The work of Soroptimists International across the world is profoundly important and so varied. You work, I have read, with Women Survivors of War – in partnership with Women for Women International in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda, for the victims of landmines in Afghanistan, Angola and Georgia, to prevent the spread of AIDS in Thailand by giving young women occupational training and scholarships so that they do not have to enter the commercial sex trade. you contribute to building eye clinics in Bangladesh to prevent pre-school children going blind, helping the poorest women and children in the highlands of Peru and providing safe water for many villages in Senegal.

It is vital work and you can indeed be very proud of it. But you need to know just how difficult and challenging the work is on the ground. Victims of landmines do not just need prosthetic limbs. They need physiotherapists - very rare in conflicted countries. They need technical support for when the limbs break. They need wheelchairs and they need maintenance.

I have been asked to speak today about my experience of working with women post conflict across the world. It may be that what I will say will further develop your understanding of how women survive conflict and of they work for peace in such difficult circumstances. I have worked with women from many conflict zones in many roles but most recently as Police Ombudsman for NI, then as Ireland’s Special Envoy for Conflict Resolution, and now as a Member of the House of Lords, working particularly with women parliamentarians from conflict zones. It is privileged work.

Their primary need will be for security – that is more important than food and water.

Many women caught in conflict work for peace long before the international peace makers arrive. In a context of seeing their children taken as child soldiers, experiencing rape being used as a tool of war, and very often being displaced to IDP camps, or even worse being forced to flee to an adjoining country as refugees, there will be those women who will fight for peace. Their primary need will be for security – that is more important than food and water – without security the long trek to collect water becomes fraught with danger of gender-based violence. Attendance at food distribution centres or working in the fields to grow their own food is similarly fraught with danger.

Notwithstanding this, women will get together in small groups and begin to try and find a way to peace. They will care for each other’s children, mind the market stalls, and share their few good clothes with those who are seek to participate in public life. They need help from the very beginning. They will develop networks which, properly utilised could form an effective basis for that community development which is fundamental to peace.

There will also be women who played their role as combatants but who come to a place where they want to work for peace.

The NI structures followed the normal pattern.

Peace-building is not the work of days or months. It is the work of years. The NI peace process has probably continued throughout most of the forty five years since 1969. It became overt after the IRA ceasefire in 1994, and even now we still face the threat of attack by dissident republican paramilitaries. So peace making takes a long time. The NI structures followed the normal pattern: we had decommissioning, demobilisation, resettlement, we had prisoner release, we are seeking a way of dealing with the past, we had security sector review and consequential change. We had many confidence building measures. Throughout it all women were engaged, for a long time on the periphery.

This is the pattern of peace processes. So how do we get women involved from the beginning, and how do we enable them to play their proper part? That is the question which particularly interests me.

Even before peace is made there will be peace-building – women must be involved from the start. The need for their participation in politics and civil society is recognised in UNSCR 1325 and the associated UN Resolutions.

So what is Resolution 1325 about?

Resolution 1325 is a United Nations Security Council Resolution about women, peace and security, which was passed in October 2000 – it highlights the need for action in 4 areas:

  • The participation of women at all levels in decision making relating to the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts;
  • We need to have gender perspectives in conflict analysis and in the training of military and civilan personnel in peace-keeping missions, including on the protection, rights and needs of women affected by conflict;
  • There is a need to ensure protection of women’s rights during conflict including prevention of and ending impunity for gender-based violence, in the context of settlements for people who have been displaced by conflict and addressing the needs of female ex-combatants;
  • There is finally a need for gender mainstreaming in UN implementation and reporting mechanisms including reporting by by the Un Secretary General on progress towards implementation of UN SCR1325.

In the ten years since the Resolution was adopted by the United Nations little has happened to give effect to it.

The four UN resolutions are expressed for the most part in language which is weak: they urge and express willingness to help, they call for and stress rather than demanding a response. There is no provision for targets or measurement, and there are no sanctions for non-compliance. Women do not have an equal voice. They are subjected to high levels of domestic violence. I have spoken to them about this. In post-conflict countries where the police, the courts and the justice system have broken down and where there is a tradition of male dominance, women are acutely vulnerable.

