Women’s organisations in the Great Lakes region are calling for change

Published 2 June 2015 in:

Women have systematically been neglected and denied access to peace negotiations, security conferences, reform programmes, and high level panels where their own future is being discussed. This needs to change.

A joint regional field visit took programme officers from the Swedish embassies in Kigali, Kinshasa and Addis Ababa to Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kigali, Rwanda in May 2015 with colleagues from the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm and the Royal Norwegian embassy section in Kinshasa.

The purpose of the trip was to ensure a shared view and understanding of how different actors in the Great Lakes region work with the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on women, peace and security. We labelled our trip “In the footsteps of 1325”. However, after a few days of meeting a number of different actors we felt a need to redefine our trip to “In search of 1325”.

We met women’s organisations in Goma that talked about the massive problems women in the region are facing, including, but definitely not limited to sexual violence. Strong women spoke at length of the reduction of women into victims as opposed to active agents of change. They felt they received of little attention from their own government but also from international actors. Meeting these women, who with very few resources spend their lives fighting for gender equality and women’s rights, was both very encouraging and disheartening.

Women cannot solve the problem of gender inequality in the region by themselves. There is a growing awareness that men also need to be involved. Men’s organisations we spoke to emphasized the importance of changing men’s attitudes and behaviour. The men we met, who had participated in regular discussion groups for men and boys, showed us that change is possible.

In addition, women need the support from their governments. A national action plan is a way for a government to show political will to commit to the women, peace and security agenda, but these plans are not worth much if they are not resourced and transformed into action.

While both DRC and Rwanda have national action plans, only Rwanda can be said to have shown commitment to implement the plan. This has led to note-worthy results for women and gender equality in Rwanda: free and easy accessible services for survivors of gender based violence (the so called ISANGE One Stop Centers offer medical, psycho-social and legal support), specific mechanisms to increase women’s political participation (64% women in parliament – largest number in the world) and the position as the largest African contributor of female police officers in peacekeeping missions (second largest worldwide).

However, both countries still need to include those being primarily affected by the plans: women and girls on the grass root level, especially rural women, which still by far are the majority of all women on the African continent. There is also a need for stronger focus on preventive rather than reactive measures.

Work to strengthen women’s rights in laws and regulations is important, but the crucial part is the extent to which these are respected and implemented. While the visit exposed a wealth of interesting initiatives in the area of WPS, it also highlighted the need for better monitoring and evaluation mechanisms at all levels to document results and provide lessons learned.

As mentioned by a female leader in Rwanda: “We have the mechanisms, but we need to know how they fare.”

A more consistent system could positively affect implementation by fostering accountability and informing future strategies and programming. As show-cased in the Rwandan example, implementation is, however, to a large extent dependent on political will, where diplomacy and political dialogue from external actors can play an important role.
Furthermore, we found an international community with potential to improve.

MONUSCO in DRC, the largest UN peace keeping mission in the world (25 000 staff), has a handful of engaged and competent gender advisors, who are doing everything they can to put gender equality in the centre of the mandate. Despite some progress, more can still be done to ensure that MONUSCO caters to the needs of women and men, girls and boys.

As demonstrated above, when searching for evidence of the advancement of UNSCR 1325 in the Great Lakes region we found a mixed basket; neglect, ignorance and rejection mixed with strong engagement, outstanding competence and lots of potential.

We, the implementers of the Swedish feminist foreign policy, need to make everything possible to make sure that these opportunities are not lost. It is important that local organisations and actors on the ground are acknowledged for their achievements and that they are financially supported, since they are the ones that can make a true difference for the women in the communities. It is time for women and girls in the Great Lakes region to get the recognition as peace builders that they fully deserve.

Marie Nilsson, Kinshasa
Hanna Jansson, Kigali
Clement Kirenga, Kigali
Lena Shildt, Addis Ababa
Johanna Jönsson, UD/SP
Giske Lillehammer, Norway