“While there has been quite a lot of progress in women, peace and security resolutions, I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of actual implementation on the ground,” said Gaynel Curry, the Gender and Women’s Rights Advisor for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“I think the Security Council, in a series of resolutions, brought to light that sexual violence in conflict is indeed a threat to peace and security, and it’s something we need to be focusing a little bit more attention on–particularly in regards to response and services and support to victims, and also accountability for perpetrators,” she said.
Ms. Curry led the set-up of the women’s protection advisors (WPAs) in the UN Mission in South Sudan, part of the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1888. When asked in this interview about the challenges facing WPAs, she said that, as with any new mechanism, “there are going to be challenges,” including what she experienced in South Sudan, which was “a lack of understanding of the issue, in terms of the government’s understanding of it, and what we mean by conflict-related sexual violence, and how we ought to be responding.”
But problems with understanding the issue can transcend governments. “I think the challenge in terms of understanding the issue has also been within the UN itself. Not that there’s a total lack of understanding, but there’s not always consistency in our understanding.”
Ms. Curry said that one of the biggest challenges in implementing the WPAs has been getting all the key partners on board. “It may sound really small, but quite frankly it’s difficult to do this work unless you have your key partners on board, because it’s not entirely human rights, as I mentioned; it’s not entirely gender [rights].”
Ms. Curry said still more steps are needed to address the concerns of women. “For example, at the DDR [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration] …. to what extent are they [women] around the table negotiating, to what extent are their concerns raised when we’re talking about peace negotiations, or peacebuilding? To what extent are we addressing their concerns in terms of reintegration? That’s really challenging when you think of reintegrating a woman or young girl that may have been abducted and placed into forced slavery, sexual slavery by militants. How do you actually reintegrate these women? There’s more work to be done in that area in terms of consistently addressing these issues.”
And these questions become broader when considering that grave issues face all women in conflict, “even those women that have not been necessarily abducted or engaged per se in the conflict,” she said.
“To what extent do we support them in terms of their loss: loss of partners, loss of funds, loss of breadwinners… They’re still vulnerable, they’re still at a risk of losing their land, because maybe they lost the men in their lives, and traditional communities may not necessarily respect that, respect them or give them equal power around the table in terms of being able to negotiate on these issues or even to maintain their properties.”
Ms. Curry said it’s not enough to just have women at the negotiating table, but their issues need to be on the table as well, because the two are not necessarily the same. “We’ve made some efforts, but we need to see more women consistently leading on these issues,” she said.
The interview was conducted by Mary Anne Feeney, Director of Events at the International Peace Institute.
Mary Anne Feeney: I’m here today with Gaynel Curry, the Gender and Women’s Rights Advisor for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. Ms. Curry recently led the set-up of the women protection advisors in the UN Mission in South Sudan, as well as the rollout of the monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements (MARA) in response to conflict-related sexual violence. Gaynel, thank you again for being here today.
Gaynel, you were involved in setting up the first women protection advisors in the UN Mission in South Sudan. Can you tell us the reasoning behind having women protection advisors in a mission, and what is the added value that they bring to the mission’s work?
Gaynel Curry: The added value has been, in my view, positive, and it has a lot of potential for us to bring focused attention to this issue of conflict-related sexual violence. Conflict-related sexual violence isn’t a new thing in war. In conflict, there’s always been some, primarily, attacks on women and vulnerable groups, but historically, it has not gotten the type of focus, particularly in terms of the victim response, or having the view that the victim’s issue has been taken up.
I think the Security Council in a series of resolutions brought to light that sexual violence in conflict is indeed a threat to peace and security, and it’s something we need to be focusing a little bit more attention on–particularly in regards to response and services and support to victims, and also accountability for perpetrators.
Take, for example, human rights. Human rights looks at conflict-related sexual violence as a human rights violation, in the broader context of human rights. They’re looking at it in the context of all the other violations that they would be following and reporting on–for example, torture or police brutality, or other types of discrimination.
But what the women protection advisors do specifically is that they pull this issue of conflict-related sexual violence out of that package of human rights violation and look exclusively at it in-depth. We’d been hearing about this issue in some of the conflicts in Africa, for example, in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and a few other places, where we thought that this issue is big enough and important enough to look at exclusively, look at what the concerns are, what the challenges are, how we can respond.
So, that was one of the key places to add value, to bring to it a dedicated focus so we break the issue down, we understand it, we identify indicators, we set up appropriate mechanisms. In South Sudan, we’ve done that in terms of identifying what it is–putting together a definition for conflict-related sexual violence as it relates to South Sudan, because it actually can look differently in different contexts. So, we’ve identified what it looks like in South Sudan, have identified what potential indictors could be, and, in consultations with other UN partners, we’ve set up a working group to be able to effectively respond.
