Women are the best hope for peace in the Great Lakes Region of Africa

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Monday, 12 August, 2013

"Women’s voices shouldn't only be heard because they are the victims of war." In an opinion piece published in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, Mary Robinson argues that the women working for security and development in the Great Lakes are the region’s best chance for peace.

Not a week goes by without reports of fresh fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The violence and destruction that have ravaged the Great Lakes region of Africa for the last two decades have claimed over 5 million lives. Yet they hardly even make the headlines.

What strikes me is the lack of outrage and horror, particularly given the disproportionate impact this conflict is having on women. As I said to the Security Council last month: how can we accept a situation where rape and sexual violence – which, let us be clear, are war crimes – have become the norm?

When Ban Ki-moon asked me to become his Special Envoy for the Great Lakes four months ago, I felt a particular responsibility to the mothers, daughters and grandmothers who, since my first visit to the region as President of Ireland in 1994, have shared with me what they have suffered in Bujumbura, Bukavu, Goma, Kigali or Kinshasa.

In twenty years of killings, rape, destruction and displacement, it is these women who have suffered most. Yet I believe that these women are also the region’s best hope for building lasting peace. My job now, and the job of the international community, is to support them in every way we can.

Bring women to the negotiating table

Women’s voices shouldn’t only be heard because they are the victims of the war. The reason why their active participation to peace efforts is essential is that they are the most effective peace builders. As men take up arms, women hold communities together in times of war. This makes them stronger and better equipped to play a key role in securing real peace, as we have seen before in places like Northern Ireland and Liberia.

My approach to peace-building involves not just political leaders, but all of civil society, including women. Without their full support and participation, no peace agreement can succeed. How many secret deals have been negotiated in the Great Lakes region, only to be ignored or forgotten by the signatories for lack of transparency and accountability?

I believe that the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the region, signed in Addis Ababa in February 2013 by 11 African countries, provides an opportunity to do things differently this time around. That is why I have called it a “Framework of Hope.” I have started to work on its implementation both top-down, with the 11 Heads of State who signed the agreement, and bottom-up, with the people of the region who will be its real beneficiaries.

Mary Robinson with women peace-makers in Bujumbura

Mary Robinson talks with attendees of the conference in Bujumbura

Women are stepping up; they need our support

As the first woman ever appointed as UN Special Envoy, I have promised to ensure that women’s voices would be heard at the negotiating table. Last month, together with Femmes Africa Solidarité and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, we brought together more than 100 women from across the region, including the Gender Ministers of the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, in Bujumbura from 9-11 July. The meeting has already resulted in ensuring that the dramatic consequences of sexual violence are included in the set of benchmarks we are developing to measure progress in the implementation of the peace agreement.

I feel energised by the leadership shown by the women I met in Bujumbura. They are taking full responsibility for peace, security and development in the region. Reaching across national borders, they are innovative, collegial and practical. I count on them to hold their leaders to account for the full implementation of the “Framework of Hope.”

As Special Envoy, I will continue to support women-led initiatives. I am pleased that the World Bank has allocated USD 150 million to finance gender-based projects, in addition to the USD 1 billion already pledged for the region. I encourage the donor community to be even more strategic in its support of the “Framework of Hope.” It is crucial to demonstrate the economic benefits of a lasting peace based on development – what I call the peace dividends.

Prisoners of hope

Almost six months after the signing of the peace agreement, armed groups are still roaming in eastern Congo, sowing terror and destruction. This is not acceptable. I have heard the frustration and anger of the people of the region at the slow pace of change. However I am confident that, with the support of civil society, including women, we can succeed in bringing peace to the region.

I have often heard from my friend Desmond Tutu, a fellow member of The Elders, say: “I am not an optimist, I am a prisoner of hope.” The women of the Great Lakes are keeping my hope alive.

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