For women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

An initiative from Kvinna till Kvinna

38 aid agencies warn of humanitarian disaster in Gaza if military confrontation is not stopped

Tags: , , Categories: The Middle East

As the impact of days of violent escalation worsens for civilians in Gaza and in Israel, a group of 38 aid and development agencies urge world leaders to take swift action to enforce a ceasefire in order to protect civilian lives and infrastructure and prevent another widespread humanitarian disaster in Gaza brought on by a prolonged military confrontation.

The agencies said the international community must apply immediate pressure on the government of Israel to keep the crossings to Gaza open to allow in supplies of essential humanitarian aid and push all parties to the conflict to end violence and uphold their obligations under International Law.

“World leaders cannot sit by while civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel continue to mount,” said Nishant Pandey, Oxfam Country Director.

“We urgently need to enforce a cease fire. The present conflict threatens to perpetuate and worsen the humanitarian impact on Palestinian civilians in Gaza of over five years of Israeli blockade and the 2008-2009 Israeli military operation ‘Cast Lead’. It will only deepen despair, create more insecurity, and jeopardize chances for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a just and durable peace,” he said.

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The agencies call comes as local health care partners and hospitals in Gaza have announced they are running out of essential drugs and medical supplies. As the escalating violence makes it difficult for partner organizations and local staff in Gaza to move around on the ground, the agencies said there were growing concerns about getting help to injured people and food and other necessities to people in need.

“Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, are in danger of being caught in the crossfire in the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. We are urgently appealing to all sides, as well as to world leaders, to seek a political resolution and avoid the loss of any more human lives. If global leaders do not intervene, Gaza stands on the brink of yet another humanitarian crisis,” said Aleksandar Milutinovic, Mercy Corps Country Director, West Bank/Gaza.

Noting a number of civilian injuries and deaths over the past days, the agencies said that it was critical that the protection of civilians was prioritized by the parties to the conflict as outlined by International Humanitarian Law. They stressed that the protection of civilians extends to civilian infrastructure, as a number of homes have already been hit by strikes and shellings.

“Save the Children is deeply concerned by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel. Children are already among the dead – and as always, children bear the hardest burden during military conflict.  Save the Children urges all parties to end the violence immediately,” said Alex Schein Save the Children Country Director.

In calling for an end to the violence, the organizations stressed the need for the international community to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1860, passed in March 2009, which outlined the conditions for a permanent ceasefire and a path to long term security for both sides.

“The failure to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 1860 has only re-fuelled a cycle of violence that now needs to be put to a permanent end. The international community has an obligation to act to protect civilians and there needs to be immediate pressure on all parties to the conflict to stop the fighting and start working towards peace,” said David Viveash, The Carter Center Field Office Director.

With 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza, around half of whom are children and around 50,000 of whom are elderly, still living under blockade, the organizations said another military operation would only increase the hardship faced by the people they work with.

“Civilians pay the greatest price when the international community fails to act. There are families that CARE and our Palestinian partners have worked with in Gaza who are still living amidst the rubble of their destroyed homes. It is critical that those with power to stop the conflict act now. The human costs of another military confrontation would be too high – the people of Gaza cannot afford to start rebuilding their lives all over again,” said David White, CARE Country Director.

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); Action Against Hunger (ACF); ACPP; ActionAid; Care International; Community Housing Fund (CHF); CPT; DanChurchAid (DCA); Diakonia; Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene Group (EWASH); Fondazione Terre des Hommes Italia ONLUS; Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC); Handicap International; HelpAge International; Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC); Kvinna til Kvinna; Life for Relief and Development; Medecins du Monde France; Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP); medico international; Mercy Corps; Movement for Peace; Norwegian Church Aid (NCA); Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA); Norweigian Refugee Council (NRC); Oxfam; Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH); Save the Children; Seba; Secours Islamique France; Solidaridad International; Terre des Hommes Switzerland; The Swedish Organization for Individual Relief; The Carter Center; The Lutheran World Federation (LWF); The Overseas NGO; War Child Holland; World Vision Jerusalem-West Bank-Gaza

Peace activists targeted in recent wave of violence in eastern DR Congo

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Once again the level of violence is escalating in eastern DR Congo. Many women’s rights and peace activists have been subjected to death threats and harassment.
– I have been threatened several times through the years, but now the situation is getting worse. The threats are no longer directed just at me, but also against my family, says Eric Lwa Mwenge from the peace organization FADI in Uvira.

During the last month there have been many reports from eastern DR Congo of increased levels of violence and of death threats against people who are working for peace in the conflict-affected region.

The city of Uvira, in the South Kivu province, has been especially targeted and has become a dangerous place to live and work in. Since two weeks there are restrictions on travelling in and out of the city in the evenings, in an attemt to curb the development.

