Women, peace and security: Making sure that the voice of the voiceless is being heard

ECDPM Guest Editor Sophie Desmidt talks to H.E. Bineta Diop, the Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security of the African Union Commission Chairperson.

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    In this exclusive interview, Mrs. Bineta Diop, Founder and President of Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS) and since 2014 the African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson’s Special Envoy on Women Peace and Security (WPS), speaks about her role, the state of women, peace and security and some of the challenges for women, peace and security in Africa, and the way forward for the new leadership of the AU Commission.

    Sophie Desmidt: What is the role of the AUC Chairperson’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in working with the AU and its Member States to implement effective policies to protect and empower women?

    H.E. Bineta Diop: The mandate of the AUC Chairperson’s Special Envoy on WPS is a new and young mandate, even if African women have been suffering for decades on the continent. Since the Beijing Platform for Action, African women have been speaking out loudly on the need to tackle and discuss the impact of conflict on women. It was thus long overdue to create such a mechanism with this mandate within the African Union Commission, to make sure that the voice of the voiceless was being heard. Following requests from African women to have such a high-level mechanism put in place, and based on a recommendation from the African Union (AU) Panel of the Wise in 2010, the former Chairperson of the Commission, H.E. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, decided to appoint a Special Envoy in January 2014. I was thus honoured to serve Africa in this capacity.

    The Special Envoy’s work is centred on the pillars of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which includes the protection of women, the prevention of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), the participation of women in governance and peace building and relief and recovery – including in humanitarian situations. The Envoy’s role is therefore principally that of fact-finding, which is done through solidarity missions and commissioned enquiries, but also by continually engaging with influential leaders and grassroots women and men in conflict-affected countries, and also by monitoring these areas. These findings inform the Envoy’s advocacy work with Member States and the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), to advance the protection of women and their agency in peace processes. Between January 2014 and February 2017, the Special Envoy has addressed the PSC five times on her role and mandate, children in armed conflicts, the need for a continental results framework to track implementation of the WPS agenda by AU Member States, the role of media in enhancing accountability on WPS commitments and the role of women in protecting lives in challenging security environments in Africa.

    SD: How do you work with African leaders to ensure that Africa fights violence against women?

    BD: Our work happens at various levels: at the policy level at the AU, at the level of member states, and at the grass roots level. It should be noted that the AU is not an implementing body, and our office thus operates as a convening platform to spur national action. At the level of the AU, we support the AU Commission and work directly with the Peace and Security Council (PSC), for example briefing them on the state of women, peace and security during open and closed sessions. We also provide a rapport with the United Nations Security Council. A framework is currently being developed to ensure that monitoring and measuring progress happens on the basis of clearly outlined indicators. This framework will help us in gathering data and sharing lessons learned, which is key for our work in supporting the PSC.

    At the level of Member States, it is principal for us that Member States adopt the four pillars of Resolution 1325 (Participation, Protection, Prevention, Relief and Recovery). Relief and Recovery is a key pillar, given the important role that women play in post-conflict situations. We know that if they embed women, peace and security objectives in their development or security plans, then we can monitor it. The political will among Member States is there, but what is lacking is implementation. With indicators, with national action plans and with a wide dialogue including civil society, but also Ministries of Defence to implement the action plans and the pillars of UNSCR 1325 at the national level, then my office can measure progress.

    SD: How do you work with civil society organisations and groups to advance the agenda on women, peace and security?

    BD: We believe that in working together, women deliver. Our engagement with civil society is really to work as an amplifier, as the voice of the voiceless. We advocate for them to become part of the monitoring mechanisms at the national level, and we work with them to help develop national action plans. Much of the work of this office has been to reach out to the grass roots level and facilitate the emergence of women, peace and security networks. This has happened in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, but also for IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development), and the Sahel. When I meet heads of state and government, I always advocate for their participation, for example in Somalia ahead of the elections.