The idea for women protection advisors was initially proposed in Security Council Resolution 1888, where the Security Council came up with three broad mechanisms to respond to conflict-related sexual violence. Each of these three mechanisms was intended to look at the issue from a different angle, but comprehensively cover the whole issue.
The first was the office of the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] on sexual violence in conflict. The second was a team of experts on rule of law and sexual violence. And the third was women protection.
What they, I think, had in mind was to ensure that the missions, the peace missions, had a chance to respond quickly, to get an idea of what was happening and the extent to which this was affecting victims, civilians, and to be able to put in place some practices to help avoid this happening in the future and leading up the event.
So, the women protection advisors were intended to be assigned within the mission, in using existing resources within gender and within human rights, and that was very specific, because a lot of the work that the women protection advisors were intended to do—and are doing in South Sudan, where they were first rolled out—that work is primarily human rights work. Particularly, there’s human monitoring, analysis reporting on conflict-related sexual violence as a human rights violation and as a potential threat of peace and security.
And then the second part of that, through gender, was to do some capacity building with national governments, capacity building within UN mechanisms so that they would be able to better respond, working with UN entities that provide services, strengthening services and support to the victims. So, this is what the gender component was intended to do, and that was the idea as to how they should be set up.
When we set it up in South Sudan, we wanted to follow as closely as possible what was the vision of the Security Council, which was to use existing resources and build on existing mechanisms, strengthened existing mechanisms.
So, as I mentioned, it’s not a new issue, but it’s having a new focus. And I think that this very timely, timely.
MAF: You mention that the advisors do face challenges when they’re in the field. Can you highlight some of the main challenges the advisors are currently facing?
GC: The women protection advisors is a new mechanisms, and as with any new program or mechanism that you set up, they’re going to be challenges, and that ought to be expected. They are indeed having some of those challenges.
For me, one of the biggest challenges is potential push back that we’ve had from some partners on this issue, as in: not everyone is entirely on board as we would want them to be, and so I think we have to take some time to get them all on board. That’s a big challenge. It may sound really small, but quite frankly it’s difficult to do this work unless you have your key partners on board, because it’s not entirely human rights, as I mentioned; it’s not entirely gender. You have to work closely with the UN country teams. There’s a lot of work being done by UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund], for example, by UN Women, by UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], and others that bring something else to the table.
I would also say that there are key roles for NGOs to play, particularly in terms of support for the victim, and so forth. I think that has been a big challenge for South Sudan. When I was on the ground, it took me a little bit to convince them about the need for WPAs, and the importance of their potential, added value.
Apart from that, another challenge in South Sudan is the lack of understanding of the issue, in terms of the government’s understanding of it, and what we mean by conflict-related sexual violence, and how we ought to be responding. And that, again, I guess for us, it’s about capacity building. We need to be focusing out attention on that.
I think the challenge in terms of understanding the issue has also been within the UN itself. Not that there’s a total lack of understanding, but there’s not always consistency in our understanding. So, you may have some focus on the issue in one way, and another in another way. So, you need your civil affairs offices, for example, that are out there in large numbers, constantly interacting with the community and engaging with the community, to understand that. You need political affairs officers to understand the issue; the same with your rule-of-law office that may be working with the government in terms of addressing the laws. So, unless you have a common understanding among all of you, I think it is a bit of a challenge. That has been one of the challenges with South Sudan, which they’re working towards, like I said, but it has certainly been a bit of a challenge in the first year that they’ve been operating.
Another concern for South Sudan is the reality of the country. It’s not entirely accessible, so the WPAs are not in large enough numbers to be able to cover every single state. So, we have on the ground right now, I think, six WPAs that function pretty much as human rights officers that are carrying out, doing their monitoring, analysis, and reporting on conflict-related sexual violence. So, they’re working closely with the human rights team, going out on investigations, being there to observe, being there to investigate and to interview and so forth. For them, to me, it’s still a challenge to get there, to get to all the areas they need to get to. They need to rely heavily on partners that are on the ground and other places, particularly NGOs that may be in places we can’t access. So, I think accessibility is an issue, particularly during the rainy weather, the muddy weather; you can’t really get to certain places. A lot of the concerns that we have are in very difficult areas to get to.
