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Op-Ed -- Reflections and Comparing Notes on the Occasion of International Women’s Day: A Civil Society Perspective

By Marlies Stappers and Thomas Unger

Yesterday [8 March 2020], we were celebrating International Women’s Day. One day each year that gives us the opportunity to jointly reflect on equality and equal rights for women. Where do we stand? Where do we go?


United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) António Guterres already invited us to think about these questions 2 weeks ago, at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council, when he presented his seven-point Human Rights action plan.


He said all the right things. There is a pushback against women’s rights. Power imbalances produced by patriarchal structures are at the root of why women’s rights are systematically violated; why human progress has stalled. Guterres calls for a shift and wants the UN to lead by example. Among other measures, Guterres announced the goal of gender parity at the UN; promised to take a gender perspective in all the activities the UN is involved in; and called for more efforts on gender-sensitive benchmarking. He also called on UN Member States to enhance the participation of women in decision-making and repeal laws that are discriminatory.  


The remarks by the UNSG are an important contribution. At the core of his remarks stands the idea that socially, economically and politically we - as humanity - would be foolish not to call for more equality. Symbolically, they point in the right direction. Yet, when it comes to the responses outlined by Guterres, one starts to wonder if they will achieve the desired effect. 


As a largely field-based organisation Impunity Watch is involved in supporting victims of gross human rights abuses in conflict and post conflict contexts. Standing up for gender equality, promoting participation, and challenging patriarchal power structures is part of our DNA. As we see in our work from Burundi to Iraq, from Bosnia to Guatemala, these structures erase any hopes of victims for justice and a better future. They stand for impunity. We fight it.


The question that puzzles us again and again is why. Why do we continue to invest in and uphold patriarchal structures that foster discrimination, inequality and violence against women? They undermine development and security. The victims of our inaction to dismantle these structures are both women and men. Keeping these structures in place nurtures the roots for cyclical conflict.


As an organisation that works in the reconstruction space after periods of conflict and mass violence have occurred, we notice that opportunities for change are constantly being missed, including by the UN.


In countries where we work, including Burundi, Guatemala and the Western Balkans, we see a common thread. All of these countries were the recipients of heavy international assistance. In all of them patriarchal structures are on the rise and frustrate efforts to reckon with war crimes, including conflict related sexual violence.


One area that has so far received little, if any, attention is violent and militarised masculinity. Our recent field research on Guatemala and Burundi shows that those in power consistently use certain images of ‘maleness’ as a strategy to mobilise and manipulate not only young men, but also women; images of a man that is aggressive, violent and uses weapons. The model template for power and security thus remains male. Meanwhile, the post-conflict reconstruction space is used by political elites, often implicated in past abuses, to reinforce these models. Violent and militarised masculinity is an effective means to an end. Today, it forms a central component of political strategies of elites, and with them patriarchal structures, to stay in power.


Importantly, violent and militarised masculinity is not only a problem in the global south. Security is still seen in a very masculine sense throughout Europe, as well. In the post 9/11 world, security interests trump all others. Look at recent responses to Turkey opening its border to Europe, or to the coronavirus. We see men in uniform as the state’s response to crisis, to protect our border from the “hordes of refugees”, to shield off places where people are infected with the virus. To a large extent, it is these same countries that are the main provider of military and security assistance, including arms, to their “poorer” peers. When it comes to security, the ruling elites in the global South and the global North sing all from the same song sheet.


Coming back to the post-conflict reconstruction space, in Burundi and elsewhere, the phenomenon of militarisation is structural, connected to difficult democratisation processes, poverty and economic inequality, a lack of accountability for past crimes, corruption, clientelism and impunity. Any response that wants to make a lasting and meaningful change must take this into account. Quick fixes or purely technical approaches will cost a lot of money, but have no lasting impact. Long-term and multidimensional approaches that have at the heart the goal to change discriminatory and violence-producing structures have to be the way forward.


What is a stake? In our work, we see a clear correlation that a culture in which militarisation - and with it a certain understanding of masculinity - is the base line for social relationships, is a culture that struggles with state-building, reconciliation, development and justice. Such a culture is the ideal breeding ground for future rapists, a crime we have pledged so many times to prevent.


International assistance has turned a blind eye to this phenomenon of militarisation and reconstruction. Peace-building responses, demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programmes, as well as security sector reform efforts have largely ignored issues around violent masculinity. Feminist groups have been calling for many years for a renewed discussion around demilitarisation, but there is, at present, little space for discussion. As a follow up to his speech at the Human Rights Council, we call on the UNSG to provide some space at the UN for structured debates around militarisation, gender and justice. This should include local and international actions, as well as security, development, peace-building and justice actors.


In closing, we seek to stress the importance of civil society in these efforts. The idea that Guterres reinvigorates in his speech, that we would be stupid not to call for more equality, is to be welcomed.  How do we move this from an idea to a reality? How do we institutionalise the idea? One thing is certain, the need for strong partnerships with civil society.


Civil society has been instrumental in, among others, the call for more gender justice. Civil society space and with it space for women and feminist movements is shrinking, however. There needs to be an urgent political appeal by world leaders to preserve civic space. Political action alone will not be enough. Civil society actors are often under-funded or “wrongly-funded.” Nowadays, civil society is often called upon to provide ideas and services, but there is no long-term investment. There is an urgent need to rethink how we fund civil society after violent conflict. Grants have distorted nascent civil society ecosystems, as the case of Bosnia and Kosovo so painfully show. International assistance has created ‘project monsters’ that promote unhealthy competition. The visionary power of civil society for change and for guaranteeing “never again” has become the victim of the current way international assistance is approached. We reinforce existing calls to radically rethink the way civil society is seen and supported. There is a need for more flexibility, enhanced partnerships, and sustained support for movements and initiatives that bring change closer to the ground.


There is a lot to do. Impunity Watch will continue to strive for and contribute to change. Ultimately, despite the odds, on International Women’s Day we have some hope for the future. History has shown that we can only develop and prosper together. Our cultural and economic development requires that our social relationships function. The UNSG pointed out that these relationships currently don’t function as a result of widespread gender inequality. We agree with him. And we join his call for action to come back to our senses. We, as part of civil society, stand ready to do so.