Can Angelina Jolie Pitt’s center on women and conflict create change?
In February, the London School of Economics and Political Science announced the launch of a new Center on Women, Peace, and Security at the school. The center, which is scheduled to open in 2016, will focus on the “participation of women in conflict-related processes and on enhancing accountability and ending impunity for rape and sexual violence in war,” according to its website.
There will be a forum for scholars, activists, and policymakers to strategize on ways to promote justice and human rights for women in conflict areas, and a post-graduate teaching program in women, peace, and security to candidates seeking a master’s of science degree.
“The center will be uniquely poised to bridge practice and policy through its connection to LSE,” said Julia Drost, a policy and advocacy associate at the Women’s Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA, and a current LSE graduate student. Drost, who said she is optimistic about the center’s potential to inform nuanced policy discussions, added that she viewed LSE as an “ideal place to bring the conversation away from rhetoric and sensational politics.” But she also expressed several concerns about its mandate.
The overall mission of the program is vast; Drost suggests that it should clarify its niche as it becomes operational. She’s also concerned that the center might broaden the divergence between overarching human rights advocacy and advocacy around sexualized violence in conflict, both of which, she said, “need to happen simultaneously.”
With the center’s potential to effect change at the crux of scholarship, social movement, and policy, the question is: What will it take for such an effort to be a success?
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt visit Nzolo refugee camp near Goma in 2013. Hundreds of thousands of women have been affected by the war in the Congo, yet they are removed from peace processes. (Crown Copyright/MOD/LA/Iggy Roberts)
Much to do—without ignoring the much that has already been done
The center is certainly in the limelight already—Angelina Jolie Pitt helped open it. Jolie Pitt serves as a special envoy for UNHCR and has shown commitment to the cause of ending sexualized violence in war, so her imprimatur carries more than just celebrity. Adding to this big name is the center’s goal of supporting the aims of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, which Jolie and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague co-founded in 2012.
But Jolie Pitt’s brief remarks at the center’s launch seemed to acknowledge the tension between her central role at the helm of the center’s creation as a layperson/celebrity and her recognition that human rights advocacy is a complex, nuanced field in need of rigorously trained researchers, academics, and field practitioners. Her comments put the focus not on her own contributions but on the work still to be done by future faculty and students:
“It’s often said that there isn’t enough hard data on sexual violence in conflict to truly understand the problem. You can fix that. It is often said that it is impossible to end impunity for crimes that take place in war zones. Let’s demolish the barriers to the gathering of evidence and the mounting of successful prosecutions. It is said there are not enough senior, skilled female leaders to take part in peace negotiations. Well, let’s find them and bring them together and show that there is a better model.”
While acknowledging there is still much to do and learn, Jolie Pitt’s statements seemed to subtly minimize the impressive strides already made by prominent human rights practitioners—many of them women. We do have some data, and we do have some answers.
Elisabeth Wood, professor of political science and international and area studies at Yale, in an upcoming report called “Conflict-related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research” for the International Review of the Red Cross, analyzed variations in gendered violence in conflict situations and leveraged that data into specific policy strategies. Among other recommendations, Wood urges strengthening international humanitarian law norms of command responsibility for rape in conflict and further studying the patterns and practices of armed organizations that do not engage in conflict-related sexualized violence. These policy strategies will be more effective, Wood says, “if informed by whether conflict-related sexual violence occurs as a practice, as a strategy, or opportunistically.”
More data can generate further answers. Evidence of widespread sexualized violence too often goes unreported. Fact-finding is often sparse, and even dedicated researchers cannot work around significant data gaps. And, of course, all of civil society, especially women, must be well represented at the table in order to negotiate fair and lasting peace, as the International Committee of the Red Cross said in 2010.
A need for cross-pollination of ideas
While sexualized violence is a grim reality that needs to end, in order to do so the center will need to also focus on the involvement of women in peace processes and security, researchers argue.
“There’s more to the agenda besides women and conflict,” Drost said. “Academics should also be making sure women are playing roles in reconstruction.”
Conversations about the status of women need to happen simultaneously with those about sexualized violence, Drost said. “I think the center could play a role there, but I think ‘gender, peace, and security’ would be a better way to expand the way people think about this problem.” She did express hope, however, that the center might balance the academic conversation away from prosecution and toward preventative policy measures.
Sylvia Maier, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, praised LSE for its “reputation of rigorous interdisciplinary work,” which she said will be the center’s “greatest advantage.” But she was concerned that the center might replicate the fissures she said have developed around the central issue of women in conflict situations.
“Most work [on gender-based violence in conflict] had been done by the academic community,” Maier said. “With the creation of the International Criminal Court, there was much more legal literature, but there was little dialogue between the academic and legal communities,” she explained. The academic and legal advocacy communities, in turn, historically “interacted little with the policy making mode of advocacy—UNIFEM [which later became UN Women], the UN, global civil society.” She said she hoped the center would overcome those challenges by creating a “long overdue” avenue to bring those different advocacy channels back into conversation with each other.
Maier and Drost both spoke confidently about the center running under the leadership of Christine Chinkin, a professor of international law at LSE, whose work has focused on gender and post-conflict reconstruction and who has suggested practical ways to strengthen civil society and promote peace.
“Chinkin has a big task in making sure there’s more to the agenda beyond conflict, and making sure women play a larger role in reconstruction,” Drost said. Women, Chinkin argues in a 2013 essay called “Gender and New Wars” in the Journal of International Affairs, must be the driving engine of any sea change, but only after oppressive gender constructions have been dismantled.
“Above all, much greater participation of women is needed in all international roles, in peacekeeping, law enforcement, and at all levels of peace negotiations. This does not assume or affirm that women are peacemakers, as per the previously discussed gender stereotype; rather, it is a way to counter the gender stereotyping that is constructed in war, and by doing so, to reduce the benefits that the warring parties gain from violence. Women's agency should be recognized as a force for change, and should be taken seriously as a matter of equality and practicality.”
Chinkin “has a very strong record of advocacy with the UN and civil society,” Maier said, and can bring a “broader, interdisciplinary perspective” to the center in order to create “practical outcomes and specific recommendations.”
Now, we wait and see.
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