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November-December 2010
Vol. 35, No. 6


Women: Essential agents of sustainable peace

The booty remaining from the spoil that the troops had taken totaled 675,000 sheep, 72,000 oxen, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 persons in all, women who had not known a man by sleeping with him. (Numbers 31:32)

Thirty years ago, on December 2, 1980, four U.S. women, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan, were abducted by members of the Salvadoran National Guard, raped, and killed. Their brutal deaths sparked a nationwide movement in the United States in solidarity with the people of El Salvador, who were the primary victims of a repression that continued for another decade.

Violence against women and girls was an intrinsic element in that vicious war against the poor waged by officials of the Salvadoran government. In fact, rape and sexual violence were rampant in Latin America during the dictatorships and military governments, during the revolutions and counterrevolutions, although not all sides in these conflicts used rape as a weapon of war. In Peru, during the years of violence, rape was systematic, but perpetrated primarily by official forces. Since formal peace agreements were signed and dictatorships gave way to democracy, rape and sexual violence have continued as a weapon of choice in gang wars and drug wars and street level violence.

In Africa the experience of women is the same. The world was horrified three months ago when rebels from the Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu FLDR raped hundreds – some say up to 300 – women in North Kivu province of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). (See related article here.) On October 1 the UN issued a long-awaited report documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003. High on the list were rape and sexual assault allegedly by all combatant forces.

During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, the sexual abuse of Muslim women by Bosnian Serb forces was systematic and widespread. Young girls and old women were kept in pens ringed with barbed wire, in animal stalls, in concrete cells. Some of their abuse was videotaped for the viewing of soldiers. (Joyce Hollyday, Clothed with the Sun, Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.)

The epidemic of sexual violence in conflict zones is neither new nor confined to a particular corner of the world. The passage above from the book of Numbers makes that clear. In the last century alone Russian women, Chinese women, Vietnamese women, Korean women, Filipina women and so many more have suffered the agony of rape and sexual abuse in the midst of conflict.

Yet, according to Elisabeth Jean Wood, Yale professor of political science who has studied the use of rape as a weapon of war, its use is not inevitable. That, she asserts, “should strengthen the efforts of those government, military, and insurgent leaders, UN officials, and members of nongovernmental organizations who seek to end sexual violence and other violations of the laws of war, and to put the stigma of sexual violence on the perpetrators rather than the victims of sexual violence.”

This year marks the tenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 that addresses the unique experience of women in the context of war and the need to involve women at every level in all efforts to maintain and promote peace and security. The companion resolutions to 1325, Security Council Resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1889, adopted in 2008 and 2009, make clear that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity or a “constitutive act with respect to genocide.” (CSR 1820) 

Dee Akers, director of the Womens’ Peacemaking Program at the Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, writes that women are key to reconstituting civility and community that allow human society to recover -- battle after battle, century after century, culture after culture. In order to achieve sustainable peace, women’s experiences in and after conflict must be recognized and, as is directed by Security Council Resolution 1325, women must be involved in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peacemaking, transitional justice, accountability and reconciliation processes.

Responding to the physical and psychological needs of women who have suffered sexual violations in the context of war is crucially important, but only when women and their perspective are at the heart of reshaping societies will the root causes of this violence finally be rooted out.

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