Celebrating women and girls

On the eve of International Women’s Day the world is continuing to hear about the desperate situation of many women in conflict zones, in refugee camps and in societies which continue to exclude women and girls from everyday life outside the home. In conflict zones, women and girls are vulnerable to sexual slavery, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, with little prospect of escape. Women are also disproportionately represented in the world’s refugee population, which, for women refugees is compounded by the vulnerability of being female in addition to losing statehood and access to critical healthcare and education.

Without overlooking the very serious consequences of displacement and sexual violence for women, the position of women in many conflict-affected or post-conflict societies is critical for the development of sustainable peace.

This does not mean that women are the answer and peace is more easily facilitated by women. Rather, it is the reality of war, the absence of men and women’s experiences during conflict which open a space for them in society. Many women who have survived conflict and violence have gone on to set-up schools for girls, health centres and women’s organisations to lead the path to peace.

It is through such community facilitation and grassroots activism that these organisations have flourished and have contributed to re-shaping some gender norms and social structures which continue to subordinate women. 

Success in the face of centuries-old social norms and cultural practices however is a battle not easily won by women activists. Nevertheless, it is these women’s commitments to social justice, equality and women’s rights which critically contribute to the creation of more peaceful societies.

In an event to celebrate International Women’s Day 2014, Dr Susan Banki from the University of Sydney spoke of the Karen women’s organisation on the Thai-Burma border which has been instrumental in supporting women in their quest for peace, justice and equality. Through the good work of such organisations, the gender norms which keep women impoverished and uneducated are challenged through conversation. As Dr Banki suggested, the norms which continue to subordinate and exclude women around the world can only be challenged through inspiring new generations of girls and boys and educating communities to believe in the important role women and girls can play in society.  

Reflecting on the significant challenges women in situations of violence and conflict still face in 2014 is but one aspect of International Women’s Day. It is more importantly a day of celebration, a day to celebrate and recognise the positive contribution women have made and continue to make in the development of more equal, just and peaceful societies around the world. 

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