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The role of women in conflict resolution and peace-building

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Foreign Office held a conference in London to celebrate International Women’s Day at which Meg gave the following remarks whilst chairing.



Welcome to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I like to say a particular welcome to the High Commissioners of our Commonwealth partners and their representatives who are today also celebrating Commonwealth Day.


I’m delighted too to welcome the many women Ambassadors here today. There are now 27 women Heads of Mission in London a number which is growing. I look forward to the Annual Meeting of the Women’s Diplomatic Group, which is taking place in the Foreign Office, for the first time, in April. The UK unfortunately is not doing as well and we still have relatively few female Heads of Missions overseas.


I am pleased to say that the Foreign Office is however taking the issue of diversity and gender equality seriously. All staff members can now request to work flexibly and there is a commitment to encourage greater diversity. We have champions at board level for all under-represented groups, and networks to support change. Our women’s network is particularly active on this issue, and I hope that they and all women in the Foreign Office will be inspired by the female leaders here today.


I’m very glad too that so many of the Foreign Office’s friends across and outside government have been able to join us today, including colleagues from Parliament and a former FCO Minister, now the Attorney General, Baroness Patricia Scotland.


Of course politics is not known for being particularly female friendly. I was at a dinner in my home city of Sheffield and when I told the guest next to me that I was one of the local MPs, he said that he didn’t think I looked like an MP. “What female,” I replied.


I’ve also discovered that the world of foreign affairs is not used to women. I was at the Pacific Island Forum and headed to the room indicated for lunch. The way was barred to me and I was informed that this was reserved for heads of delegation. I subsequently had a conversation with someone from another country who was sure that I must work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and took some convincing that I was indeed the Minister. I know that I’m not the only one to have had this difficulty. Baroness Scotland told me of her difficulty in convincing people that she was Baroness Scotland a Foreign Office Minister.


We do have some way to go.


Yet the substance of foreign affairs affects women just as much as men and in different ways.  Preventing and resolving conflict is one of the four key international policy goals in the Foreign Office’s new strategy, one that needs to consider both the roles and the needs of women. For centuries the resolution of conflict by force was seen as the unique preserve of men. In recent times however, we have seen women and children become as much the victims of violent conflict as men, whether through formal military interventions or terrorist attacks.


As set out in today’s programme, in 2004 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched a major initiative to mainstream gender into foreign policy. Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, said this was above all about better policy making. We’ve also been at the forefront of supporting the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 specifically on women peace and security. We were one of the first countries to develop a national action plan for its implementation.


We work closely with other Government Departments, particularly the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. In addition, with the many national and international organisations outside government, representing many different communities. All can and do play a significant role in tackling both the causes and effects of conflict and in securing the subsequent peace.


I’m delighted to introduce now three women who are deeply engaged in these questions and committed to making the world a better place.


Baroness Shirley Williams has been a shining example of a woman fully engaged in public affairs throughout her life. Her career has been notable for the courage and independence of her views. She is a politician who has always retained the admiration and affection of the public without ever seeming to seek it.


She is a member of the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on the Fourth World Women’s Conference. Shirley has played a key role in ensuring that the challenges facing women world-wide remain at the top of the global political agenda.


Purna Sen joined the Commonwealth Secretariat as Head of Human Rights last autumn from Amnesty International, where she had been head of the Asia-Pacific region.


Purna too has been very active on the world stage, lobbying within the UN for women’s rights and particularly on violence against women. She has worked with many women’s organisations within the UK and around the world, including with Womankind. In addition to her work on gender she is also an expert on racial equality.


Sue Turrell became Director of Womankind just over a year ago. Sue’s development work has taken her across the world and into many of the world’s conflict zones.


Sue is a passionate advocate of increasing women’s participation in political life and in peace making. In her blog on the Womenkind website she said: “Women’s rights and equality are essential if the world is to reduce poverty and enable all its citizens to choose the lives they lead.”  

Associated Photograph :

Meg with Dr Purna Sen, Director of Human Rights, Commonwealth Secretariat; Baroness Williams of Crosby and Sue Turrell, Director, WOMANKIND.

Meg with Dr Purna Sen, Director of Human Rights, Commonwealth Secretariat; Baroness Williams of Crosby and Sue Turrell, Director, WOMANKIND.

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