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Happy Birthday 1325, or, Why women in Burundi won’t let me be cynical about (some) UN resolutions

If you’ve never been to a birthday party for a Security Council resolution, well, get out your party shoes. Today is the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and the party guest du jour is Hillary Clinton, who is slated to address the council today.

So what’s 1325, and why all the fuss? There are two ways of looking at it. One is that it’s just another resolution from a body whose importance is pure pomp and whose resolutions rarely change the real world people live in. Another is that it’s the a major step in gender advancement and equality, inside the UN and outside, that could usher in a new era for women worldwide.

Both of those are too extreme. But 1325 is inarguably a benchmark. The resolution urged the involvement of more women as chief mediators in peace processes and in high positions at the UN; it called for gender perspectives to be incorporated in peacekeeping missions and peace negotiations; and it demanded the protection of women and girls in war zones, among other things.

The trouble is, of course, most of this didn’t happen, or happened too slowly, or ineffectually. Ten years later, women’s groups like the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security are taking stock of 1325 and subsequent resolutions (check out just-released report, on their home page), including a tougher measure passed two years ago demanding accountability for crimes committed against women and girls, especially rape.

So these days are full of recommendations for better implementation – or, the cynics might say, implementation at all. But before we wallow in despair (or gloat), here’s something worth thinking about: whatever the failures of these ten years, this language matters.

That’s not something I believe; it’s something I learned from women in Burundi, when I was reporting on peacebuilding for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Burundi, like Rwanda, experienced horrific ethnic violence in the 1990s. Massacres begat revenge, and the country hardened into Hutu vs. Tutsi.
Except for some women, who refused to follow belligerent men in violently dividing their society. “There were quartiers especially in suburbs where only Tutsis could live and they would chase Hutus, and vice versa. You couldn’t go in another area without being killed,” remember Justine Nkurunziza, now the vice-president of the association of civil society groups.

The ethnic binaries made some women feel divided in their own families. “As women, you have people on both sides. Me, my dad is a Hutu and my mom is a Tutsi. As a child, you have cousins on both sides,” she said.

Women want to see their aunts, their sisters. Kids want to play together. And so, some women simply did just that. They would make appointments to meet in the center of Bujumbura, the capital, at a neutral place like Novotel, a posh hotel. “They wanted to make sure their kids could meet [their friends]…They mixed. And once you meet and get close to one another, it creates friendships.”

Other women pushed boundaries even more purposefully. Organized by some NGOs, Nkurunziza remembers women moving from a Tutsi suburb to the Hutu-populated Bujumbura-Rurale, the tall igiseke baskets with cone-shaped hats balanced on the women’s heads, simply going to visit. “These visits broke barriers,” she recalled. “Dialogue began.”

It was, for the most part, an invisible fight. Nkurunziza told me, “These are kinds of acts not documented. When men went to Arusha [peace negotiations], they didn’t mention it. They were just power sharing, signing documents. But the real peace was happening at the grassroots, with the women.”

It didn’t end there: The women realized their power at the grassroots and advocated for a place at the men’s table. Nkurunziza recalls women lobbying for the right to participate in the negotiations, in 2000. They were rebuffed several times, she said, but finally the men relented and agreed to allow women in the room. They couldn’t speak or participate, but they could listen. They may not have been allowed to take the floor, Nkurunziza thinks but their presence made an impact – on Burundi, which now has a 30 percent quota for women serving in Parliament, and on the UN.

“I think this somehow influenced the vote on 1325. I think it inspired people,” Nkurunziza says.

I haven’t cross checked that with the diplomats, in whose interest it would be to deny it anyway. But I did as Nkurunziza what influence 1325 has really had. She, too, saw problems in implementation.

But she also saw promise. The resolution and those that followed, let women lobby even more vigorously for positions of influence. They give women a metric by which to hold their leaders accountable. They amplify a voice the women of Burundi worked so hard to find on their own. And it’s not a voice that will keep quiet.

“Now women here know their power,” she told me. “They see now that even though they’re in the back, unrecognized, they are powerful.”

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