"During the transition to peace, a unique window of opportunity exists to put in place a gender-responsive framework for a country's reconstruction. The involvement of women in peacebuilding and reconstruction is in fact a key part of the process of inclusion and democracy that can contribute to a lasting peace".
- Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
Since the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, conflict has erupted in 40 countries.(1) In 2004, a single natural disaster-the tsunami in East Asia- killed more than 280,000 people and displaced more than one million.(2) In the wake of war or disaster, educational and health systems collapse, gender-based violence increases, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections spread, and infant and maternal mortality rates often skyrocket.
The large number of these humanitarian crises stands in the way of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Of the 34 poor countries farthest from reaching the MDGs, 22 are in or emerging from conflict. (3) Environmental crises, which are increasing in frequency and severity, also disproportionately affect the poor. Almost two billion people were affected by natural disasters in the last decade of the 20th Century, 86 per cent of them by floods and droughts.(4)
The nature and scope of conflict has changed, with more armed conflicts taking place within, rather than between, countries. During the 1990s, of the 118 armed conflicts, the majority were internal.(5) These tend to last longer than wars between countries and take a huge toll on civilians, including abduction, rape, mutilation, torture and massacre. Many civilians are forced to flee their homes and communities, and sexual violence is often widespread. During conflict and its aftermath, women and young people are particularly vulnerable; 80 per cent of the world's 35 million refugees and internally displaced persons are women and children.(6)
Recovery from armed conflict is a decades-long process, and the ensuing peace may be fragile. Roughly half of all countries that emerge from war lapse back into violence within five years.(7) Strategic investments in women and young people during and after crises can contribute to reducing poverty and enhancing prospects for sustainable development and lasting peace.
Largely due to the efforts of civil society organizations, the international community increasingly recognizes the needs and rights of young people and women in humanitarian crises. Closer attention is now being paid to how these groups can be empowered to participate in the peace-building process and repair and transform their shattered societies.
After a Crisis: Opportunities for Equity and Peace
When conflict or natural disaster strikes, women survivors usually bear the heaviest burden of relief and reconstruction. They become primary caretakers for other survivors-including children, the injured or sick, and the elderly. The vulnerability and responsibilities of women are further increased by the loss of husbands and livelihoods and the need to procure essentials for family survival.(8)
Gender-specific needs have often been overlooked when it comes to relief and recovery planning. The vulnerability of girls and women to exploitation, trafficking and abuse has largely been ignored, as have their needs for pregnancy-related care, sanitary supplies and locally appropriate clothing. The distribution of emergency assistance has often been managed by, and delivered to, men, without attention to whether women and their dependents will benefit.
The post-crisis transition period offers a prime opportunity to establish policies and processes to accelerate recovery, as well as formulate sound action plans to meet the MDGs and the broader development and security agenda. But when peace negotiations are underway, women have frequently been excluded. And when a new government takes control, makes decisions and prepares budgets, women are often left out of the process.
Women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings are one of three key groups for whom support is critical, according to the UN Millennium Project.(9) Domestic policies and external assistance that provide such support enable communities to reconcile, break the cycle of conflict and speed the transition to sustainable development. They can take full advantage of women's skills in reweaving the social fabric and rebuilding the economic life of destroyed communities.