By: Raghad Al Saadi
The Humanitarian Affairs Section within the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva and its global partners addressing instability and humanitarian crises acknowledge the fact that women and children are the most vulnerable groups in conflict areas and they have allocated millions of the U.S. dollars to mitigate these crises. Numerous international organizations provide reports on refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It is worth noting that several UN Security Council resolutions highlight the urgency of protecting women from sexual violence and other forms of abuse during armed conflicts and to ensure full spectrum of humanitarian aid access for women and girls. However, the situation on the ground remains devastating due to critical humanitarian access challenges and insufficient mediation and peace processes at a local level. The following are some of these challenges and potential mitigation strategies through a practical implementation of the WPS agenda to maximize humanitarian access for people in need and to effectively contribute to peace and conflict prevention.
First, in countries that suffer from armed conflict and humanitarian crises, women at local levels have been marginalized and subjected to violence and abuse. Therefore, their roles and voices in humanitarian relief efforts and peace processes have been hindered and overlooked if not entirely omitted. While the humanitarian community adheres to humanitarian principles and the international humanitarian law, they seem unempowered to intervene in peace processes within their capacity at operational and tactical levels. The UN agencies, IOs, and NGOs have a strong presence in the field of operations, which is not adequately utilized. For example, OCHA is mandated to coordinate with all stakeholders and parties to the conflict to ensure humanitarian access for people in need and those in hard-to-reach areas. It might be worthwhile for the international community to invest in mediation with for parties to the conflict at a field level on behalf of the people in need locally. This approach entails negotiating with armed groups and other key actors for humanitarian access with the inclusion of professional women negotiators. Women in mediation roles can effectively communicate with local women as part of civil societies and local councils on the ground to ensure their needs and concerns are adequately addressed throughout the negotiation processes.
Second, it is important for leadership and key actors in the conflict, including the humanitarian community, to contribute and operate towards conflict mediation and resolution. At present, particularly in armed conflicts the approach to peace is, to a large extent, handled as a top-down approach. i.e., it is exclusive to high level officials and heads of states. The lack of other tiers of peace negotiations at local levels makes any agreement to be difficult to achieve. The U.S. Humanitarian Affairs Section may consider adding a key element in their requirements as a donor, the role of female experts in negotiations and leading implementation of WPS for humanitarian operations. The streamlining of WPS components at multiple layers for the humanitarian life-cycle, will ensure effectiveness, agility and accountability for the people in need, and moving a step forward to conflict resolution.
Finally, a significant challenge in conflict areas is that the armed groups may be affected or forced to become allied to terrorist groups. In some cases, the armed groups’ survival tactics, place them under the terrorists who have stronger holds on territories, villages and resources where they are the hegemonic group. As it is well known to the humanitarian community that such environment increases the risks of diversions of aid and financial gains for terrorist groups. Civilians however, are vulnerable and suffer the most under these circumstances. It is important to distinguish between terrorist groups and other armed groups in order to assess risks in humanitarian settings and post-conflict strategies.
Therefore, a possible approach would be to establish a customized guideline to which the parties to the conflict would adhere. They might be incentivized to comply with the guideline to ensure that they will not be perceived as terrorists’ groups and that might “legitimize” their cause. This is a very sensitive issue particularly for the international community; however, with a customized and decentralized approach, peace agreements could be established, respected and will certainly save lives. The International community will have the opportunity to monitor the compliance of armed groups to peace negotiations for humanitarian access to ensure the inclusion and safety of women and children in their areas. The U.S. Humanitarian Affairs and the relevant UN agencies can highlight the level of compliance in their briefings to the UN leadership and other decision makers. This process could be effective to contribute to the de-escalation of conflicts while peace negotiations and dialogues are taking place at the highest levels.