Empowering women

Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD)

"Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety", said Diana Rivington, a lead speaker at the joint United Nations-OECD workshop on Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Human Security, held in Bangkok last December.

The quote comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, yet it expresses a sentiment very much felt across the world today. Safety and security are rare commodities where there is conflict or where regimes are oppressive. Violence, war and fear are no longer merely temporary and dysfunctional features of society that disappear once development takes place. Every day millions of women and young girls confront threats to their security, be it in their homes, at school, in the work place or on the streets. They even run the gauntlet of danger in prisons, from policemen or soldiers, even from the courts.

Freedom from want and freedom from fear are key to human security. Yet violent conflicts interfere with efforts to uphold these basic rights, exposing vulnerable groups such as women. Most conflicts take place within countries, rather than between them. They are caused in part by social and political exclusion, poverty, diminished rule of law and security. Most casualties are no longer among soldiers, but civilians.

Based on experience from the United Nations, bilateral donors, NGOs from developing countries, and international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, the Bangkok conference examined complex emergencies in places like Kosovo, East Timor, Bougainville, Sri Lanka and Burundi. The aim was to define strategic ways of achieving just and equitable societies where the contributions of women are placed centre stage. Women everywhere clearly have the potential, keen interest and the skills to contribute to complex security processes. They can act as economic agents, formal and informal negotiators, or as lobbyists and campaigners. But these security processes often preclude female participation, so women's voices go unheeded.

Women are already becoming players in armed conflict and reconciliation rather than simply victims, and examples of this were highlighted at the conference. Women can be found at the negotiating table for peace. They help in reconstruction efforts, including strategy and planning. Women also become involved in conflict, sometimes as instigators, but mostly in the struggle against conflict and for the right to protect themselves. But there remains much to be done. As a start, the UN Department for Peace Keeping Operations suggested ways of making gender perspectives integral components of mandates and activities under UN peace keeping operations.

The US speakers presented heartening examples of methods that are being used to empower women in Kosovo, such as supporting conciliation efforts of women’s groups at community level. By getting involved with local councils, women have been able to respond directly to the issues that affect them. Such initiatives have helped women from one village where husbands, fathers and brothers were all massacred, to begin their own businesses and support their families again.

Australian representatives at the conference shared the lessons learned from grappling with long-term security challenges in Bougainville, where devastated and fragile social, economic and political life has created special needs for healing and trust-building. It had been implicitly assumed that the positive role women played in the peace process would continue. Concerted efforts were required, however, to ensure women’s continued participation in decision-making, public policymaking and governance structures.

Bridging empowerment and security 

The Bangkok conference emphasised that human security interventions in today’s complex emergencies can present key opportunities to promote women’s empowerment and leadership. Development co-operation can build initiatives to reinforce women’s capacities and skills, as well as helping to reinforce institutions in developing countries, like NGOs, the judiciary and the media, which are key bridges between empowerment and security.

This begs the question of what to do when there is no functioning state to speak of. One solution is to promote women’s leadership through policy dialogue with NGOs and other civil society groups. Inter-governmental bodies like the OECD can play a role too, by ensuring that vital data collection, such as building lists of women’s associations, is carried out.  


Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Human Security, workshop held by the OECD DAC Working Party on Gender Equality and the United Nations Inter Agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality, 7-8 December 1999, Bangkok.

©OECD Observer No 220, April 2000 

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