The reality is that across the world, wherever there is violence women suffer – the loss of loved ones, children, homes, livelihood, friends, even country. Rape is acknowledged in many conflict countries to be a tool of war. Whole villages of women and children are raped by militia recognising the pressure which such action places on the international community and on national governments. I have heard terrible examples of the extent of the horror of war – I will tell you one – in one serious conflict militia seeing a young pregnant woman in the street running for safety bet on the sex of her unborn child, then they seized her, took the child from her womb to determine its sex, and then left mother and child to die where they lay.

It has been reported that 40% of countries emerging from conflict return to war within five years. Women have a crucial role to play in building sustainable peace, and the women whom I have met all say that this cannot be done by women alone – it must be done by men and women together – as the Liberian women I worked with sang:

“No longer the men at the front and the women at the back, together we will march side by side.”

I have seen many examples of such women at work, in various countries across the world in the most difficult and terrifying of circumstances.

When I was in Timor recently I shared with some of our Timorese NGOs some of the reality through which Ireland has come over the years. There are those alive in Ireland and the UK today who remember walking to school barefoot, who remember that there was no general education for all, who remember great hunger and deprivation. My Timorese listeners had great difficulty in accepting that we had known famine, and hunger and poverty on that scale. We now have recession, but we do not have the kind of poverty with which they live. Life here is very different today from the Ireland of thirty or forty years ago.

As we in Ireland share our experiences of conflict and of the transformatiom from conflict in which we are still engaged I think that we can learn today from what did happen.

Peace negotiations rarely have women negotiators at the heart of the process.

Let’s think for a moment about how few women are involved in peace-making. Support structures are necessary, as is the recognition of the right and need for women to mobilise for peace. SRSGs have been predominately male. There is a need for active support for the development of women to play senior roles in the UN and other peace-building agencies. Peace negotiations rarely have women negotiators at the heart of the process. They may be present in a peripheral way, making the food, looking after the accommodation, but they are rarely present at the top table. It is important that we try to ensure that the peace teams which are funded have women at the highest levels.

Peace-making is a male dominated business. I attend some of the major peace-keepers’ meetings and there are few women who have experienced high level peace negotiations and processes. At these meetings as we discuss the practical implementation of UNSCR 1325, it is often said that combatants will not welcome women to the peace table.

Countries in conflict are very often patriarchal and will have no experience of dealing with women on equal terms. The peace negotiators and all funding agencies must ensure that they put women at the heart of peace processes. Failure to do so will inevitably mean that the call for women at the table will be met with the response, “You have no women involved at the top.” It is said that the warlords will very often refuse to allow gender issues on the table at peace negotiations from the very beginning, because this will necessarily involve such issues as reparations and judicial process against those who have used rape as a tool of war, and indeed have made it clear to those they are fighting, that this is what they are doing.

These issues will be on the table and that there will be no peace without them.

To allow issues of “no immunity” to be placed on the table, it is said, is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. They simply will not do it. But if the common understanding is that the United Nations and its member states have determined that these issues will be on the table and that there will be no peace without them, those who have been involved in combat and who are minded to make peace will not allow this to be an impediment. There are many factors and dynamics which encapsulate peace negotiations, some of them spoken and some unspoken. It is of course also the case that full peace negotiations normally last years and that there are many levels of peace processes, some local and some national. Each forms a building brick in the creation of the structures which will enable peace.

The need for protection from GBV is equally important though, and this is one of the factors which will liberate women to play their part. One of the problems of the presence of peace-keepers is that they can exacerbate the very problem they are sent to resolve. The problem of UN babies and the babies of employees of NGOs working in conflict zones is widely discussed.

