I saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-laureate of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Liberia’s capital Monrovia earlier in the year at this conference on peacebuilding and statebuilding. She shares the prize with another Liberian, peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni journalist Tawakul Karman.
The Nobel committee honoured them in recognition of what they’ve done of course, but also to draw attention to the place of women more generally in conflict and post-conflict situations. Talking to women at the Monrovia conference, I understood the reality behind the jargon I at least tended to dismiss in development reports about the need for “gender mainstreaming”.
What that means is this for instance. Your husband or son goes off, maybe for years, to fight. When he comes back, he’s psychotic, ready to kill the neighbours, or even you or the children, over some trivial disagreement. He might have become an alcoholic or a drug addict. And it’s up to you to cope. No help from the numerous programmes for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration for former combatants.
And while the men were off fighting, women looked after not only their own homes and families, but the refugees as well. In the case of Liberia, that meant not only people fleeing the Liberian civil war, but thousands from neighbouring countries too. Again, with little or no help.
The Nobel prize draws attention to the fact that women and girls are often the main victims of war. At the start of the year, The Economist published a table showing the number of women raped during conflicts, including over 500,000 in Rwanda in 1994 and 20,000 in Bosnia in 1992-95. These figures are probably underestimates, given the lack of means to collect data and the shame and blame attached to being raped. You may remember the case of the Saudi rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison.
Rape and violence against women and girls aren’t the only problems peacebuilding has to tackle. Writing in The Guardian, OECD’s Donata Garrasi, Co-ordinator of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, put it like this.
Imagine your children cannot go to school because of fear of being attacked and that the only people who’ll protect you from an armed gang are the members of another armed gang.
Imagine living in a country with a wealth of natural resources, but you are poor and unemployed.
Imagine most teachers, doctors, judges have fled the country.
Imagine your country receives lots of international assistance, but results are nowhere to be seen.
The Monrovia conference was a step towards finding the answers. Closing that meeting, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pointed out that: “The challenges are huge, but they’re not bigger than the challenges we’ve faced in the past”.