by Shelley Anderson
"Before the war, a group of women decided to go to the border with flowers for the soldiers," Sanda Muminovic of Bosnia said. "I will never forget how those soldiers looked at us, like we were boring flies. We threw our flowers into the river and went home. It was too little, too late. While we were buying flowers, they were buying guns."
Muminovic was speaking at the conference "War and Peace: For Men Only?" conference, organized January 26 in the Netherlands. The culmination of a three-day consultation with experts on conflict, gender and development, the conference drew representatives from groups such as the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, Fundacion Victimas de Guerra (Foundation for Victims of War--Nicaragua), and the Organization of African Unity. Dutch development and human rights agencies, concerned about the lack of a gender perspective in current discussions on conflict and conflict resolution, organized the conference hoping it will lead to an international network on women in conflict.
Speakers from Algeria, Uganda, Peru and elsewhere outlined the specific ways women are affected by conflict. "Societal inequalities become exacerbated when women leave their home base. Yet at the same time women are confronted with additional responsibilities: the care of the sick, aged, injured and children," said Laketch Dirasse of the African Women in Crisis project of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. Relief agencies often compound the problem by ignoring women's specific needs. No where is this more evident than in refugee camps where, despite the fact that up to 80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children, power remains in the hands of men. "There have been several cases where food distribution being in male hands only led to food being sold for luxury items, never reaching women and children," Dirasse said.
"In conflict, violence increases. There are many gender specific issues that aid agencies don't take into consideration. Women's emotional overload, the needs of the menstrual cycle or pregnancy, the needs of rape survivors exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, may all be seen as luxuries. In addition, there are a number of problems precisely because women remain in the legal system of their own country, especially if the government is the cause of the displacement," she said.
Dirasse then went on to discuss the work of the African Women in Crisis (AWIC) project. "AWIC began in 1993 to promote gender sensitivity in both disaster mitigation and prevention. We put women in the center of the search for solutions to conflict. The African continent is plagued by a number of sociological and economic crises. Structural readjustment programs and heavy debt necessitate the cutting of social service programs, while drought, famine, civil wars and the heaviest migration since independence. 30 out of African 54 countries are either producers or recipients of refugees. There are four million refugees alone in Rwanda, Burundi and Sierra Leone. At precisely the time when support was needed, Africa lost the superpowers' strategic interest, so these crises face a loss of material resources," she said. The AWIC works to strengthen local women's capacity to engage in peace negotiations, conflict resolution, and assistance to other women in need. In cooperation with International Alert, conflict resolution trainings are conducted in countries in conflict, such as Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
During workshops, women shared many strategies they had developed for making peace. The entire conference os some 60 participants joined in clapping as Kamaliza, a Rwandan woman frequently seen at women's peace projects in her country, sang songs of reconciliation.
In a workshop on gender roles in conflict, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, director of Akina Mama wa Afrika, presented an analytical framework on gender, conflict and development. She identified four phases of conflict--the build-up to the conflict; the conflict; peace and negotiations; and reconstruction--and discussed the roles women play in each phase.
(Akina Mama wa Afrika is a London-based African women's organization, which coordinates national, regional and international initiatives taken by African women. The March-September 1995 issue of the organization's bi-annual magazine, African Woman, focuses on African women in conflict. Contact: Akina Mama wa Afrika, London Women's Centre, 4 Wild Court, London WC2B 5AU, UK. Tel. +44 171 405 0678; fax +44 171 831 3947).
The day-long conference made clear that women are indeed at the center of any effort to create peace and prevent war. The question, however, remains: how many policy makers realize this? Any what are women going to do?
For information about an international network on women and conflict, contact Maja Mischke, Secretary, Project Group on Gender, Conflict and Development, Vrouwenberaad Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, Postbus 77, 2340 AB Oegstgeest, the Netherlands. Tel. +31 71 515 9392; fax +31 71 517 5391.
Resources: Human Rights of Women in Conflict Situations, by F. Butegwa, S. Mukasa and S. Mogere (40 pages, 1995). A study by Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) of interviews with over 800 refugee women in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan.
What You Should Know About Rape: A Practical Guide for Africa and the Third World (40 pages, 1994), compiled by Kabahenda Nyakabwa, is a manual for everyone who works with rape survivors. Cost US $7.50 or UGShs. 8000 from K. Nyakabwa, PO Box 52021, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 5SO, Canada or PO Box 16182, Wandegeya, Kampala, Uganda.