Women’s voices needed in push for peace

Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer.
Associate Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer

The West needs a new style of diplomacy in transitional states that respects the voices of women.

According to Associate Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer from the Griffith Law School, the main focus following a conflict usually debates trading ‘justice’ for ‘peace’ while only focusing on the words and actions of powerful, mostly male, elites.

Instead, the Australian Research Council Future Fellow is researching how the transitions are experienced ‘from below’ when diplomatic elites make deals on their behalf.

“Afghanistan and Myanmar are undergoing seismic changes. In these countries today, women’s rights advocates speak of women’s rights being ‘traded away’ by the international community.

“Many Afghan women, after being after being relegated to small numbers in the back of the room at the September 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, are now anxious that the international community is too focused on their respective withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to ‘bother with’ women’s participation in the peace and reconciliation negotiations,’’ she said.

“While in Myanmar, women fear that in the rush to gain opportunities for foreign direct investment and welcome the 2015 elections, the international community is ignoring what the transition may mean for ordinary women.

She said they were alarmed by pattern of recent attacks across Myanmar, where a woman or girl is brutally attacked or raped by an individual of a different faith or ethnicity.

“This incident triggers broader violence, and now controversial marriage laws have been introduced to the parliament.”

Based on interviews over four years with local women’s groups and Western diplomats at post in Kabul and Yangon, Associate Professor Harris-Rimmer’s project will build a picture of what some leading women think about the transition in their nation and their aspirations.

“There is tremendous diversity between women of different ethnicity, religion, age, migration status and class in both countries, and great differences in how the conflict affected women,’’ she said.

The work offers snapshot of those groups most engaged with international actors on women’s rights.

“We can then make comparisons as to how the international community is responding to the claims of these local women, and what tools they have at their disposal.

“How much leverage do foreign actors actually have? Is it possible for women to ‘trade up’ their status in a post-conflict state, so long as their issues are at the table? Or should foreign actors aim to at least do no harm?”