Women in conflicts are agents for change, Mary Robinson says

UN Great Lakes envoy says involvement of women in peace-building difficult in practice

Women caught in conflicts are too often seen only as victims when they are also positive agents for change, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson has said. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Women caught in conflicts are too often seen only as victims when they are also positive agents for change, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson has said. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 10:19

Women caught in conflicts are too often seen only as victims when they are also positive agents for change, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson has said.

Marking her first year in office at an international symposium at NUI Galway (NUIG) yesterday, Ms Robinson noted that involvement of women in peace-building was far more difficult in practice than in theory.

However, this involvement was “essential for sustainable peace”, she told the symposium on women’s leadership, peace and sustainable livelihoods in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore, who opened the conference, committed funding of €100,000 in support of the women’s platform initiated by Ms Robinson, in addition to Government support of €300,000 approved last year for her work.

Up to five million lives have been lost in two decades of conflict in the DRC, and hundreds of thousands, mainly women and children , have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Ms Robinson said that in her first year, which she found “tough, but challenging”, she had established a women’s platform for the new Peace, Security and Framework (PSC) framework, which had been agreed in February 2013 for the DRC.

The former president of Ireland, who was appointed special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa in March 2013, said the invitation from the UN to take up the post was perhaps the only job that she “couldn’t say no to” as she knew all the heads of state involved and had been to Rwanda three times since the 1994 genocide.

DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda are the four key countries involved in peace-building among 13 states in the Great Lakes region, and the structures which Ms Robinson has put in place will ensure women are at the forefront of the peace process, she said.

She said she had asked African Union special envoy for women, peace and security Bineta Diop to attend regular oversight and technical support meetings to ensure gender and women’s issues are represented.

The US’s first ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues Melanne Verveer, who is also attending the two-day conference at NUIG, said that there was “real hope” for the region, due to a confluence of events that included the appointment of Mrs Robinson to the UN special envoy position.

“One of the most seminal contributions that Mary Robinson is making to this process is in recognising that women have a participatory role, both in terms of sustaining peace and ensuring livelihoods,”Ms Verveer noted.

Lessons learned from the Northern Ireland peace process also applied, as peace and economic activity, in terms of livelihoods, went “hand-in-glove”, Ms Verveer said.

Ms Verveer,who served in the Clinton administration at the White House from 1993 to 2000, co-founded the Vital Voices democracy initiative for women’s economic and political progress with Hillary Clinton and laid much of the groundwork for capacity building at the UN’s fourth world conference on women in China in 1995.

She is currently director of the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security which is co-hosting the conference with NUIG.

Climate justice is still her first passion, Ms Robinson emphasised, and she is still very committed to her Climate Justice foundation.

“There is an overlap, as whenever the conversation stops in the Great Lakes context, I often bring up climate, and all of the leaders say that it is getting worse, more affected, deeply hurting them,”she said.

“It worries me as climate change is going to create more conflict,”she said, with intense flooding and more displacement of populations forecast, but she welcomed the fact that climate justice was very much “back on the agenda” in the US.

“President Obama has realised that he can’t make much progress at the moment in a very divided US Congress, so he is doing it through the Environmental Protection Agency...with strict conditions on coal plants, coal being one of the worst greenhouse gas offenders,”she said.

“Unfortunately for Europe, Ukraine happened at the wrong time, and raised energy security at a time when Europe was about to agree on reducing 40 per cent emissions by 2030,”she said.

“We need them to do that..it is absolutely vital that Europe gives that leadership, and the 2030 target is manageable in a real sense,”Ms Robinson noted.

Women tend to have a more people-centred, intergenerational approach to climate change, she observed.

A joint study by Niamh Reilly of NUIG’s Centre for Global Women’s Studies and Roslyn Warren at the Georgetown Institute on the achievements, challenges and opportunities of womens’ leadership and participate in the peace, security and co-operation framework for the DRC and Great Lakes region is due to be published at the conference .

Among those also addressing the two-day conference is Ms Diop, and Rose Mutombo Kiese, president of the National Network of Congolese Women’s Organisations.