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Recognizing women’s critical roles in responding to conflict

© FAO/M. Linton

October 2010 marked the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which highlights the importance of involving women in all aspects of peacekeeping and peacebuilding to conserve peace, security and livelihoods.

1 November, 2010 Rome –  Unanimously adopted during the Namibian presidency of the UN Security Council in October 2000, resolution 1325 promotes women’s full and equal involvement in  conflict prevention, peacekeeping and reconstruction of war-torn communities. It also calls on conflicting parties to recognize the needs of both women and men when planning peacekeeping operations, and to protect women and girls from gender-based violence in emergency settings, particularly rape.

To celebrate the anniversary of this landmark resolution, last week a number of high-level ministers – including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and new UN Women Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet – attended an open debate on Women, Peace and Security held by the UN Security Council in New York.

On this occasion, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to increasing women’s participation at all stages of the peace process and commended efforts to develop a set of indicators that will help track the implementation of resolution 1325. These practical indicators, which have been produced by a number of UN entities including FAO, will measure progress towards the protection and empowerment of women in conflict and post-conflict situations.

Conflict affects women and men in different ways

Globally, women and girls constitute 47 per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as half of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) and former refugees.  Men and women are affected differently by armed conflict: while men are generally at greater risk of being drafted into military groups or killed, women tend to be more vulnerable to physical violence, intimidation and discrimination. 

During civil unrest, women may turn into the sole providers for their families if their  husbands and sons are absent or incapacitated. They often become entirely responsible for finding alternative ways to feed  their children, as well as care for the ill and injured. As a result, displaced women often have to travel further to find fuel, or stand in line to secure water and food from outside sources.

Lack of livelihood options for women, often exacerbated during war, may also push them into exploitative sexual relationships, such as forced marriages or  transactional sex in exchange for food, medicines, farming inputs and other essentials. The mobilization of male soldiers in conflict zones can lead to rapid increases in prostitution around military bases and camps, thus placing both men and women at greater risk of exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

A window of opportunity

Involving both men and women in all stages of conflict resolution, prevention and post-conflict reconstruction can provide an opportunity for women’s empowerment, as well as increase the overall resilience of communities to emergencies.  When men migrate in search of work or become fighters in military operations as a result of warfare, women tend to play expanded roles in economic and agricultural production. They must take on new roles to ensure the survival of their families and may perform work that would otherwise be confined to men in times of peace.

During the civil war in Sri Lanka, for instance, women played an important part in carrying out marketing activities, because men were more likely to be held at army checkpoints or to be detained by the rebel group.  Internally displaced women relocated to agricultural areas also engaged in wage labour, while women in fishing communities became involved in a variety of productive activities: from fish harvesting, processing and marketing to net making and repair.

Gender issues may seem of little importance in the midst of urgent crisis, but studies show that life saving strategies are more efficient and timely when there is a real understanding of the different roles and responsibilities that men and women have in food security and agriculture.  FAO's strategy for disaster risk management therefore places special emphasis on integrating gender perspectives in its emergency relief and rehabilitation operations.

In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, FAO in collaboration with the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, worked to rehabilitate agricultural infrastructures, to setup food-and-cash-for-work initiatives, as well as provide small-scale farmers with agricultural advice and training. Immediate actions included distribution of seeds, fertilizers, livestock inputs and other agricultural tools to the most vulnerable households, including female-headed households.  

In times of emergency, FAO provides critical rapid response to help communities meet their immediate livelihood needs, and to rebuild small-scale, community-based agricultural infrastructures. As a crucial element to resuming agricultural activities, and to bridge the gap between food aid and longer-term agricultural development, it recognizes the need to guarantee women with equal access to the assets and resources on which their wealth and livelihoods depend.

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