Can minority and indigenous women benefit from international agreements?
Without the material and political backing to act upon them in a comprehensive and disinterested manner, international agreements and resolutions are benchmarks, statements of principle, rather than action plans. This does not detract from their importance. The history of human rights is one of gradual rather than spectacular gains. History also tells us that rights are never just handed down from above, but have to be simultaneously claimed from below.
Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has underlined that the prevention of violence depends on linking up the women, peace and security agenda with human rights mechanisms. Minority women have also pointed out that international instruments, including UN Resolution 1325 and its successors, tend to be silent on ethnicity. There is no specific mention, for instance, of the need to ensure that minority women are involved in peace processes, recognizing the role they can play in building bridges across communities, taking on leadership roles in their own communities, and encouraging male leaders to commit to the peaceful pursuit of their collective claims.
Some minority communities have successfully used international instruments, including human rights, as a tool for demanding accountability, creating space for their participation in discussions on peace and security, and engaging in wider political action.
In Nepal, the Peace Women’s Alliance, which represents indigenous, Dalit, Madhesi and disabled women, regards UN Resolution 1325 as a major step in ensuring their representation in the postconflict parliament. So they requested that the UN
Technical Assistance Mission (TAM) takes UN Resolution 1325 as its point of departure in regard to security, reintegration, and elections, and take account of ‘the differential needs and situation of minority women and men in all … deliberations’. The Alliance also pointed out that the TAM’s composition should reflect a proper gender balance.
In the South Caucasus and Russian Federation, the non-governmental organization International Alert held a series of workshops with women on international standards, such as the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They then elicited the participants’ ideas on how to strengthen UN Resolution 1325. Women in the South Caucasus pointed out that the breakaway states (such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia) do not recognize previous commitments, and that women’s political representation is almost non-existent. They also emphasized the largely ignored consequences of the conflicts for women: displacement, unemployment or the loss of career, the proliferation of small arms, ethnicity and gender inequality all restrict women’s enjoyment of formal rights.
Women in Timor-Leste considered violence a part of family life, not a matter for police intervention. With UN support, the Police Development Programme prepared a manual for the Timorese National Police on violence against women, and conducted training sessions on domestic abuse. And in May 2010 the Timorese Parliament passed the Law Against Domestic Violence. Now deemed as a public crime, prosecution for domestic violence no longer depends on whether a complaint is filed.
There are some serious shortcomings, however. For one thing, not only are peace processes conducted largely without any substantive input by women, let alone minority women, peace agreements also often include amnesty clauses for the perpetrators of human rights abuses, including rape. This gives the message to survivors and violators alike that these crimes are not as heinous as other violations. It also means that women continue to live in fear.
In Rwanda, according to MRG’s local partner organizations, criminal law against ‘genocide ideology’ has made it impossible to discuss ethnicity, which makes it hard for people to form groups that could bridge ethnic divides and ease tensions. In addition, HRW has reported that rape survivors have complained about the lack of privacy in Rwanda’s informal gacaca courts, and observers have raised concerns about lenient sentences on the one hand and convictions based on flimsy evidence on the other.
This is an excerpt of an article published in the 2011 State of the World Minority. The whole publication can be downloaded here.
PHOTO: Activists rally in front of Kathmandu for Dalit rights. PHOTO CREDIT: FEDO.