With conflict comes trauma and post-traumatic stress, and a sense of frustration and marginalisation among the foot soldiers of the conflict who are very often abandoned after the peace is made. Countries engaging in peace processes often think that they have bigger problems to deal with than trauma and its associated problems, and to prioritise funding for other projects. However the reality is that those suffering from trauma and PTSD etc may represent an ongoing risk of conflict as their trauma levels may mean that their response to difficult situations is predicated by their psychological suffering, and they may react with violence to situations which others could manage peacefully. In a volatile and dynamic post-conflict situation, lacking the normal processes for the rule of law, the ongoing risk to women is well documented.

In Liberia just a few years ago a few women came forward to lead their country into peace. There had been peace until a civil war between 1989 and 1996. This was followed by a second civil war between 1997 and 2005. It was a terrible war. Over 250,000 people died. Its population is fewer than 4 million. Those women had nothing, no money, no power, little education. Many of them were poor market traders, living in terrible conditions but motivated by the dreadful destruction of the war to give everything they could for peace. They have gained a fragile peace.

These women like so many women caught in conflict, had worked for peace long before the international peace makers arrived. They got together in small groups and began to try and find a way to peace. They cared for each other’s children, minded the market stalls, and even, where necessary, shared their few good clothes with those who were to participate in public life. By 2002, the women in Liberia were tired of seeing their country torn apart and started gathering and praying in a fish market to protest about the violence. They organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), and issued a statement of intent:

“In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails.”

Joined by the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organization, Christian and Muslim women joined forces to create Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. They wore white, to symbolize peace. They staged silent non-violent protests and forced a meeting with President Charles Taylor, and made him promise to attend peace talks in Ghana.

In 2003, two Liberian women went to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process. They gathered up Liberian women refugees living in Ghana, and they staged a sit-in outside the Presidential Palace, blocking all the doors and windows and preventing anyone from leaving the peace talks without a resolution. They became a political force against violence and against their government. Their actions brought about an agreement during the stalled peace talks.

As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a 16 years of civil war and later helped bring to power the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They developed networks which, properly utilised, could form an effective basis for that community development which is fundamental to peace. They worked incessantly and with great courage, in many cases against terrible odds.

When I was Special Envoy for UNSCR 1325 we held three major conferences involving women who had survived conflict in Timor Leste, Liberia and Ireland. The first in Belfast was on “The Participation of Women” in electoral politics, community and local government. The second conference theme in Dili addressed “The Protection of Women”: issues of health, justice and security. The third conference in Monrovia addressed the context of UNSCR 1325: mediation, post-conflict recovery and transitional justice.

The conclusions of the three conferences, each of which was preceded by preliminary work were very practical, reflecting the reality of the life of women caught in conflict.

Vitally important is education, but it is so difficult for the girls to get to school.

In the context of Women’s Participation they were very clear for example that completion of schooling for girls, and access to formal and informal education for women are essential to generating confidence and the capacity to enter leadership roles. The one thing the women from these countries know to be vitally important is education, but it is so difficult for the girls to get to school. One father said to me one day, “why should I send her to school? She is a girl.” That was very common.

  • Targets and quotas for involvement actually work – they are not negative or ‘tokenistic’ but are a key strategy;
  • Support structures for elected women such as a Women’s Caucus are useful;
  • ‘Gender Champions’ in Government and Gender Action Plans can work;
  • Resources need to be brought down to local level and communication must go from the grass roots to national levels;
  • Men have to be involved all the way and may need to be convinced of the importance of female involvement;
  • Family-friendly working arrangements are necessary in order for women to participate fully in decision making roles.

In the context of the protection of women the conclusions were wide ranging:

  • That working with wide-ranging ‘social guardians’ such as churches to disseminate messages on GBV has worked;
  • That there has to be local access to medical help and trauma counselling and other help when a woman has experienced violence. This help very often comes from women themselves on the ground building up such services as they can;
  • There need to be more opportunities for women in the security sector.

