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Peace on Paper

More than two decades since UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security redefined the role and rights of women in war, we asked MENA women’s rights actors, has it made a difference?

For a brief period in 2014, it felt like there was a glimmer of hope for Iraqi women. Iraq had just become the first Middle East country to develop a National Action Plan for a landmark UN resolution that addressed the impact of war on women. After years of decline, women’s rights received new recognition, and there was a sense of momentum among activists.

“It’s a big support for women in Iraq to feel they have the UN backing them,” says Nisan Al-Zayer, an independent MP in the Iraqi Parliament. 

The new plan pledged to give women a voice and transform their status from second-class citizens to equal actors in shaping a peaceful future for their country. “Human society cannot achieve its goals in development and progress if half of its members are exposed to discrimination and prejudice,” the plan said, assuring readers that the government would cooperate with women’s rights organizations to achieve gender equality “in all spheres of life.”

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Nisan Al-Zayer

The atmosphere was positive. “There was a real will to implement the plan when it first passed,” Al-Zayer says.

But almost a decade later, those needs remain unmet, and far from improving, the status of Iraqi women has slumped, undermined by the struggles the country has faced over the past 10 years. “Resolution 1325 could be a powerful tool if it was implemented, but there is no way it will be now,” Al-Zayer adds, pointing to mounting pressure on women’s rights in the aftermath of Isis, the Covid-19 pandemic, economic crisis and political challenges that fuel Iraq’s current turmoil.

Buckling under pressure

Adopted on October 31, 2000, UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security was hailed as a major milestone in gender equality. The agreement, along with its nine subsequent resolutions, was the first to address the situation of women in war, pledging to protect women and girls in conflict environments and ensure their equal participation in peacebuilding.

At the time, it was seen as the framework for a fundamental shift in the status of women and a positive step towards more representative and effective solutions to the world’s conflicts. Dozens of countries produced national action plans to implement the four pillars of 1325, which include Protection, Participation, Prevention, Relief and Recovery.

In the Middle East, which has experienced more frequent and severe conflicts than any other region worldwide, the 1325 commitment to protection and participation carries particular resonance for women working to improve their societies. “Women peacebuilders face significant threats of reprisal across the region, and women’s participation and leadership in peace processes is directly linked to the strengthened legitimacy and sustainability of peace agreements,” says Susanne Mikhail Eldhagen, UN Women Regional Director for the Arab States.

But despite their commitments on paper, in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other Mena countries where conflict shapes the political discourse, women continue to be sidelined, denied a role in national discussions and the freedom to improve their status.

In Lebanon, accumulating crises have made it difficult for 1325 campaigners to protect women and promote their participation in peacebuilding efforts. Rising poverty and hunger amid economic collapse in a country crippled by corruption has had a disproportionate effect on women, with gender-based violence increasing while support structures are drained of resources.

“Implementing this strategy in Lebanon is becoming increasingly challenging as the living conditions worsen. Priorities seem elsewhere,” says Jeanne Frengiya, the founder and director of Himaya Daeem AATAA (HAD), a women’s rights NGO in Lebanon. Finding food, medicine, fuel and meeting other basic needs has become a daily challenge for Lebanese citizens as their country lurches from one crisis to the next, leaving little appetite to advance the women’s rights agenda.

“Getting out of the nation’s crises requires the efforts of all citizens, but women are still too often excluded from negotiating tables and decision-making processes,” adds Frengiya, who worked on the development of Lebanon’s 1325 National Action Plan in 2019.

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Jeanne Frengiya

“Some historic firsts”

There have been pockets of progress. In 2018, the Lebanese Parliament passed a long-awaited law on enforced disappearances, giving families the chance to seek answers about loved ones lost during the country’s brutal civil war. Then, in 2021, Iraq adopted a law that pledged support to Yazidi female survivors, marking a “significant milestone in the region and a first attempt to provide reparations to women affected by sexual violence in conflict,” says Eldhagen.

Eight Mena countries have now committed to Resolution 1325, with Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all publishing detailed plans to protect and incorporate women into peace processes. But in a region defined by conflict and division, the tool designed to support women in times of war is falling short because of it.

Addressing the UN Security Council in March, Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director, recognized “some historic firsts” since the adoption of resolution 1325 on women, peace and security but warned that “the status of women is under siege.” Citing the “regression in women’s rights” in countries around the world, most notably Afghanistan, she called for a “radical change of direction” to ensure the commitments of Resolution of 1325 are upheld.

