PN Coordinator Agnes Venema Makes Statement at ICAPP Conference

Agnes Venema
September 13, 2013

PN Coordinator Agnes Venema delivered a statement at the ICAPP Special Conference on Women's Leadership and Empowerment in Seoul, South Korea today. Her statement not only reflects her personal experiences over her career, but the bonding empowerment of women everywhere when recognizing similarities over differences through conferences such as ICAPP. The powerful snapshot of life in a male dominated field reveals the importance of incorporating women in the effort towards peace. 


"Your Excellencies, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my absolute pleasure to be able to address you today in my capacity of Program Coordinator for the EastWest Institute’s Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention on the immensely important topic of Women’s Leadership and Empowerment.

I would like to share some of my personal experiences today which relate mostly to the discussion on Women’s Role in Peace building. Prior to taking up my position, I had experience with a fair share of women dealing with various aspects of conflict, post-conflict and peace-building. At the time when I worked extensively at the United Nations in Geneva, Ms. Louise Arbour, currently the president of International Crisis Group in Brussels, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and throughout my time working in The Hague, I had met my fair share of women in high places working at the various international tribunals, dealing with investigating war crimes on a daily basis.

Moving to Timor-Leste to work on Security Sector Reform – a typical peace-building undertaking – and later to Brussels to work with the EastWest Institute, I found people asking me the same question over and over again: why would I want to work in such a male-dominated environment? Wouldn’t I be much more comfortable working on human rights instead, rather than on issues of peace and security? I had never seen the two as inseparable; I believe the degree to which human rights are respected in any given country is an indication of how secure and peaceful that country is.

It is precisely this approach which makes our Network’s ‘Women, Peace and Security’ initiative so unique. When we convened our Global Conference for Preventive Action in Brussels in 2010, one of our panels engaged female MPs from countries suffering insecurity and challenges. Despite all the outcomes this conference achieved, perhaps the most remarkable was that it allowed for female MPs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to meet for the first time. “The women are never on any of the delegations who come to visit”, one participant told us. It is this very encounter and the realization that women are struggling with similar problems when trying to achieve leadership positions that prompted the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention to launch its ‘Women, Peace and Security’ initiative.

The initial years of our program focused on facilitating meetings between Afghan and Pakistani female MPs, because there was a sense that they could learn from one another and identify with the problems they were facing. The Women’s Caucus in the parliament of Pakistan is a great role model for countries in which women are struggling to have their voices heard and to further women’s leadership. But more needed to be done in order to fully capitalize on the knowledge and experience of women working in politics.

Currently our program partners with Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), a US based organization, with the goal of to building an international network of women political leaders from the U.S., Afghanistan, Pakistan and greater MENA region to advance peace, security, democratic values and women’s rights in conflict and post-conflict affected areas through dialogue, information sharing, mentoring and capacity building. Who thinks that the women from the U.S. don’t need any mentoring is very much mistaken. For them too these exchanges prove to be a valuable tool in seeing the global issues they deal with at the state level in a different light and it helps them better press their members of Congress, for example on protecting the rights of women in post-2014 Afghanistan. They are able to provide valuable insights which allow for enhanced discussion on topics such as the National Action Plan (NAP) set out by the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the requirement of implementing this in every UN member state.

But the personal value of the exchanges is perhaps what is hardest to fully capture in a donor report or a statement like this. Last year when some of the ladies participating in our Initiative met for the first time, stories were shared about families, children, hopes and dreams for the future. A State Representative from Maryland shared her account of having come to the United States as a child by undocumented immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic. She recalled working her way through school and a law degree, determined not to end up pregnant at age fifteen like her sister did. This story struck a chord with one of the Pakistani participants. She told us she all of a sudden realized how hard life must be for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, whilst many members of the Pakistani society, herself included, had always seen the refugees as a problem, an issue to be dealt with.

Equally, those stories tell powerful accounts of change that women can bring about where men cannot or will not. Exemplifying the importance of women in resolving conflict and building sustainable peace, former Pakistani Parliamentarian, Bushra Gohar, told the story of a 2009 incident in the Swat Valley region, where, Grain Chowk, one of the busiest community squares was renamed by the shopkeepers  Khooni Chowk (bloody square) because each day residents found four to five dead bodies, hung from poles or trees, butchered by the Taliban. When the local provincial government organized a peace Jirga to address the violence, women political leaders were asked not to attend to avoid objections from religious leaders and Taliban supporters.  In response, the women leaders convened their own peace Jirga and demanded women’s participation in the decision making process and sought “an independent humanitarian commission to analyze the extent of devastation as a result of militancy and military operations in Swat” and recommended adequate compensation to the victims of violence. Over 600 women from throughout the Province participated in the Jirga despite death threats and threats of violence. The event was widely highlighted in the local newspapers and electronic media.  Political leaders took notice of women’s demands and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus brought a resolution on the Swat Peace Process in the National Assembly which was passed unanimously.

It is these encounters which allow us to broaden our perspectives. I have come here hoping my perspectives will broaden and I hope yours will too. I hope I will meet lawmakers from countries I have never been to, I hope to hear remarkable stories and I hope to be able to welcome many of the remarkable ladies sitting in front of me to join our network so that those stories can be shared with our members across the globe. I hope that women will not only bear this burden, but that it will be a joint effort, which engages men in this debate. As women are debating leadership and empowerment, because there are still places in the world where the opinion of half the population does not matter and is not taken into account, let’s not exclude half the population in our debate. I call upon everyone to broaden their perspective and seek for allies in places we may never thought we would find them.

I will leave you with this. As we aim to strengthen the role of women lawmakers in all political processes, particularly on matters of peace, security, and human rights, as we are building a strong international network of support for women decision makers, as we are enhancing regional cooperation and reaching out to women parliamentarians across the globe, I hope that you see my presence here as a hand reaching out to Asia. And I hope Asia will reach out back to us.

Thank you"


Statement delivered on September 13, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea at the ICAPP Special Conference in Women's Leadership and Empowerment.