Role of Women and Children in Peace-building

I come from Nepal, a country that recently suffered a catastrophic earthquake. The outpouring of sympathy, support and solidarity for the victims of this natural disaster from the people of Japan, and the rest of the world, has been heart-warming.

This morning, I was very happy to hear Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcement that support for recovery and reconstruction of Nepal will be one of Japan’s top five priorities in Asia.

At this ‘High-level Seminar on Peace-building, National Reconciliation and Democratization in Asia’, it would be relevant to recall that the recent geological earthquake in Nepal was preceded by a massive “man-made earthquake” of a decade-long, violent, armed conflict.

That man-made earthquake actually killed, injured and displaced more people than the recent geological earthquake. The main victims of both these earthquakes have been disproportionately women and children, especially from the poor and marginalized communities.

As we begin the post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction of Nepal, we need to remember and respond to the needs of the victims of both the geological and man-made earthquakes, because they are closely inter-linked.

For example, the lack of adequate preparedness to mount a rapid and effective rescue and relief operation after the recent earthquake, was precisely because many Government institutions were severely debilitated by years of violent conflict, political strife, corruption, and lack of elected local governments accountable to local citizens.

The recent earthquake destroyed many beautiful historical monuments, certified by UNESCO as the world’s cultural heritage sites. Interestingly, the earlier “man-made earthquake” too had seriously damaged our intangible heritage of the “culture of peace” by unleashing an orgy of “revolutionary violence” and lawlessness.

It was sad for many of us to witness such glorification of violence in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace to the whole world.

Women and children have been the greatest victims of these disasters in Nepal, and similar disasters elsewhere in the world. But as we look to the future, we must focus on women and children not just as victims, but also as agents for peace-building, reconciliation and democratization in all our countries.

The contribution of both women and children to peace-building can be immensely important, and we must help nurture it creatively. As previous panelists have already highlighted the role of women, let me focus on the role of children in peace-building.

It is the common aspiration of all human beings to want to see our children survive and thrive; to lead a long and healthy life; to get quality education and a decent job; and to grow up to their full potential as responsible citizens.

This is only possible in peaceful, democratic societies with a thriving economy.

Temporarily, even countries that are not democratic or in conflict might achieve a certain measure of human and economic progress. But over the long run, sustained human development and human security is possible only in societies where citizens enjoy “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”.

Experience of countries like Japan, the Scandinavian countries and others that score high in terms of human development and human security, show that the foundation for their progress was the heavy investment they made in human development, starting with investment in the health, nutrition and education of children.

We see many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with enormous natural and mineral resources that are very poor. And we see some countries with very limited natural resources that are rich and prosperous.

Two factors explain this paradox – 1) prosperous countries invest heavily in human resource development, and 2) they have good governance that ensures peace and stability, rule of law and a more just social order.

Investment in children is the most cost-effective investment in human development. But the well-being of children is intricately linked with the well-being and empowerment of women. And that too must start at the earliest stage, with priority to the health, nutrition and education of the girl child.

There are many, many studies across the world that show that the most effective way to end the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next, is through girls’ education.

Educated girls marry later; have fewer children; take better care of their health and education; nurture them to think critically, so they can learn and earn better; and help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty and ignorance.

But let me add that in this world ravaged by conflict and violence, it is not enough to provide our children with academic or vocational education. We must also provide them value-based education: education for peace and global citizenship that encourages children to understand, accept and respect diversity.

Many of us as adults, have grown up in societies where we take great pride in our ethnic, religious, and national identity. But we often distrust people with different identity.

It is difficult for adults to forgive and forget, and to focus on finding win-win solutions.

That is why so many peace agreements flounder and fail.

We adults cannot change easily, but children can.

Throughout human history, nationalists, imperialists, revolutionaries and warriors of all kinds, have always found justification for their wars and military ventures.

In our life time, we have seen religious fundamentalists, self-declared revolutionaries and opportunists from Boko Haram to Taliban, ISIS to Al Shabab, Khmer Rouge to Tamil Tigers, Shining Path to certain Maoist groups in India and Nepal, often glorify violence calling them “holy wars” or “people’s wars”.

But there is nothing holy about the nature and consequences of modern armed conflicts. The victims of modern warfare and insurgencies are not just soldiers and combatants, but innocent civilians, mostly, women and children.

And let us remember that children of the rich and those in power, including military commanders and guerilla leaders, do not serve as child soldiers, and are not deprived of basic education and health during wars and conflicts. It is always the children of the poor, often from indigenous and marginalized communities, and those living in poverty, who are recruited as child soldiers, guerillas and jihadists, and sent to the front-lines as cannon fodders.

These days, we must be extremely concerned about militarization of our societies in the name of fighting terrorism. Civil society should carefully monitor the growth of government spending on the military compared to investment in basic social services, especially in poor countries ruled by autocratic governments.

International donors too ought to be more vigilant in offering generous development assistance to countries that allocate more money for guns and soldiers than for bread and butter for their citizens. Yet, unfortunately, very few donors today make an explicit linkage between military expenditure and development aid.

We must acknowledge that ‘structural violence’ of poverty, inequality, exclusion and marginalization are sometimes the causes of conflict in some countries. We must fight to end such structural violence in our society. But we must do so peacefully.

People of goodwill seeking social justice, political freedoms and economic progress must reject a culture of violence as an acceptable means for achieving any worthy goals, because two wrongs do not make a right.

Most importantly, we must inculcate in the minds and hearts of our children and youth the values of non-violence and peaceful pursuit of all worthy goals.

I would like to suggest that this High-level seminar and Panel discussion should send a message calling on governments, civil society, NGOs, religious organizations, the media, and people of goodwill to condemn all groups that incite or condone violence – under any pretext.

Let us help create and reinforce a social norm that violence is immoral, unethical and illegal, because it violates other people’s human rights.

Let us support our children and youth to always look for peaceful ways to address their concerns. And let us insist that even during conflict, schools and hospitals should be safe havens for children, and never turned into barracks and targets of attack by armed groups.

Indeed, the United Nations, the Red Cross movement, and many child-focused organizations promote the concept of ‘Children as Zones of Peace’, or ‘Schools, Hospitals and Religious institutions as Zones of Peace’. And they promote “Days of Tranquility”, “Corridors of Peace”, and “Humanitarian cease-fires” to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches everybody.

Let us support such initiatives.

To create goodwill, friendship and mutual understanding among children, UNICEF, Save the Children, and other organizations sometimes organize “Summer Camps” for children of different communities in conflict, e.g. Israelis and Palestinians, Tamils and Sinhalese, Protestants and Catholics, etc. Children in such camps learn to live together, share experiences, develop friendship through sports, music, arts, etc.

Such activities must be important components of peace-building.

For far too long, nations of the world have given higher priority to military-based national security than civilian-based human security. The time has now come for us to foster a global movement to denounce violence, and promote peace-building – with children – and women – as both its beneficiaries and agents of change.

Finally, let me take the occasion to thank and congratulate our host, the Government of Japan, for the very important announcement by Foreign Minister Kishida today that support for protection of women and children will be one of Japan’s top five priorities for peace-building and human security.

Let us hope that other countries will follow Japan’s example.

Thank you.

(Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at a High-level Seminar on Peace-building, National Reconciliation and Democratization in Asia Tokyo, 20 June 2015)