Questioned about motives

FADI (Femmes en Action pur le Developpement Intégré) works with conflict resolution at the local level, between people from different ethnic groups in the villages outside of Uvira. Eric Lwa Mwenge often gets questioned about his motives.

– “Why are you talking to them? Whose side are you on anyway?” The suspicion is great, even though all I try to do is to contribute to a better climate between people, he says,

He has sought support from the local authorities, but they say that they are not able to protect either Eric Lwa Mwenge or his family. But fleeing is not for him.

– If we who believe in a change leaves the country, how will the situation ever get better? How will there be peace then? I have to stay!

Sleep across the border

Gege Katana, who works at the women’s organization SOFAD (Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains) in Uvira, agrees with him.

- It would be cowardly to flee, you just can’t do that, she says.

According to Gege Katana, peace actors in the region are trying to continue their activities, at the same time as they are talking precautions for their safety.

– For example some of us are crossing the border into Burundi in the evening to sleep there, just to not have to worry during the night. Then we can go back and work at home in Uvira in the daytime.

Political motives

It is unclear who is behind the escalating violence. Most likely there are several different actors. There is a lot of tension between different rebel groups and criminal elements also follow in the wake of the conflict. Only a few nights ago three families in Uvira were seriously injured in an attack by a group of men armed with machetes.

There are speculation about there being political motives behind several of the recent attacks, including the one on the chief surgeon at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Denis Mukwege, two weeks ago.

In Goma, north of Bukavu, a peace activist was recently kidnapped by a group of men. She was released the next day. According to her organization the kidnapping occured because of the organization’s criticism of the government’s unwillingness to address the conflict in eastern Congo, a criticism which they share with Dr. Mukwege.

– When there is turbulence among those in power it spreads down to the civilian population as well. We have no links to the top but what we can, and must, do is to continue working for peace in the region. Work with the people here so they not get stained by images of the evil enemy and drawn into the conflict, but instead focus on a peaceful future, says Eric Lwa Mwenge.

Anna Lithander

Escalation of violence as airstrikes hit Gaza

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The violence between Israel and Palestine is increasing. – The civilian population of Gaza is being severely affected, regardless of socioeconomic status. Civilians have died, including a pregnant woman and several children, says Linda Öhman, working for the women’s rights and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Jerusalem. 

– Today is the Palestinian Independence Day and the bombs are falling over Gaza and Gaza City, it’s ironic and sad, says Linda Öhman and continues:

– There were approximately 50 Israeli airstrikes against Gaza while the armed militant wings of Hamas fired a dozen rockets against southern Israel.

The entire population of Gaza, who have lived completely enclosed under siege since 2007, is affected by this escalation in violence. The electricity supply which was already functioning badly is only getting worse. Many people are sitting in the dark without access to computers or television.

Many dead or wounded

Linda Öhman is in close contact with many women’s rights organizations.

– The escalation in violence began during the weekend, and yesterday the Hamas leader Asmad al-Jabari was killed, says Linda Öhman.

Details on how many civilians that have been killed or wounded differ, but at least 13 people are reported to have died and 120 to have been wounded. Three Israelis also died last night.

– During my three years working here for The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation I have not seen the situation get as serious as it is now. I had to cancel visits to several women’s organizations that I should have met on Monday. They called and asked if I really thought I should come.

Fear for the future

The women’s rights activists that Linda Öhman has talked to express fear and concern for the future.

– They are afraid since they feel it can lead to something bigger. Bombs do fall on Gaza regularly, but usually only in specific areas and not in these numbers. The escalation we see is really worrying. We hope for the situation to calm down as soon as possible.

Ida Svedlund

Liberian women’s rights activists fighting traditional laws

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Helena Torh Turom, Sewoda

Helena Torh Turom, Sewoda. Photo: Ida Svedlund/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

Violence against women is widespread in Liberia and harmful traditions, like women being accused of witchcraft, are still very much in use. Helena Torh Turom, co-founder and national coordinator for the Liberian women’s organization Southeastern Women Development Association (Sewoda) is one of the activists fighting for change in the post-conflict country.

Liberian women have become known around the world for their crucial part in the peace process that in 2003 ended the country’s four year long brutal civil war. During the conflict over 250 000 people were killed and up to one-third of the population was displaced. Social norms and values vanished, and the social structures has still not been completely repaired. Women in Liberia face deeply discriminatory systems, hindering them from taking part as full members of society.

Women trialed for witchcraft

One of these systems is the practice of traditional law. Among many things, it entails the possibility to accuse and trial women for witchcraft. For the accused to prove her innocence, she then has to drink an extract prepared from the bark of the sassafras tree.

– The bark is poisonous, so the women who are forced to drink it get sick and many die, says Helena Torh Turom.

If the accused woman dies from drinking the extract it means, according to popular belief, that she was guilty of witchcraft. This justifies the tradition. Mostly it’s used against women who are considered troublesome, explaines Helena Torh Turom.