With the conflict in South Sudan, the issue of conflict-related sexual violence can take on an interesting dimension. There’s the issue of cattle raids in some areas of the country where there are armed groups going out and attacking other tribes and abducting women, kidnapping them, taking them away and making them wives or forced slavery or sex slavery or something like that, as it has been described.
There is also concern near the border, which is an area where you may have the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] moving in and out, and there are concerns that there may be challenges there. There are concerns with the north, the challenges between the South Sudan and Sudan and the refugees moving back, and the vulnerabilities of those refugees as a potential concern for conflict-related sexual violence.
It looks differently in each of these areas, and being able to identify and have someone to cover all of these possibilities is somewhat of a challenge. Ideally, we wish to have one person per states –there are ten states. We don’t have ten WPAs on the ground doing it.
If I am to be entirely honest, there are some administrative challenges that we’re having in terms of getting the people on the ground. It took a little while. This is a new area, as I said, so we’ve had a challenge getting our senior person on the ground, and as this mechanism didn’t exist before, we’ve have to create new processes. It sounds a bit bureaucratic, but it is the reality, and as we work in the UN, there are certain processes and procedures that we have to follow. So, I would have wanted to see things move a little faster in terms of roll out, in terms of consistent leadership in this area. We’ve been doing that the best we could through this director of human rights on the ground. I was on the ground for almost six months, and we’ve also had consistence engagement with the WPAs, weekly meetings with them in terms of how they are to respond. I think those are some of the key challenges that we have, and I’ll leave it there.
MAF: More broadly, from your experience both in the mission in South Sudan and your work in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, what do you see as the main obstacles that are still existing in terms of empowering women in conflict situations, and how can they be addressed?
GC: I think that since resolution 1325, there has been a lot of progress already, in terms of identifying the important role that women can play in terms of peacebuilding. That, as we know, is the foundational resolution from the Security Council responding to women in conflict settings.
While there has been quite a lot of progress to these various resolution in women, peace and security resolutions, I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of actual implementation on the ground. I think one of the gaps that I see, that are still quite glaring to me anyway, is having women around the table, having women lead certain processes. And having women not just around the table, but having their issues on the table, because the two are not necessarily the same. We’re made some efforts, but we need to see more women consistently leading on these issues.
We also need to see more concrete steps in terms of implementation. For example, at the DDR [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration] processes, where we’re talking about rehabilitation and reintegration and so forth. disarmament issues—to what extent could we ensure that we actually address the concerns that women that may have been victims through abductions, that may have been in forced slavery, forced marriages, that they may have been combatants even–to what extent are they around the table negotiating, to what extent are their concerns raised when we’re talking about peace negotiations, or peacebuilding. To what extent are we addressing their concerns in terms of reintegration? That’s really challenging when you think of reintegrating a woman or young girl that may have been abducted and placed into forced slavery, sexual slavery by militants. How do you actually reintegrate these women? There’s more work to be done in that area in terms of consistently addressing these issues.
I think for me, the main issue would be to consistently ensure that women are part of the negotiating team for the UN, as well as on all sides, that come to the table to negotiate peacebuilding. We need to ensure that they’re there, that their issues are on the table, that their issues actually play out in terms of the reality of the situation and the real challenges that they face in terms of reintegration after conflict.
And even those women that have not been necessarily abducted or engaged per se in the conflict: to what extent do we support them in terms of the loss: loss of partners, loss of funds, loss of breadwinners. How do we ensure that their concerns—because in many of these settings where we’re dealing with post-conflict settings, women are already in challenging situations. They were in challenging situations in terms of discrimination prior to the conflict. It’s worsened, it’s heightened, I would say, during the conflict, and after the conflict, it’s still a challenge. They’re still vulnerable, they’re still at a risk of losing their land because maybe they lost the men in their lives, and traditional communities may not necessarily respect that, respect them or give them equal power around the table in terms of being able to negotiate on these issues or even to maintain their properties.
So, I think there are many different concerns, and it requires us to look in close detail at the various ways in which conflict can impact women, and have women play different roles. They’re victims, as I said, they’re combatants, they’re just simply civilians who are left to clean up whatever, and their concerns have to be equally heard, their realities in terms of the socioeconomic side of it. I think it should always be on the table, because they themselves have to end up dealing with this issue.
As I said, we tend to focus on the victims of rape because this is the field that we’re working in at the moment, in conflict-related sexual violence, and there are key concerns for them. Women who may have babies as a result of that rape, women who may have been kept in captivity for a long time. But, as I said, there are wider issues we need to think about, and when you bring women around the table, they can best speak to the issues, and say what they see are their concerns.
MAF: Thank you so much Gaynel for being with us today.
GC: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a great pleasure.