UNITED NATIONS — Women seeking to participate in shaping and building peace and defending human rights face a “vastly worse” situation now than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations human rights chief said Tuesday.
Michelle Bachelet told the U.N. Security Council that in 2020 her office verified 35 killings of women human rights defenders, journalists and trade union members in seven conflict-affected countries where data is available.
“This number, which is certainly an undercount, surpassed the confirmed number of killings in 2018 and 2019,” she said in a virtual briefing.
Bachelet said her Geneva-based office also documented patterns of attacks against women working on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, corruption, labor rights and environmental and land issues.
“In every region,” she said, “we have seen women subjected to arrests and detention; intimidation; sexual violence, and harassment via smear campaigns” as well as intimidation and reprisals by government and nongovernment “actors” against people who cooperate with the United Nations.
Despite the Security Council’s adoption in 2000 of a resolution demanding equal participation for women in peace negotiations and peace building, Bachelet said, “between 1992 and 2019 only 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes worldwide were women.”
That was before the pandemic struck in early 2020, “and before a wave of intensifying conflicts, undemocratic political transitions and disastrous humanitarian crises took hold in many societies,” she said.
Bachelet said the situation now facing women human rights defenders and prospects for women’s real participation in peace efforts is “vastly worse” and “harms all of us” because women’s participation is essential to promote peace.
She singled out three examples: Afghanistan, Africa’s Sahel region and Myanmar.
In Afghanistan, Bachelet said many women human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and judges have been forced to flee or go into hiding after repeated threats following the Taliban takeover in August. Many women have lost all sources of income and are excluded from decision-making about their lives, the Taliban Cabinet and other key national and provincial bodies.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Security Council to ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses in Afghanistan are held accountable. And she urged all countries to use their influence with the Taliban “to encourage respect for fundamental human rights” and to resettle Afghan women’s rights defenders and immediately halt the deportation of Afghan women seeking protection.
In the Sahel, Bachelet said, “critical deficits in women’s empowerment are clearly a factor in the complex development, security and humanitarian crisis.” Attacks by “extremely violent armed groups” increase the threat of abductions, violence, exploitation and abuse of women and girls and the closure of local schools, especially for girls, she said.
Bachelet, who recently visited the region, said she was encouraged that senior members of the G5 Sahel force set up by five African nations — Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania — in 2017 to fight the growing terrorist threat in the vast region emphasized “the importance of increased integration of women in political, security and development policies to address the crisis.” She said her office will continue to support this effort.
In Myanmar, Bachelet said women human rights defenders had long been a force for peace “including at the forefront of resistance against military rule,” but since the military takeover in February 2020 many women’s civil society groups have been forced to shut down. She said women working in the medical field and the media as well as protesters, participants in civil disobedience, social media activists and those providing shelter and food to those in need have been targeted for assault and arbitrary detention.
“Women and girls appear to number over 2,100 of the estimated 10,533 people detained by the State Administration Council and its affiliated armed elements between February and November last year,” Bachelet said.
Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, whose country holds the Security Council presidency and chaired the council meeting, said the government wanted to put the issue on the agenda of the U.N.’s most powerful body “so that we can move forward on our collective promise to let women participate without fear of reprisals.”
“Women are taking great risk to contribute to peace and security for the people of their country, because they know that to end conflict, to work effectively towards peace, women must be part of the process — not because women bring with them some magical solution to end all wars, but because women bring different perspectives, and the more gender-divided society is the more different those perspectives are,” she said.
Huitfeldt said in countries including Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and Myanmar women peacebuilders and human rights defenders too often risk reprisals.
Ghana’s Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey told the council: “Women are usually the most adversely affected by conflict but the most marginalized in peace processes, and the most punished for their peacebuilding efforts.”
She said the gender perspectives of women “lead to better policies and more equitable and gender sensitive as well as sustainable peace deals.”