More than 50 opinion makers and policy makers from the Middle East came together to discuss linkages between women, water and peace in a conference hosted by Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) and MEF University in co-operation with Sida on 18th and 19th March 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Participants included Members of Parliament, former ministers, government officials, media leaders, entrepreneurs and scholars from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The conference was part of the experience exchange process of the Blue Peace community in the Middle East.
The conference was convened particularly to focus the attention of policy makers to the gender perspective in the region. The role of women in addressing water and peace linkages was discussed by experts and media observers having direct experience of the subject in the presence of senior parliamentarians, government officials and political leaders. The conference was instrumental in linking different levels of policy making structures in the region.
In the opening session of the conference, Ms. Ulrika Holmstrom, Senior Gender Advisor at Sida, presented the Swedish perspective, with the objective of achieving gender equality. Ms. Holmstrom stated that “there is lot of evidence of peace agreements were women have participates actually last longer. So there are many strong links between sustainable peace and sustainable development and women’s rights”. Ms. Holmstrom stated that “increasing women’s representation in governance, peace building efforts and core economic institutions”. Emphasizing that to achieve the goals of more rights and representation for women, women’s access to resources must be increased and channeled. While Princess Hayat Arsalan, President of the Society of Lebanon the Giver stated that “woman and water are closely related. Woman like water are symbol of purity and fertility. Women and peace are allied, while water and peace are the dispute which might shift to becoming water and war”. Ms. Arsalan ended off by asking “Will humanity be able to indeed avoid this war?”
Participants brought to attention the role of women in water management for family needs, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in the Middle-East. A panel of women journalists and scholars who contributed to the “Women, Water and Peace” report explained that the increasing influx of refugees has placed a great burden on women managing water both in households in host countries as well as refugee camps. Participants also highlighted that many women’s rights as core users and managers of water cannot be exercised until and unless they are empowered to make decisions related to water management at the domestic level.
At the international water diplomacy level, participants suggested that when women negotiate, they focus on building relationships and trust. Which is why, it has been observed that peace agreements are more sustainable when women are included. Making policy changes to mainstream gender concerns at the international level needs cultural acceptance at local levels, for which education is extremely important. An example was given that when a particular ministry appointed 68% women executive bureaucrats, the country was looked at more favorably at the international level. It was also felt that since women are more detail oriented, chances of success of negotiations become higher.
The media panel focused more on the role that can be played to change the perspective of women’s role in water management while fighting gender mainstraming. On the panel concerning the role of the media, there was complete agreement among all participants that a positive story is much stronger than a negative one and the media should focus on positive stories that realign female roles as heroes rather than victims only. It is also noted that it was essential that barriers stopping women from reaching decision making processes in the media are identified, including the need for salary and compensation parity. It was suggested by Marwa Osman, university instructor in media studies, that a ‘bio-regional’ process led by women could create an effective water management system. Ms. Osman asserted that what we need to create in the media is to stop focusing on religion, sectarianism or state limitations and start proposing a bioregional water management coalition that includes women from local community assemblies in each country to be delegates to this coalition’s bioregional commission.
The conference also included a session on experience exchange with a presentation on the Nile Basin by John Rao Nyaoro, Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). He explained that successful trans-boundary cooperation depends on the existence of three critical factors: 1. Institutional infrastructure for cooperation 2. Stakeholder dialogues at multiple levels 3. Personal commitment of the Heads of States and governments.
Dr. Sundeep Waslekar, president of the Strategic foresight group, ended off the conference by focusing on the crisis in the Middle East states that might prevent water cooperation. Mr. Waslekar asked “when you have states collapsing, how can you have cooperation?” He continued saying “we don’t know how long it takes for a democratic solution to be implemented, it could take six months or six years.”