Gender Equality and Conflict: Bridging the Gap between International Law and Reality on the Ground

Group photo with UN logo

by Rebecca Singleton
Rebecca Singleton ’20 was a Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy Fellow in the spring quarter 2019.

I have a lot of experience training people on gender equality and, as such, I typically know to expect a little bit of pushback. Recently, however, when my supervisor and I conducted a training on gender equality and the Women, Peace and Security framework for over sixty members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, I was unprepared for the level of pushback we received. The reactions from the mostly male-dominated group, who are training to become Commanders and Generals, ranged from anger that we would question whether the armed forces actually uphold international and domestic law, to laughing at recorded testimony of a woman who was raped by a member of the army during a previous instance of martial law. 

‘Women, peace and security’ is a relatively new field despite the fact that armed conflict has been occurring since the birth of humankind. It is a field that I have been particularly interested in after working with female Burmese refugees in Malaysia, and witnessing the unique struggles that women go through in times of conflict and forced migration. When offered the opportunity to do a six-month co-op with UN Women’s Women, Peace and Security team here in the Philippines, I jumped at the chance. 

Women are often relegated to the role of victim during armed conflict, with little attention paid to the diverse roles that they can and have had, as peacekeepers, leaders, humanitarian responders, and even as perpetrators of violence. Furthermore, women often experience violence differently than their male counterparts, typically in the form of sexual violence. Though rape and other forms of sexual violence are prohibited, inter alia, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as Additional Protocol I and II, it took until 2000 for the Security Council to pass the first resolution on Women, Peace and Security, which recognizes the diverse role women play in times of conflict and peace building and urges their participation in the prevention and response to conflict. Since that time, eight more resolutions have been passed on Women, Peace and Security, yet women are still left out of peace processes, relegated to the role of victim, and sex-based crimes continue to occur with little to no repercussions for perpetrators.   

The southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines is comprised of a predominantly Muslim population which has fought for the right to self-governance for decades. The conflict has continued as armed groups splintered and peace agreements failed. Currently, a new peace agreement has been signed and is in the process of being implemented; however, the constant fighting in Mindanao has allowed ISIS to gain a foothold and extend the struggle against the Armed Forces of the Philippines. 

The problem is compounded in that the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has failed to provide aid to conflict affected areas and even promoted the use of sexual violence by the military. During the height of a conflict between the armed forces and ISIS, Duterte told soldiers: “I’ll take your place in prison. If you rape 3 women, I’ll take the blame.” 

UN Women has been at the forefront of trying to change the conversation on women in conflict, and the Women, Peace and Security team in the Philippines has been instrumental in bringing women to the table during peace talks. When I began my six-month co-op with UN Women, I felt excited at being part of such an important process. Despite Duterte’s comments promoting sexual assault, the Philippines has created very important precedents for how women should be engaged with in times of conflict and peace building. 

One of my first tasks during my internship was to develop gendered provisions for the National Action Plan that would implement some of the main aspects of the peace agreement. I have also gotten to be at the forefront of new areas of research — for example, looking at the nexus between violent extremism and human trafficking. It has felt so energizing to be constantly engaged in dialogue with incredible men and women on issues affecting the women here in the Philippines, the gaps in the legal framework, and programs that UN Women could implement to fill those gaps.


Group of Phillipino generals watching presentation.

Training with members of the Filipino Armed Forces. Photo credit: Rebecca Singleton


Yet, as I am now over halfway through my internship, the realities of this work and the limitations of the law are apparent. Despite having laws in place, the persistence of antiquated gender norms within the justice system act as a barrier for women in accessing it; laws are relatively meaningless without strong institutional mechanisms to enforce them. 

The training and subsequent conversation we had with the Armed Forces of the Philippines is the perfect example, as it illustrates the breakdown between international law and the reality on the ground: The State is the one that women are supposed to report sexual assaults to and yet the State is one of the entities responsible for the violence. Furthermore, it begs the question of how to have meaningful participation of women in prevention and peace efforts when their presence is not valued or respected by military forces. 

While I doubt any minds were changed during this training, my hope is that the more we have these conversations, the more we can start to shift the perception of women in conflict, from victims to the myriad of roles women actually play. The legal framework regarding international and internal conflicts is there, but unless and until women are present throughout the entirety of a conflict, from military personnel to discussions on transitional justice, women will be continued to be relegated to the role of victim and sexual violence will endure. 

Corrugated aluminum house on stilts that is brightly panted with rainbows, clouds, mountains, and bright clothing hanging on hangers from the window.

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