By Rachel Wallbridge*
On March 8, the world marked International Women's Day. This date is marked each year to celebrate the role and contributions of women in communities and countries all around the world. It is a day of recognition, but also a day that reminds us of the need for continued vigilance to ensure equality between the sexes in all facets of life.
During this year's International Women's Day, I had the opportunity to give a speech at a luncheon hosted by the Australian High Commission in Accra, Ghana. The guest of honour was Hon. Hannah Tetteh, Ghana's Minister for Foreign Affairs. Australia's High Commissioner to Ghana, Ms Joanna Adamson, was also present.
Quite aptly, the theme was “Women, Peace and Security.” This gave me the opportunity to share the story of Paulina, a West African woman who began her life as a refugee in Australia a few years ago.
Before coming to Australia, Paulina was heavily involved in a women's organisation that was advocating for the inclusion of women in the ongoing peace process back in her native country. The women's organisation began exchanging letters with a rebel group and eventually found success when the group agreed to meet with them in order to discuss their concerns and ideas. The rebels even offered to transport the women to the meeting place. When the big day arrived, Paulina fell ill and was unable to travel. The other women boarded the bus and headed off to the talks. The bus never returned, and neither did any of the women. To this day, Paulina doesn't know what happened to her friends.
The above story is captured in a 2012 documentary titled Side by Side: Women, Peace and Security, produced by the Australian Government in partnership with UN Women. Paulina who was one of several people interviewed for the documentary, intended to provide an educational and practical awareness raising tool for pre-deployment peacekeepers, civilians and humanitarians. The documentary focuses on the instrumental roles that women play to prevent violence and build peace, and the risks and challenges women face as they strive to bring about change. It was not designed to be an all-encompassing training tool, but rather as a visual supplement that may introduce audiences to some of the key issues within the "Women, Peace and Security" agenda.
The documentary features contributions from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, peacekeepers, humanitarians, activists and women who have experienced and survived conflict. All the women who took part in this documentary share tales of heartbreaking loss of family members and property; of enduring sexual violence and various other inflictions. But most of all, they all share a palpable spirit of courage and have great hope for a better future, both for their children and for their home countries.
Paulina's story sends a strong message about Women, Peace and Security. Empowering women to enable their full and meaningful participation in peace and security efforts is a vital plank in the effort to achieve lasting peace. However, all the rhetoric and international pressure to include women in peace processes goes completely dry if there is no safe space for women to take part. The courage that Paulina and her group of women demonstrated is exactly what International Women's Day is all about. We can herald the famous, impressive, public women and men who fight for peace, but let us not forget the many women all over the world who fight for peace and justice within their local communities.
With regard to the security sector, women have a lot to contribute. This is because women and men perceive and experience security differently, and both women and men bring different strengths to the table when considering solutions to security issues. The equal involvement of both sexes means that a wider range of security issues can be better perceived, understood and most importantly, addressed more effectively. Gender sensitive policies internal to security sector institutions also help to ensure that women are given equal opportunities for promotion and participation within workplaces.
However, there are many practical, social, political and cultural barriers to overcome in order to achieve gender-sensitive workplaces within the security sector. This will take time, commitment and dedication from all facets of the security sector, as well as from both men and women alike.
*Rachel Wallbridge is an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) volunteer currently working at the ASSN Secretariat as Gender and SSR Officer. This article was adapted from a speech she gave on International Women's Day at the Australian High Commission in Accra, Ghana.