Ameerah Haq is a passionate advocate of the changes needed to enable women to take part fully in peacekeeping and peace-making. She’s from Bangladesh – a country known for sending all-female police contingents to support United Nations operations in Liberia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was UN Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support and the UN representative in Timer-Leste, Afghanistan and Sudan. At a special International Women’s Day-themed Hague Talks in collaboration with the Irish embassy on the role of women in peacekeeping, she spoke plainly about what the UN ’s must do to clean up its act.
Ms Haq’s talk is published here as part of our #MyJustice series. It’s been edited for clarity.
Each of us remembers International Women’s Day in our own particular and special way. I remember International Women’s Day through an encounter that I had in East Timor. It was International Women’s Day in 2011 and I suggested that rather than stay in the capital, we go to the rural areas.
We went to a province called Aileu and when we arrived, a community meeting was already in progress. We watched as the meeting took place and then a young woman was introduced as the mayor which is very unusual. This young woman got up to speak and I remember being impressed with her confidence. Her diction was so clear and she spoke with passion. She talked about a centre that she had opened for victims of domestic abuse in East Timor.
At the end of the event, I had the opportunity to sit with her. I asked her to tell me a little bit about herself and how she had achieved this position of responsibility which was so unusual for a woman. She smiled shyly and said that she used to be a very shy and retiring person but a few years ago some women coaxed her into going to a week-long training session on women’s empowerment in a nearby village that the UN mission in Timor was undertaking.
She said that the training was life-changing for her. As she sat and listened to people talk about women’s rights, she reflected that she too (as a woman) had human rights and can speak for women who don’t have the voice to speak. This propelled her into a career where she ran for local offices. She competed in district-level elections and ultimately came to the position where she was as mayor. She spoke of the difficulties that she faced in trying to establish the shelter for abused and battered women.
She said there were obstacles in her way at every turn. Men felt very threatened about what such a shelter would do to the community but with the help of some missionary nuns in the area, she was able to open the shelter. The fact that they did this by themselves was big news in East Timor. Word spread about her success and many men and women from different parts of East Timor were coming to learn from her example about how things could be made to happen.
For me, this embodies International Women’s Day. The fact that a woman herself recognizes human rights and is also the voice for many women who don’t have the courage to do so. East Timor was a post-conflict country. It was ravaged by war. Its institutions were all broken.
There are many different facets of women and peacekeeping but I will focus only on three areas.
1. Women as victims of conflict
2. The role that women can play in stabilizing their communities in a post-conflict situation
3. The leadership role that the international community should bring to bear in situations of conflict.
Women as victims of conflict
The first the issue relates to women being victims of conflict. I was the humanitarian coordinator in Darfur, Sudan from 2007 to 2009. During that time, it was the largest humanitarian program of the United Nations (UN). Two million people had been displaced from their homes internally. 800,000 had fled the country to seek refuge in other countries.
In Darfur, and now in many conflicts that we see in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, women become victims because they become the subject of assault. Regular and irregular forces have assaulted the dignity of tens of thousands of women and girls in conflict. Very often, this is used as a deliberate strategy to break the spirit of the struggle. Women become the silent victims in many conflict situations.
The role that women can play in stabilizing their communities in a post-conflict situation
Let me move now to the second issue. In Afghanistan and Sudan where I served for almost a total of seven years, we had programs that were called demobilization disarmament and reintegration. The acronym in the UN family is DDR. At the end of a conflict, you find many of the militiamen were mobilized during the struggle into units who need to be demobilized. We find the men at the end of the conflict in possession of weapons and we need to disarm them by providing some incentives that they would give up their arms. Finally, we need to train them and develop other skills so they have a means of earning their livelihoods and reintegrating back into societies.
In South Sudan it was very interesting that the largest percentage of the government’s budget went to monthly payments to veterans who had fought in the Civil War. It was not uncommon when you travelled in the country to see men drinking from early in the morning, sitting by the roadside playing cards because they got a monthly veteran’s benefit. They really didn’t see the need to make the effort to earn livelihoods.
Notice that I said “men”. There are many women who participated in the war South Sudan. Many women accompanied these militias as cooks, cleaners, comfort women and many other roles but they are not recognized as veterans. So I was quite surprised when I went to visit another community in East Timor and someone introduced me to a woman and said she’s a veteran and she receives a monthly benefit.