– Sewoda is trying to get Liberia’s old tradition-bound laws integrated into the official justice system. It should not be possible to try people for witchcraft, but it still happens.

Work in isolated areas

Sewoda was founded in 1995 and is an umbrella organization based in southeast Liberia, with about 100 women and 4500 men as members.

– We are working to increase awareness of women’s rights and trying to get women to discover their own identity. We want women to be educated and increase their own capacity.

Sewoda is working in areas that are difficult to reach. Some villages they visit have never before been visited by any organization that has talked about women’s rights.

– The war has isolated the southern region of Liberia, it’s very difficult to get there. The roads are in poor condition and it is dangerous for women to travel because of the lack of security.

Working in the villages also entails safety risks for Sewoda activists. They often meet men who claim that they are trying to turn their women against them. Sometimes activists receive threats and insults.

Encourage women to vote

One of the key issues ahead for Sewoda is to get more women to master the will and the courage to engage in politics. Since 1996, women can be elected to the Liberian parliament, but there are still very few female candidates and women’s participation in elections is low.

– We need to get more women to use their power and vote, says Helena Torh Turom.

Another big challenge is funding. Since Sewoda is operating in a region very distant from the capital Monrovia, it’s difficult for the organization to get the attention of international donors. Still the needs are great. The southeast region was hit hard by the unrest during the last elections in the neighbouring Ivory Coast and the humanitarian situation is severe, with large refugee camps on the Liberian side.

– We do not have any money so all the support we receive is very important for  us, says Helena Torh Turom.

Ida Svedlund

Three women ministers in new Georgian government

Tags: , , , , , Categories: The South Caucasus

Late October, a new government was approved by the newly elected Georgian parliament. Many analysts call this a historical election – for the first time ever Georgia experienced a peaceful transition of power. And three of the key positions within the government went to women.

The incumbent President Michal Saalashvili congratulated the newly elected Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to his victory. The elections were preceded by a dynamical campaign period, mostly concentrated around these two men’s personalities. When it comes to women’s participation, however, from the moment of registration of party lists and candidates for majoritarian elections, it was clear that there would be no breakthrough in terms of gender balance. Yet, there have been some positive developments.

In relative terms, it sounds great – the share of women MPs has risen with 60 percent in the Georgian parliament. But they still are only 10,8 percent, compared to the previous 6,6 percent, the lowest rate in Europe. The number of women in the newly elected cabinet is unchanged – three women out of 20. The good news is though that the women occupy key positions within the government, Maia Panjikidze as a head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tea Tsulukiani of the Ministry of Justice and Khatuna Gogoladze of the Ministry of Environment.

Financial incentive no effect

Elena Ruseckaja from the Georgian women’s rights organization Women’s Information Center is happy about the increase of women in parliament, but says that she and her colleagues analyze the results, to draw lessons for the future. For instance had the recent amendments, providing parties with financial incentive to have no less than 20 percent of women on party lists, no effect.

Elena Ruseckaja, Women's Information Center

Elena Ruseckaja, Women's Information Center. Photo: Julia Lapitskii/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

– This opportunity was only used by two parties: the Christian Democrats and the New Party and they were not even elected to the parliament. Thus, the efforts of the international community and women’s organizations in this direction have not played a role.

What did play a role, according to Elena Rusetskaja, was direct interaction with the parties and support for women candidates.

– Women’s groups had meetings and discussions with the parties, and the majority of women that were elected to the parliament are known to us. Many of them have their background in civil society, such as Manana Kobakhidze, deputy speaker of the new parliament and the former chairman of the organization Article 42 of the Constitution (Georgian citizenship: fundamental rights and freedoms).

First democratic transfer of power

For the first time in the history of independent Georgia, the transfer of power took place in a democratic way, and several political branches are now represented in the parliament:

– We see it as a positive development, that we now have a multi-party parliament, which opens up for constructive cooperation. We will monitor how they are living up to their obligations and follow the implementation of the Gender Equality Law, the Law on Domestic Violence, the National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. We hope to be able to advocate for changes in the Labor Code, because now it has loopholes that makes it possible to discriminate against women in the workplace. In addition, we very much hope that a Gender Advisory Board of the parliament will play a major role in achieving equality at all levels of the government. The gender thinking should permeate all state institutions, says Elena Ruseckaja.

Hope for resolution of frozen conflicts

There is also hope for a peaceful resolution of the frozen 20-year old conflicts concerning Abkhazia and the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. This issue has disappeared from the political discussions during the last few years, but now parties actively put these questions on the agenda.

– Parties that are new to the political arena are striving for the resumption of economic and cultural relations with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian population. Guram Odisharia, an IDP (internally displaced person), was appointed Minister of Culture and Monument Protection. We believe there will be people in the government who have close ties with Abkhazia. The Geneva talks will certainly be changing format, but we hope that the 40 percent women participants in the Georgian delegation will not be reduced.