“People forget that women can contribute to security”

By Alex Paul

Law of Armed Conflict Expert, Human Rights Advisor, Gender Advisor… Cynthia Petrigh goes by many names. Throughout her career as an expert in conflict resolution and international law, Ms. Petrigh has worked to advance the implementation and understanding of human rights. She specializes in training soldiers, both state and non-state, and spent the last year training over half of the Malian army in international humanitarian law, with a focus on the prevention of sexual violence. In 2014 she was recognized for her significant contributions toward ending sexual violence by former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London.

Ms. Petrigh also has extensive experience training and advising actors in mediation and negotiations. She has supported the peace talks in Mindanao as a founding member of the International Contact Group and provided support to the National Dialogue in Yemen. She has also investigated violations of human rights and gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan and established a rehabilitation center for victims of torture in Lebanon.

She sat down with WIIS Program Assistant, Alex Paul, to discuss her work and to reflect on the significance of gender in her work. Read the full interview within WIIS Community Online. 

What do you think is the importance of gender equality for peace and security in the 21st century?

CP: “People forgetthat women can contribute to security and have solutions for the community- this can hold back efforts to create and sustain peace processes.”

You spoke at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June 2014. What do you think was the biggest achievement of the summit?

CP: “When high-profile individuals campaign on these issues governments cannot ignore them and pretend they don’t exist – as is shown by the endorsement of the Summit by many governments. So that kind of attention and awareness is important…[Equally important were the] opportunities for exchanging ideas and communication between different people that operate at different levels… a contribution of women, [is that] they have informal ways to look for solutions, and the summit gave them a space to speak and exchange ideas.”

Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leaders of the Survivors Action Network complained that survivors’ voices were absent, and the event focused too much on politicians promising to do things that are unlikely to happen. Is their criticism valid?

CP: “I saw lots of events organized by survivors – and all the official speeches highlighted how we have to be careful survivors are not just present at these kinds of events as the objects of curiosity.”

What is your opinion on the International Protocol? How can we ensure that survivors and witnesses testimony is effectively heard and recorded for posterity?

CP: “We should internationalize the problem but we also need to give space to national processes… We need to be careful and respect survivors and not only use them to come back with a good story and prosecute someone.”

You’ve worked in many different countries and on many different projects. Which one has been the most rewarding?

CP: “I worked in a very difficult but very rewarding role at a center for victims of torture in Lebanon. After the civil war there was no sense of justice and no reconciliation process – everyone just said the war is over, don’t talk about it. If we don’t deal with the victims and help them we will never have peace as the cycle of violence will not be ended.”

I recently attended a talk by Ambassador Catherine Russell, U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, where she lamented that only 8{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of those involved in peace talks are women. In your experience, what is the best way of getting more women’s voices to the table?

CP: “The UN has been very vocal about UNSCR 1325 but almost all UN envoys and special representatives are still male, which is a problem as this sometimes translates into an unwillingness to have women in the peace processes. The UN have to lead the way if they are serious about inclusiveness and participation.”

And how, once they are at the table, do we make sure they are listened to and their needs considered and acted upon?

CP: “If a man turns up in a suit then he is already accepted by other men, but women have to prove their value and are scrutinized in a way that never happens for men in suits or uniforms – they are immediately accepted. This is the reality for all jobs, including supporting peace processes! Women have to overcome this and prove competent for the same positions in other ways. In peace talks we are very slowly seeing some progress and with a lot of patience and talent, women are able to make a significant contribution in several processes.”

I see that in the last year you trained 2,700 Malian soldiers on IHL, HR and prevention of sexual violence. What was this like – were they receptive to your message?

CP: “The Malians had no problem accepting me – in fact, they were very receptive. I trained half their army and never had an inappropriate word said to me. The areas I covered were new to them but through our training they understood a lot about international humanitarian law, sexual violence and human rights.”

Do you think this kind of international assistance to local forces will really make a difference in the long run?

CP: “Malians forces I helped train were fighting in the north of the country earlier this year, in Kidal. The camp commander of the mission where I worked told me afterwards that, despite the Malian Army being defeated in this specific incident, there were no human rights violations and this was to my credit! You could see a net improvement in the behavior of the troops. Of course, it will never be perfect; even armies trained for centuries commit violations and all I had was ten weeks. But it did sensitize them to a lot of issues.”

How does this work (contracted under UKG Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative) tally with the aims of the June 2014 Summit?

CP: “As I said before, it’s not enough to simply prosecute people. We need first to inform them about the rules and work on prevention. Training combatants on international humanitarian law, human rights, sexual violence –contributes to combating sexual violence.”

What needs to change in international peace and security processes to ensure women are fully included?

CP: “There needs to be a realization that you cannot have only half of the population making such important decisions – we are all affected by peace and security and men and women make different contributions to this.”

Alex Paul is a WIIS Program Assistant. He has just completed a Masters’ in International Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, New York. His research focuses on security provision and reform in post-conflict states.