Political priorities

In Iraq, MP Nisan Al-Zayer has seen a pattern of empty promises amid the backward slide of women’s rights. “Parliament can pass many laws, but they are not implemented,” she says. “It’s just talk to please the international community.” Until recently, she was working as a high school teacher in the southern Iraqi governorate of Dhi Qar, but after the 2019-2021 Tishreen protests, she ran in the 2021 election, relying on crowd-funding and grassroots support. “I won because I was one of the people, they believed in me,” she says.

Her path to parliament as a female independent candidate without the backing of a major party marked a major milestone for women’s political participation in Iraq. But her success remains an exception in a country where patriarchal values are ruthlessly enforced. Since becoming an MP, Al Zayer has been targeted multiple times, surviving a bomb attack on her home and attempted arson at her office, as well as smear campaigns and other attempts to sabotage her by political opponents.

Even some of her supporters struggle to accept her status as a female lawmaker. Like much of central and southern Iraq, Dhi Qar is governed by tribes whose power in Iraqi politics is growing. “I come from an area where tribal law governs everything, and even though I was invited to speak by many tribal leaders, they would leave rather than be seen sitting next to a woman when I speak,” she says.

“This is the mentality we are dealing with, and it’s something that cannot be changed by resolutions that are just talk and moral support. The only way for women to get their rights is by action… we have to fight,” Al Zayer adds.

The rising influence of the tribes in Iraqi politics is a significant factor behind the ongoing erosion of women’s rights in Iraq. Forced marriage, domestic abuse, gender-based violence and honor crimes are particularly prevalent in areas where tribal law holds sway, and increasingly, these patriarchal power structures are taking precedence in parliament, countering the efforts of campaigners to uphold the rights of Iraqi women in law.

Al Zayer points to the rejection last year of an appeal by the Iraqi Women’s League to overturn Penal Code article 41, which is often used as a justification for violence against women in Iraq. “No matter what the Iraqi government says in the media, or what committees they form to address this, they will never do anything that upsets the tribes”, she says.

Other barriers

In the rare cases where a women’s rights bill overcomes the barriers and passes into law, the level of implementation is often inadequate and under-resourced.

Dr. Gulshan Kamal worked in different fields to advance female political participation in Iraq before setting up The Middle East Women’s Support Fund in 2018 to strive for gender equality at the grassroots level. “Iraqi women are suffering a lot,” says Dr. Kamal, who is President of the Women’s Support Fund Foundation in the Middle East. “Neither the government nor the international community are supporting them enough.”

Her organization runs seminars and workshops to implement the pillars of 1325 and help Iraqi women understand their rights. “Women in Iraq lack empowerment but also knowledge about their basic rights. This is what local NGOs like ours are trying to address, but we lack resources,” she says.

Across the region, this is one of several hurdles that ensure efforts to protect women and promote their participation in peacebuilding efforts are frequently frustrated – promised on paper and then underfunded or simply ignored. “Globally, as well as in the MENA region, the lack of sufficient resources constitutes a significant barrier to the sustainable implementation of 1325 national action plans,” Eldhagen says, citing the need for cooperation across countries that share similar challenges.

Opportunities for change

For Rima Al Nazal, who was closely involved in preparing Palestine’s 1325 National Action Plan, these similarities also represent a chance to build alliances that widen the support base for women across the Middle East. The cultural ties between countries where “women live under a discriminatory, conservative and traditional reality” presents opportunities for exchange and progress, says Al Nazal, who is coordinator for the National Coalition for Resolution 1325 in Palestine.

She points to the potential for a ripple effect across the region. “Exchanging and benefitting from different experiences becomes a source of strength for women in the region, especially when one of these countries makes a positive amendment to laws and legislations.” This can then be used as a tool to apply pressure in other countries where activists are calling for similar change, she explains.

peace and justice: rima al nazal prepares Palestine's 1325 national action plan
Rima Al Nazal

In 2016, Palestine became the second Arab state to adopt a national action plan, recognizing the disproportionate impact of conflict and occupation on Palestinian women and girls and their vital participation in peacebuilding. But progress on female political participation has stalled, with just three out of 24 ministerial-level posts in the current Palestinian cabinet occupied by women, a drop from 21 percent in the previous government to 12.5 percent.

This is part of a wider decline in female political participation in Palestine, which Al Nazal attributes to the “absence of political will.” Like Lebanon and Iraq, the NAP has made little tangible difference to the plight of women in Palestine, where the shortfall is made more apparent by the pressures of life under occupation. “There is no real achievement in terms of providing protection and prevention against violence, displacement, destruction of homes, homelessness, killing and arrest, as well as accountability,” Al Nazal says.

The value, instead, is aspirational. “Resolution 1325 is the first revolutionary tool that focused on the specific impact of war and conflict on women… we think of it as a means to shed light on the reality of Palestinian women, raise their voice against injustice and violence and enhance feminist solidarity with our cause.”

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