Shortly before Christmas, President Obama issued an order creating a National Action Plan On Women, Peace and Security (NAP) which reads in part:
(a) The United States recognizes that promoting women’s participation in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, as well as in post conflict relief and recovery, advances peace, national security, economic and social development, and international cooperation.
(b) The United States recognizes the responsibility of all nations to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when implemented by means of sexual violence. The United States further recognizes that sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians, can exacerbate and prolong armed conflict and impede the restoration of peace and security.
(c) It shall be the policy and practice of the executive branch of the United States to have a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (National Action Plan).
Sec. 2. National Action Plan. A National Action Plan shall be created pursuant to the process outlined in Presidential Policy Directive 1 and shall identify and develop activities and initiatives in the following areas:
(a) National integration and institutionalization. Through interagency coordination, policy development, enhanced professional training and education, and evaluation, the United States Government will institutionalize a gender responsive approach to its diplomatic, development, and defense-related work in conflict-affected environments.
(b) Participation in peace processes and decisionmaking. The United States Government will improve the prospects for inclusive, just, and sustainable peace by promoting and strengthening women’s rights and effective leadership and substantive participation in peace processes, conflict prevention, peacebuilding, transitional processes, and decisionmaking institutions in conflict-affected environments.
(c) Protection from violence. The United States Government will strengthen its efforts to prevent and protect women and children from harm, exploitation, discrimination, and abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking in persons, and to hold perpetrators accountable in conflict-affected environments.
(d) Conflict prevention. The United States Government will promote women’s roles in conflict prevention, improve conflict early warning and response systems through the integration of gender perspectives, and invest in women and girls’ health, education, and economic opportunity to create conditions for stable societies and lasting peace.
(e) Access to relief and recovery. The United States Government will respond to the distinct needs of women and children in conflict affected disasters and crises, including by providing safe, equitable access to humanitarian assistance.
The National Action Plan is a significant addition to U.S. policy and long overdue. The potential impact of this order is huge. In an address at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,
This is not just a woman’s issue. It cannot be relegated to the margins of international affairs. It truly does cut to the heart of our national security and the security of people everywhere, because the sad fact is that the way the international community tries to build peace and security today just isn’t getting the job done. Dozens of active conflicts are raging around the world, undermining regional and global stability, and ravaging entire populations. And more than half of all peace agreements fail within five years. At the same time, women are too often excluded from both the negotiations that make peace and the institutions that maintain it. Now of course, some women wield weapons of war — that’s true — and many more are victims of it. But too few are empowered to be instruments of peace and security.
Clinton went on to cite examples of why the NAP is so crucial, pointing in particular to recent attacks on women in Egypt by security forces in the aftermath of the Egyptian overthrow of the mubarek government,
“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” she told an audience at Georgetown University.
She called the events of the past few days “shocking”.
Unfortunately, there is nothing shocking about what happened in Egypt. Women’s human rights improved somewhat during the decade preceding the overthrow of Mubarek, but this State Department report from 2010 points to the still systemic misogyny in Egypt before the uprising. Specifics about violence against women include,
The law prohibits rape, prescribing penalties of 15 to 25 years’ imprisonment or life imprisonment for cases involving armed abduction. The number of cases investigated was small because women were reluctant to report rape. Spousal rape is not illegal. According to a 2007 study by the National Center for Criminal and Social Research, there were approximately 20,000 cases of rape annually.
Although the law does not prohibit domestic violence or spousal abuse, provisions of law relating to assault may be applied with accompanying penalties. However, the law requires that an assault victim produce multiple eyewitnesses, which is a difficult condition for a domestic abuse victim…
…The law does not specifically address honor crimes, in which a man violently assaults or kills a woman, usually a family member, because of a perceived lack of chastity. There were no reliable statistics regarding the extent of honor killings, but observers believed such killings took place during the year, particularly in rural areas.
Sex tourism existed in Luxor and at beach resorts such as Sharm El-Sheikh. Most sex tourists came from Europe and the Persian Gulf region.
There is no specific law criminalizing sexual harassment, but the government prosecuted sexual harassment under existing law. Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. A 2008 ECWR survey found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in the country had been sexually harassed and that approximately half of women surveyed faced harassment daily.
Also, significantly, while women were actively involved in the uprising, like so many social movements before, women’s human rights were not an integral part of the agenda. In fact in the aftermath, as Foreign Affairs points out, the blowback against those rights has been a serious issue,
After the revolution, conservative forces argued that women’s rights laws passed under Mubarak, like all remnants of his regime, were illegitimate and should be repudiated. For example, several thousand Salafis demonstrated outside of al-Azhar University in Cairo in May, demanding the return of educational authority solely to fathers. The general secretary of the High Council of Islamic Affairs, a government body, called for lowering maternal custody ages from the current age of 15 to age six for boys and nine for girls. Challenges came from supposedly liberal forces as well. In April, the Freedoms Committee of the Journalists’ Syndicate held a conference condemning the current women’s rights standards in Egypt. Three months later, Judge Abdallah al Baga, president of the Family Court of Appeal, submitted a draft bill to the prime minister that called for abolishing khula divorce and reinstating, under some conditions, a practice in which husbands can forcibly return “disobedient” wives to their homes – a practice that has been outlawed since the 1960s.
That Clinton finds the recent violence “shocking” is baffling given that her own State Department produced a report pointing to systemic misogynist violence and abuse less than two years ago. Regardless of the overthrow of Mubarek, at no point has there been any indication that an improvement in women’s rights was on the table and as the Foreign Affairs quote about makes clear, there has been a great deal of concern that things may become worse for women.
There are other reasons to be somewhat guarded in being optimistic about the NAP–The U.S. didn’t give a fig about women’s rights in Afghanistan until it was politically useful to the selling of our invasion. Ditto Iraq. It is also worth noting that the U.S. does not consider itself subject to the International Criminal Court, which has the power to prosecute rape and sexual assault as a war crime, yet, as I pointed out in November, it was very supportive of of the ICC’s charges of rape by Libyan forces prior to the overthrow of Qaddafi, despite the fact that neither Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch could substantiate the charges.
If the U.S. is serious about implementing the NAP, one good place to start would be in our own military. While more sexual assaults and rapes are being reported and more charges being brought, the rate of conviction is still extremely low. The NAP could also be used to address the severe impact that the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had on women in those countries. It can also be used to address the ongoing violence against women in countries like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where they U.S. has been all but silent regarding these ongoing atrocities.
So while there is cause to celebrate the creation of the National Action Plan On Women, Peace and Security, we should not do so through a rose colored lens. The NAP has the potential of being a very potent addition to such existing women’s human rights tools as United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 which addresses many of these same points. But as the United States’ selective support of the ICC indicates, we need to be vigilant in insisting that it not be subverted as a tool of U.S. imperialism.