In 2000, when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, there was reason to hope that women would finally be at the table in countries where major decisions were being made following political crises. Born out of the Balkan crisis in the preceding decade, Res. 1325 focused on women, peace and security, and called on nations to "reaffirm the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and in post-conflict reconstruction." The four-page resolution stressed the importance of women's equal participation and full involvement in efforts to maintain and promote peace and security and urged "all actors to increase the participation of women to incorporate gender perspectives" in peace and security efforts.
What a shallow document it now seems in the face of what is occurring in Iraq and Egypt. Iraqi women have less political influence now than they did before the American invasion. In fact, they were doing better sixty years ago than they are now. In the 1950s, Iraq was the first Arab nation to have a female minister. They also had a law that gave women the right to divorce. Under Saddam Hussein, however, they had no role in government so when he was ousted in 2003 women insisted on a constitutional requirement that 25 percent of the new parliament be women. That quota does not appear to be serving women well.
Many women holding seats in Iraq's parliament are there not because of political savvy or leadership skills but because they were appointed by party leaders seeking factional control. According to The New York Times, only five of 86 female lawmakers received enough votes to win seats in parliament; 81 women were seated by party leaders because of the constitutional mandate. To date, no women have taken part in negotiations regarding a compromise government and only one woman runs a ministry -- Women's Affairs, largely seen as ceremonial.
"It's a disaster," says one woman parliamentarian. "Democracy should include women. The rights of women should be developed as democracy develops. But our rights have gotten worse over time."
In Egypt, where women protested in Tahrir Square alongside men to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, male-dominated politics is now pushing them backwards -- sometimes literally. On March 8th, in commemoration of International Women's Day, women calling for human rights in the same square were violently driven back by angry men. Currently there are no women on the committee drafting a new constitution and none of the newly appointed cabinet ministers is female.
"The participation of women, on an equal footing with men, should be an indispensable part of Egypt's transition to democracy," Nadya Khalife of Human Rights Watch told WomensEnews. "Much more needs to be done as the government evolves to secure women's participation. " There are real risks that women will be left on the sidelines, without a voice and unable to help shape a transition to a democratic Egypt."
The chances that appropriate steps will be taken to promote women's human rights by abolishing discriminatory practices and laws seem slim given that there were calls for the establishment of a Committee of Wise Men during the Egyptian protests.
The situation is reminiscent of the days when women who were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, the disability movement and the Civil Rights movement, to name just three examples, got shafted after assuming the same tasks and taking the same risks as their male counterparts did. Misogyny, it seems, is still in the belly of the beast.
That's why every effort must be made to recognize the important part women play in post-conflict planning and governance.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once noted the critical contributions women make during times of conflict: "In war-torn societies, women often keep the society going. They maintain the social fabric. They replace destroyed social services and tend the sick and wounded. As a result women are the prime advocates of peace."
But a more forward-looking understanding is needed to recognize the real reasons for involving women as countries emerge from political upheaval. In Iraq, for example, women now make up a large part of the population because so many men have died in the country's wars in the past three decades. There are widows and divorced women who can't support themselves or care for their children. They all have particular health and safety needs. Who will understand these needs better than other women?
No matter what country or crisis we are contemplating, surely there can be no rational reason for excluding half (or more) of that country's population from participating in its reconstruction. What kind of a Committee of Wise Men could possibly fail to see that?