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Masculinities, violence against women, and women's participation in peace and justice

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Yassin Barrios, Presiding judge in the landmark Guatemala genocide and Sepur Zarco cases, speaks during the event Masculinities, Violence against Women in Leadership & Participation in Transitional Societies: The Case of Burundi and Guatemala. Photo:

On 25 October, women leaders and experts gathered at the UN Headquarters to discuss issues of masculinities, violence against women, and women’s participation in peace and justice in transitional societies. With 2 billion people across 35 countries and territories affected by fragility, conflict and violence, women’s active participation and leadership in preventing conflict and sustaining peace is critical.

The side event, co-organized by UN Women, Impunity Watch and Oxfam IBIS, with the support of the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations, marked the 17thanniversary of the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution 1325, which recognized for the first time the role of women’s leadership in international peace and security.

Panellists reflected on women’s exclusion from leadership and the role of masculinities in perpetuating gender-based violence against women, drawing upon case studies from Burundi and Guatemala.

“When we talk about gender equality, and women, peace and security, the engagement of boys and men is crucial and without their engagement we cannot implement the 1325 agenda” shared Lise Gregoire-van Haaren, Netherlands Ambassador to the United Nations.
"It is very important to protect women leaders who protect human rights," added Paivi Kannisto, Chief of Peace and Security of UN Women, kicking off the panel discussion. “Men must listen to stories of women leaders to understand how to work in solidarity with them, they must be front and center of the work we do around the world.”

Systematic sexual and gender-based violence against women during conflicts leave lasting impacts on societies in transition, where patterns of such violence continue to be reproduced, and women’s leadership is constantly undermined.

In both Guatemala and Burundi, armed conflicts have left a legacy of impunity for gender-based violence. Panellists presented findings from recent research on the status of women’s leadership in both countries and the challenges that women leaders grapple with.

In Guatemala, women make up only 38 per cent of the judiciary and they routinely face discrimination. Some have even experienced attacks. Yassmin Barrios, Presiding judge in the landmark Guatemala genocide and Sepur Zarco cases, is a prime example.

“Judges, both men and women, should be leaders in our workplaces and agents of change to strengthen the rule of law and guarantee the rights of all other citizens,” said Barrios. “No power should interfere in the exercise of justice.”

More than two decades after the signing of the historic 1996 Peace Accords, violence against women is still normalized and leadership is associated with men. “Women are not expected to occupy important positions,” added Judge Barrios, who has been threatened with violence and intimidation multiple times. “Even when they don’t threaten you physically, they try to undermine women’s authority by saying that we are not qualified or capable. After the genocide and Sepur Zarco cases, the work load in my court diminished…these are subtle ways of undermining our work.”

Similarly, in Burundi, where women pushed for inclusion in the peace process, the promises of gender equality have not translated into women having real influence on decision-making. Although the law sets a 30 per cent female participation quota in elected and nominated public bodies, women are not considered key political partners.

“It means that in terms of presence, even though women get into negotiations, the influence of women is limited by socio-economic constraints,” said Messina Lauretta Manirakisa from Impunity Watch, Burundi. Since men are perceived as leaders, while women are expected to focus at home or on social issues, even when women participate in politics, they have challenges finding resources for campaigning or balancing their role at work and at home. Without addressing masculinities, it is impossible to secure meaningful participation of women, suggested Manirakiza.

Women must understand their political role in society,” said Goretti Ndacayisaba, who leads the organization Dushirehamwe in Burundi. “We try to make sure that both men and women learn about the laws and talk to each other—it’s the best way to fight negative masculinities.”

“Once women are economically powerful, have the space to express themselves and a social and political role in the community, there is no doubt that the issues of peace and security will be effected,” Goretti added.

The experiences shared at the event resonate with the findings of the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 (2015), which highlighted strategies to enhance women’s participation and leadership within public institutions and peace processes, as well as investment in engaging men to foster non-violent expressions of masculinity.

For peace to be meaningful for women and men alike, a transformative approach that tackles underlying drivers, rather than symptoms, is needed. “If we are not protecting women and their rights, we’re not addressing the obstacles to their participation,” said Nahla Valji, Senior Gender Adviser to the UN Secretary-General, in conclusion.

“We cannot abandon the spaces [that] women have fought to gain,” added Judge Yassmin Barrios.