We are no strangers to conflict. Senator Torres Ray hails from Colombia, a country wracked by 45 years of civil war and drug violence, where every visit entails a certain risk. Senator Sandy Pappas has three daughters and seventeen grandchildren living in Northern Israel – just 30 miles from the Syrian border. So we both could relate to and were eager to meet with our colleagues from war torn countries through a partnership of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) Women Legislators Lobby (WiLL) and the EastWest Institute Parliamentarian Network for Conflict Prevention. Women political leaders from the east and west came together to advance women’s roles in building sustainable peace.
From September 29 to October 2nd we participated in an exchange between U.S. state legislators and women parliamentarians from Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the Women’s Leadership Conference, “Women at the Tables of Power,” in Washington, DC. Through our dialogues we came to understand that as combatants increasingly target civilians as a war strategy, women and children are routinely victimized. In the first four months of this year alone, instability and impunity in war-torn Afghanistan resulted in over 2,500 cases of violence against women. Of the more than 1.6 million Syrians that have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, three quarters are women and children.
Here in Minnesota, as legislative leaders Torres Ray and Pappas regularly negotiate to resolve conflicts between competing groups , but our conflict challenges pale in comparison to what our sisters in the Middle East and Asia must do. Our Syrian sisters have organized workshops and trainings on negotiation and peace-building in preparation for their participation in the transition from conflict to stability. And Afghan women leaders of organizations like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) are pushing to have their voices heard during the transition process following U.S. troop withdrawal.
Passed in 2000, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (UN SCR 1325) marked the first leap forward for women’s issues in conflict areas by acknowledging the impact of war on women and the importance of women’s role in achieving sustainable peace. UN SCR 1325 declares that “an understanding of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection, and full participation in the peace process can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.”
In December 2011 President Obama signed the Executive Order making the U.S. National Action Plan (U.S. NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security official administrative policy. Drawn from UN SCR 1325 the U.S. NAP requires women to be included at the negotiation table, acknowledges that women’s experience with conflict gives them a unique and valuable perspective essential to peace building, and that women policy makers can provide insight into the particular needs of women during times of both war and peace.
The U.S. NAP has leveraged attention to women in conflict affected areas and their unique capacity to change the way peace is made. As an administrative policy, the U.S. NAP will last only as long as the current administration. Introduced to the House of Representatives in July, and soon to be introduced in the U.S. Senate, the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2013 (WPS Act) will codify this NAP and ensure its continuation beyond the Obama administration. The U.S. NAP reminds us that when women participate in matters of security, they “enlarge the scope of agreements to include the broader set of critical societal priorities and needs required for lasting and just peace.” By passing the WPS Act, the U.S. would also set an important international precedent regarding the international women peace and security agenda.
Patricia Torres Ray is a Minnesota State Senator and a state director for the Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL). Sandra Pappas is Minnesota Senate President and Vice President of the Women Legislators Lobby. WiLL is a program of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).