Op-ed by UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez on International Women's Day 2021
In a male dominated world, there is no doubt that the empowerment of women must be a key priority. This is fundamental to address a historic injustice, reflected in arbitrary stereotypes, in exclusionary policies and anchored sectarian ideologies. It is also about development effectiveness. A recent study found that US$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by just advancing women’s equality. In addition, there is growing evidence that if women’s employment equaled men’s, economies would be more resilient and growth would be more sustainable. Women and girls with better reproductive health and education also have better chances in life. They earn higher salaries. They invest more in the health of their children. In other words, investments now can pay dividends for generations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a wealth of lessons on gender equality. Lockdowns have exposed the enormous value of unpaid care and domestic work for the economy and how disproportionately this burden has been shouldered by women. Many analysts have even highlighted how women leaders around the world have demonstrated successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on inclusive, evidence-based leadership. Yet, women lead only seven per cent of countries. For instance, a survey of 30 countries with COVID-19 task forces and committees showed that, on average, only 24 per cent of members were women. In conflict-affected countries, women’s representation in COVID-19 taskforces is even lower, at 18 per cent.
The reality of women in conflict and post-conflict processes is particularly alarming as their voices have been systematically excluded for decades. Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, just 13 per cent of negotiators, 6 per cent of mediators, and 6 per cent of signatories in major peace processes worldwide. About seven out of every 10 peace processes did not include women mediators or women signatories.
The encouraging news is that, worldwide, the proportion of peace agreements with gender equality provisions has increased from 14 to 22 per cent between 1995 and 2019. However, the share of aid dedicated to programmes or projects with the primary objective of improving gender equality and women’s rights has decreased to 4.5 per cent in 2017–2018 from 5.3 per cent in 2015–2016. I will not be surprised that changes in aid policies as a result of the pandemic will negatively affect this trend.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Cotabato, for the first time. Based on my experience in post-conflict transitions, I decided to meet an important number of women leaders, workers, students and women ex-combatants, as they are the best barometers for assessing the evolution of a peace process. They are reliable interpreters of the so called “peace dividends”.
I was positively impressed by the important progress achieved in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) on the women agenda, a region that is still emerging from decades of conflicts. I had working sessions with the very dynamic Bangsamoro Women Commission (BWC), where I was briefed on the recently launched Bangsamoro Regional Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security--a historic step towards gender equality in the region. I was also impressed by the community engagement of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women's Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB). The BIWAB is composed of former non-combatant members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who are now acting as catalysts to change social and cultural norms and behaviors in the Bangsamoro.
During my field visit, I was informed that only 16 per cent of appointments in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the governing body of the BARMM, are women. To address this challenge, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with support from the governments of Norway, Japan and New Zealand, provides capacity development for 590 former combatants of the BIWAB to engage in local policy advocacy, working to pass local legislation that institutionalizes the Regional Action Plan for Women, Peace & Security. These experiences in leadership development and policy advocacy supports multiple goals: (1) strengthen local democratic processes, (2) advance inclusive governance, (3) ensure equity in the normalization process and (4) pass local ordinances that enhance women's safety. When women are empowered, the whole community benefits.
The Women Friendly Space (WFS) is an initiative led by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), to provide a ‘safe space’ for women and girls - including the survivors of Gender-Based Violence and those who face risks of violence - with psycho-social counselling service, and information sessions on human rights and dignity. The all-women WFS Facilitators, many of whom are former female combatants, are trained to engage community members in discussions on many different topics such as gender-based violence, and child marriage, with a view to transforming gender inequitable beliefs and behaviors. I remember one WFS Facilitator saying “it was so difficult to go out before. People thought we were just looking for trouble as members of BIWAB. But now, as a WFS facilitator, we can help in the peacebuilding process by ending violence within communities and families."
To ensure the effectiveness, durability and sustainability of peacebuilding investments in the Bangsamoro, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has supported the organization of the Women Insider Mediators Rapid Action and Mobilization Platform (Women’s RAMP), a group of community-based women mediators from Moro and Indigenous Peoples communities in the Bangsamoro. This innovative initiative is supported by the governments of Australia and Norway and the Delegation of the European Union in the Philippines. The Women’s RAMP aims to change attitudes and behaviors that promote conflict and violence; create spaces for dialogue and mediation for peaceful resolution of conflicts; facilitate rapid response for the prevention of violence; and enhance participation and leadership of women in local peace processes. In response to the conflict in South Upi in Maguindanao, for instance, Women’s RAMP members facilitated the distribution of immediate assistance for 599 displaced and disadvantaged families.
In the region, women have played a remarkable role in the disengagement of children from non-state armed groups. From 2016-2017, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), actively worked with women of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to successfully advocate with the group’s commanders for 1,869 children, of which around 33 per cent are girls, to be disengaged from its armed forces and be treated as ‘children not soldiers.’ In follow up actions as part of a reintegration programme, funded by the governments of Japan and Canada, and UNICEF, 118 women were trained as para-social workers to follow up on the situation of these children, and extend family-based case management, referral, psychosocial and parenting support in their conflict-affected communities. To date, no children previously disengaged have re-associated with any armed groups.
Jointly with the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), we succeeded in securing a catalytic contribution from the United Nations Peace Building Fund (PBF). Implemented by IOM—the UN Migration Agency, UNFPA and UN Women, the project seeks to fortify reintegration efforts for former women combatants by empowering them to engage and support peacebuilding, and to support conflict understanding and prevention by promoting gender-responsive, inclusive, and culturally-sensitive legislation, policies and programmes, among others.
As we see, the world has made important progress in the journey towards gender equality since the Beijing Conference in 1995 and the adoption of Security Council resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace and security in 2000. However, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “gender inequality remains the “unfinished business of our time”. The journey continues.
Let us not be satisfied with recognizing the importance of gender equality. We must take the indispensable next step of transforming this acknowledgment into an act of justice – through concrete policies, practices, approaches, actions and institutions.