Not a week goes by without reports of fresh fighting in the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Violence and destruction have ravaged the Great Lakes region of Africa for two decades, claiming more than five million lives. Yet the situation rarely makes headlines.
What strikes me is the lack of outrage and horror, particularly given the disproportionate impact the conflict is having on women and children. As I asked the United Nations Security Council last month, how can we accept a situation where rape and sexual violence – which, let us be clear, are war crimes – have become the norm?
When UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon asked me to become his special envoy for the Great Lakes in March, I felt a particular responsibility to the mothers, daughters and grandmothers who – since my first visit to the region, as president of Ireland in 1994 – have shared with me what they have suffered in Bujumbura, Bukavu, Goma, Kigali or Kinshasa.
In 20 years of killings, rape, destruction and displacement, these women have suffered the most. Yet I believe they are the region’s best hope for building lasting peace. My job now, and the job of the international community, is to support them in every way we can.
Women’s voices should not only be heard because they are the victims of the war. Their active participation in peace efforts is essential because they are the most effective peace builders. As men take up arms, women hold communities together in times of war. This makes them stronger and better equipped to play a key role in securing real peace, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, Liberia and elsewhere.
My approach to peace-building involves not just political leaders, but all of civil society. Without women’s support and participation, no peace agreement can succeed.
How many secret deals have been negotiated in the Great Lakes region, only to be ignored or forgotten by the signatories for lack of transparency and accountability? I believe the peace, security and co-operation framework for the DRC and the region, signed in Addis Ababa in February 2013 by 11 African countries, provides an opportunity to do things differently. That is why I have called it a framework of hope. I have started to work on its implementation top-down, with the 11 heads of state who signed the agreement, and bottom-up, with the people of the region who will be its real beneficiaries.
As the first woman to be appointed as a UN special envoy, I have promised to ensure that women’s voices are heard at the negotiating table. Last month, with Femmes Africa Solidarité and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, we brought together more than 100 women from across the region – including the gender ministers of the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi – in Bujumbura. One upshot of the meeting has been to ensure the consequences of sexual violence are included in the benchmarks we are developing to measure progress in the implementation of the peace agreement.
I feel energised by the leadership shown by the women I met in Bujumbura. They are taking full responsibility for peace, security and development in the region. Reaching across borders, they are innovative, collegial and practical. I rely on them to hold their leaders to account for the full implementation of the framework of hope.
As special envoy, I will continue to support female-led initiatives. I am pleased the World Bank has allocated $150-million to finance gender-based projects, in addition to the $1-billion already pledged for the region. I encourage the donor community to be even more strategic in its support of the framework of hope. It is crucial to demonstrate the economic benefits of a lasting peace based on development – what I call the peace dividend.
Almost six months after the signing of the peace agreement, armed groups are still roaming in eastern Congo, sowing terror and destruction. This is not acceptable. I have heard the region’s people voice their frustration and anger at the slow pace of change. However, I am confident that, with the support of civil society – including women – we can succeed in bringing peace to the region.
I have often heard my friend Desmond Tutu, a fellow member of the Elders, say: “I am not an optimist, I am a prisoner of hope.” The women of the Great Lakes are keeping my hope alive. – © Guardian News and Media 2013
Mary Robinson served as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and as a UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002. She is a member of the Elders