Conference 3 (How to Incorporate the Gender Perspective in Governance) was in some ways more difficult. The women were very specific though:

  • They need constantly and consistently to establish specific strategies to ensure women’s concerns are addressed. Otherwise they are excluded.
  • Women’s centres to provide an important space to collectively organise;
  • Institutional and legislative reforms to allow women to own property, and deal with issues such as rape and domestic violence;
  • Acceptance that women can act as mediators: they will focus on what they want for their children and grandchildren;
  • Women are often able to pre-empt the potential for violence because they know their communities and the dynamics within the communities.

For the three years during which I was Ireland’s Special Envoy to Timor Leste and for the UN Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security my work took me all over the world, working with women in wars and conflict situations and I saw just how much women can achieve even when everything seems to be against them. This is what the children of Timor Leste said, when they were living in UNHCR camps without water or electricity during the war:

  • “We want to go back home”;
  • “We don’t want to sleep on ground covered with dew”;
  • “We want to go to school because we are the nation’s future”;
  • “We want to play in peace”;
  • “We don’t want to hear the sound of guns”;
  • “We don’t want to see blood spilling in our homes and our neighbours’ homes”;
  • “We don’t want to see our homes or our neighbours’ homes burnt down”.

Finally I want to just say a word about some wonderful young girls whom I met in the Gaza Camp Girls School in Jordan on 11 November, 2013. They were members of the school parliament. It was a long drive from Amman in Jordan across the mountains until we arrived at the camp, perched on the side of a barren mountain. It has been there since the people fled from Gaza in 1967 and were located there, not recognised as refugees. They are displaced people.

The only people who bring them help are UNWRA, established in 1967 to care for the Palestinian people in exile. UNWRA appear to have very limited resources. In 40+ years they have not been able to achieve as much as the UNHCR have achieved at Zatary Camp, Jordan in just over a year. They cannot go back to Gaza. They have no identity, no right to work in the public service, no homeland, no ability to travel and experience the world.

“If they win a place there are two hurdles to overcome. In the first instance their fathers must allow them to go.”

The girls embroider beautiful pictures in Arabic text, some saying I love Palestine, the place they have never seen. They dream of a future filled with hope, of careers and travel, but their families have been effectively imprisoned in this place for forty years. There is very little way out. They have no money to go anywhere else. There are over 5000 children in the school. They are educated but the state allocates only 29 places at university for these children and if they win a place there are two hurdles to overcome. In the first instance their fathers must allow them to go. Secondly they are required to pay international fees which are prohibitively expensive and not manageable for them.

The men can give their daughters so very little and their tradition is that the girls will be married very young and will then be involved in a life of caring for others, with no respite and no change. Learning is their lives at the present moment. They are dedicated to learning. Their teachers, despite the difficulties, are educating them. Many of them can speak English. Some of them told us about how they write, one writes poetry. They have access, though sometimes very limited, to the web, and to the world through the web.

What do they want, these beautiful, bright, articulate, talented young women, living out their young lives on the bleak mountain side? They told us:

  • They want to be recognised as human beings with rights, not as people with no identity who are helpless;
  • They want the right to own property;
  • They want not to be poor, to be able to work;
  • They want something to do outside school hours, other than the monotonous drudgery of housework;
  • They do not want to see so many relatives sitting at home useless, unable to do anything. They do not want to be useless too;
  • They want a good education. If they are unable to go to college or university because of the barriers put in their way, they will do other things. They will write and do all they can to study;
  • Several of them want to study medicine. One wants to be a cinematic director;
  • If they cannot study then they want to learn;
  • They do not want to be forced into early marriages;
  • They do not want to become pregnant in their early teens after a forced marriage;
  • They want to be happy. “Everything is about grieving”, one said, “even when it seems there might be some happiness, it always ends in sadness for all that has been lost.”
  • Above all they want to be able to make a contribution to the world they live using their talents.

I am trying now to find some way of bringing some contact with the outside world to these girls.

We must be patient working for peace. There are so many young women in terrible circumstances. The work which you do does make a difference. We should never give up, no matter what happens.

I wish you all every success and every happiness.