesia, Argentina, and Japan all mentioned that the inability to reach consensus on rural women at the 56th session was disappointing. Some states indicated that working methods should be reevaluated. Many highlighted forms of gender-based violence and discrimination that they believed should be focus points moving forward.

Nonetheless, the discussion at the most recent ECOSOC session did not just focus on the CSW; a few draft resolutions were also passed but only one of these – Situation of and Assistance to Palestinian Women – was contested. The United States shared its commitment to support women in Palestine and improving the humanitarian situation, but also expressed concerns over how the situation in Gaza and the role of Hamas can be a barrier to women’s fundamental rights. Finally, the US was not satisfied with the status of the text and encouraged ECOSOC to look at mutual goals. Israel and Canada agreed that politicizing the situation of Palestinian women was not justified and reminded the Council of the many human rights violations attributed to Hamas. These states asserted that an ethical draft would have focused on supporting Palestinian women, and would have been written primarily to address the challenges they face. Palestine reiterated that Israeli occupation is a major difficulty for Palestinian women and girls. The draft passed with 30 votes in favor, 2 opposed, and 18 abstentions. By adopting the resolution, the Council encouraged the international community to take special note of the human rights of Palestinian women and girls and to increase measures to help these women and girls in the challenges they face.

Overall, while discussions on the advancement of women are always welcomed and there can never be too many, we hope that more issues will get on the ECOSOC agenda that are complementary to other issues in the UN system, especially as the 57th session of the CSW approaches with the theme of “Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

–Melina Lito and Henry Neuwirth

Opening of CSW 56 with Special Focus on Empowering Rural Women through Technology

28 Feb

Yesterday marked the opening of the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), organized for the first time in conjunction with UN-Women. Madame Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN-Women, offered remarks to the Commission chaired this year by Ambassador Marjon Kamara of Liberia. In addition to the theme of this year’s CSW on the situation of rural women, Madame Bachelet drew particular attention to the assistance needed for Palestinian women as well as women and children kidnapped and subsequently imprisoned in armed conflict. Madame Bachelet called for adoption of concrete actions for empowering rural women, women who represent one out of every four people in the world, over the next two weeks of the CSW. As aptly noted by many of the speakers in the opening session, empowering women is not only good for women, but it is good for peace and, therefore, for humanity.

Ms. Bachelet succinctly outlined the social, cultural, economic and political barriers impeding rural women’s participation and, in turn, the development of the entire community. Ms. Bachelet provided  examples of improved communities around the globe, such as Egyptian women being able to sign up for ID cards for access to health care, suffrage and education, as well as the more than 1 million women who have been asked to sit on rural village boards throughout India.

Ms. Bachelet also described another phenomenal form of development and its connection to women- Information Communication Technology for Development (ICTD). ICTD was referenced as it relates to a global survey conducted by the GSMA Development Fund. She reported that 93 percent of women surveyed felt safer with a mobile phone, 85 percent of women felt more independent with a mobile phone, and 41 percent had increased their economic opportunities by being mobile and connected. Other speakers such as Elizabeth Atangania of the Pan-African Farmer’s Forum also outlined the benefits of connecting women with resources and access explaining that mobile technology can be a helpful tool in aiding this process.

The exponential effects of a mobile phone were specifically underscored for their powerful influence on women’s empowerment, whether economic, political, social or otherwise. Ms. Bachelet noted, “And here I want to talk about mobile phones because they are changing lives and strengthening economic enterprises. Whether it’s information about credit, markets, weather updates, transportation or health services, mobile phones are changing the way rural women and men obtain services and conduct business.” One need not look much farther than the events associated with the Arab Spring over the last year and the tremendous impact of mobile technologies, social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, and other real-time updates from the ground by women and men alike.

These new technologies are key components to bridging the divide between men and women, rural and urban, as well as granting access and mobilization opportunities, most especially for rural women who are so often removed from the center of political discourse. In the context of social networking, these tools have a multiplier effect that ultimately give a voice to any woman that has a mobile phone and internet connection. Therefore, we sincerely hope that this year’s CSW will form concrete and actionable recommendations for improving the situation of rural women such that their voices can be heard buttressed by greater access to information and resources through these new technologies.

–Shea Molloy and Katherine Prizeman