    SD: What have been some of the main achievements of the African Union and its Member States in the field of women, peace and security?

    BD: Some of the achievements have been the development of the first African Union Report on the Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Africa, with the support of UN women. In the last open session of the PSC, the chair of the PSC, Rwanda, mandated us to expedite the finalisation of the framework and to report on a quarterly basis to the PSC, which will strengthen our reporting. As mentioned, we’ve established a number of Women, Peace and Security networks across the continent to facilitate the exchange of information and strengthen women civil society organisations to work with the governments. We created a platform to work with media, the Network of Reporters on WPS, which includes journalists and bloggers from conflict-affected countries but also from countries working to prevent conflicts. Media report a lot on conflicts, but not necessarily on how it affects women specifically, not just in terms of challenges, but also on how women can be part of the solution. When I travel, I always include media representatives, for example in my recent solidarity mission to South Sudan as part of the AUC Chairperson’s campaign to restore the dignity of women and to ensure accountability in South Sudan. We’ve also been working with ministries of defence to include women, peace and security training in their pre-deployment training for troops. For this we are also working with the regional Centres of Excellence, whom we’ve brought together to facilitate exchange on this training.

    SD: Where could things have been done better, and what are some of the lessons learned?

    BD: There has been slow progress in establishing national action plans. In January 2014 when I started, there were 16 national action plans on women, peace and security; now there are 19. However, there are regional action plans in place, including by ECOWAS (the Economic Community Of West African States), IGAD and the Great Lakes Region. The East African Community and SADC (the Southern African Development Community) are also finalising their Regional Action Plans. Member States need to adapt them into national plans. It is important for Member States to remember that in securing women, they sustain peace.

    In conflict situations such as in South Sudan, opportunities have been missed to effectively take women into account in peace negotiations, not just as a group to reckon with, but also as lead mediators. During mediation, most attention goes to those who carried a gun, but women mediate naturally, push for social cohesion and assume huge responsibilities during conflict. They know exactly what the origins of conflicts are, and while men will focus on power sharing, women generally focus on human security. We have been working on the establishment of a roster of women mediators and to include women, peace and security considerations in the terms of reference of mediators, but more work is needed.

    Another failure was the lack of implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry for South Sudan. While this was a fantastic mandate, and the report was highly welcomed, the recommendations have not been forthcoming. Most importantly, the Hybrid Court is still not in place. This has led again to a feeling of impunity and of lack of accountability for women.

    We need to export lessons learned and best practices from one conflict to another. For example the establishment of one-stop-centres, where women receive treatment, counselling and protection, including in Rwanda, needs to receive more buy-in and funding, so that it can be established in other conflict situations, such as the Central African Republic or Eastern Congo. Another area where more can be done is prevention, including ahead of elections. Many elections have potential risks of violence, but women have not been sufficiently included here.

    Lastly, financing is an issue. While financing from donors is hugely important, it will be more sustainable when coming from AU Member States. This is also why national action plans are so key, to earmark parts of national development and security budgets for work on women, peace and security.

    SD: What should be the priorities of the new leadership of the African Union Commission in terms of women, peace and security?

    BD: As you know, where women are involved they tend to push for positive change and transformation. There is an important role for women to play in early warning and the prevention of violence, including ahead of elections. As in 2016, there will be many elections taking place in 2017 and beyond, so we need women as mediators to prevent escalation of violence and women’s networks to support with early warning. The mandate we received from the Peace and Security Council, to report to them on a quarterly basis, has given the office of the Special Envoy on WPS an important role in helping the PSC and the AU Commission to monitor progress on the state of women, peace and security in Africa. But the AU is not an implementing body, and the implementation will need to happen at the level of AU Member States. National action plans on women, peace and security and dedicated budgets will help us in our monitoring, and will make the real difference in providing women with a voice. Our office will continue to play a convening role and to amplify the voices of women and the vulnerable in that regard.

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