Women political leaders from the east and west came together in Washington D.C. this summer to advance women's roles in building sustainable peace as part of the women's leadership conference, "Women at the Tables of Power." This exchange between U.S. state legislators and women parliamentarians was a golden opportunity to listen to women whose backgrounds are unlike my own, and to learn about the special challenges they face.
I stood shoulder to shoulder with women leaders from Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan whose work and courage I admire. We were joined through a partnership of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL) and the EastWest Institute's Parliamentarian Network for Conflict Prevention.
No matter differences of language, culture or religion, our stories shared the same underlying message: Women suffer the effects of war disproportionately, yet we remain largely absent from the processes of conflict prevention and resolution. Through our dialogues we came to understand that women and children are routinely victimized as combatants increasingly target civilians. From January to April 2013, instability and impunity in war-torn Afghanistan resulted in over 2,500 cases of violence against women. Three quarters of the 1.6 million Syrians who have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees are women and children.
Women's activities worldwide indicate our readiness to be a part of peace processes. Our Syrian sisters have organized workshops and training on negotiation and peace-building in preparation for their participation in the transition from conflict to stability. Here in Maryland, women have been on the front lines of this process since the nation began. During the Civil War, Maryland was home and birthplace to great women such as Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross, and Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist, humanitarian, and suffragist. More recently, the state was home to the first legislative women's caucus in the nation. The Women Legislators of Maryland was established in 1972. In 2013, we make up over 30 percent of the General Assembly.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, passed in 2000, acknowledges the impact of war on women and the importance of women's roles in achieving sustainable peace. The resolution declares that "an understanding of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection, and full participation in the peace process can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security."
Drawn from this resolution, the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security requires women to be included at the negotiation table, acknowledges that women's experience with conflict gives them a unique and valuable perspective essential to peace-building and that women policy makers can provide insight into the particular needs of women during times of both war and peace. In December 2011 President Obama signed the Executive Order making the action plan official administrative policy.
The plan has leveraged attention to women in conflict affected areas and their unique capacity to change the way peace is made. However, it will last only as long as the current administration. The Women, Peace and Security Act of 2013, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in July and soon to be introduced in the U.S. Senate, will codify the policy and ensure its continuation. The policy reminds us that when women participate in matters of security, they "enlarge the scope of agreements to include the broader set of critical societal priorities and needs required for lasting and just peace." I urge Members of Congress to co-sponsor the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2013 and support the critical role of women's leadership domestically and abroad.
Joseline Peña-Melnyk is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and an active member of the Women Legislators' Lobby, a program of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND). Her email is Joseline.Pena.Melnyk@house.state.md.us.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.