I was quite intrigued. I asked her what she did during the struggle for independence and she told me she was a courier. At that time there were no cell phones so she used to take handwritten messages from one rebel leader to another. She used to hide these messages in a basket of fruit or rice or whatever she had. She would convey these messages from one leader to another. The government recognized her role as a veteran and paid her a veteran’s benefit.
But that’s not the end of my story. This woman with her veteran’s benefit opened a kindergarten in her village that was open to all the children of that village to come and get an education. She was able to mobilize the community. They gave her community land and on it they built a very simple structure for the school. She got women to come in and volunteer to grow fruit and vegetables and mothers to come and give the children a meal after school. Again we can see the difference in the approach of women who want to use what they get for the welfare and the betterment of their families. I saw this in Afghanistan as well. Women were so keen to have girls sent back to school in the aftermath of Taliban.
The leadership role that the international community should bring to bear in situations of conflict.
The last issue that I want to discuss is the role of the international community. In 2000, a landmark resolution was passed which called for the recognition of women’s rights. It set out that women must be participants at the negotiating table. The one must plan in the post-conflict reconstruction era for the involvement and participation of women and make sure that benefits accrue to them.All this is great but I think that we have got to make sure that these are actually implemented. In 2004, when I was in Afghanistan, the international community held what was called a constitutional “loya jirga”: A jirga is really literally a big tent where you bring all the leaders of ethnic groups, minorities, and elders together under one tent to try and arrive at conclusions about major issues facing the country.
The 2004 Loya Jirga was about the constitution. With the strong advocacy of UN leaders and NATO, we were all able to impress upon the Afghans at the meeting to allot 28 percent of their seats in parliament in the upper in the lower house to women. We were all so happy that Afghanistan, a country that is just breaking from the the the shackles of the Taliban rule will have at least 28% representation of women in the parliament.
A country needs to be stable in order for changes as fundamental as this to anchor and to sink in. One needs the stability and development to take place hand in hand. Unfortunately, as we all know, in Afghanistan this isn’t the case. Recently there has been a vote to lower that percentage to 25. to twenty which means that you know we are rolling back what we saw as progress. The country wasn’t able to accept it and the development and the stability wasn’t there to carry that decision forward. It’s very important that the gains that are made for women are maintained.
Let me also talk about the representation within the United Nations itself as since I have worked there myself. It was only in 2014 that Kristin Lund of Norway became the first female Force Commander. It was only in 2012 that Hester Paneras of South Africa became the first female Police Commissioner in Darfur. In 2011 when I attended the heads of mission conference, I happened to be the only female head of mission. The group pictures are of a number of men with me sort of sitting somewhere in the middle. Things are changing and this Secretary-General has made a commitment that his cabinet will be 50 percent female. He has achieved that and we congratulate him.
Hester Paneras: “When I started my career in South Africa in 1979, women police officers were not allowed to be in charge of men.” (Photo: UN Peacekeeping/Flickr)
It’s very difficult to have gender parity in the contributions of troop-contributing countries. If I can indulge in just a little bit of national pride, my country Bangladesh has sent all-female police contingents to Liberia, Haiti and the Congo. This past summer when I was in Bangladesh I met the first two female fighter jet pilots. Small steps, but again I think these are the kinds of things that you know we need to push, particularly those of us who know Force Commanders and who have been in leadership positions. We’ve just got to keep hammering away.
I must end by talking about the fact that the United Nations troops must not do any harm in the arenas and theatres where they are operating. When we serve under the blue flag we must serve with the highest levels of integrity, of professionalism and of respect for the dignity and worth of the human person.
Unfortunately, that is not the case with respect to sexual exploitation and abuse by the United Nations peacekeepers. Some peacekeepers tarnish the image of the blue flag when they are sent to countries to provide hope and solace.What we need are better measures of accountability and transparency and I think the past Secretary-General and the present one are taking much stronger steps and we must hold those responsible to account and swiftly. If we in the international community want to help women on the outside, then the case must be made for change within.
To watch Ameerah Haq’s talk in full, click on the video below:
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Photo: Maaki Nurmeots/Hague Talks