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Irish Captain: 'Local mayors have to hold talks with a woman - that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago'

The United Nations’ Women Peace and Security agenda is 20 years old. What has it accomplished?
Nov 10th 2020, 7:30 PM 36,172 4
The mayors are speaking to me directly, which is not normal – a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have been comfortable for a woman to be taking the lead on meetings. 
There are three male sergeants with me, but the mayor has to talk to me if they want something directly, or if they’re requesting something they have to go through me.

IN BINT JBEIL in Southern Lebanon, Captain Kate O’Flynn leads a military cell of Irish and Polish personnel who engage with local communities, not far from where UN troops patrol the border between south Lebanon and Israel. 

In 1982 during the Lebanon Civil War, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon for the second time in a decade and aided Lebanese Christian militias in seizing large parts of Lebanon, including Beirut. Though they withdrew from some parts in the years that followed, the South Lebanon Security Belt – a border region – remained occupied by these forces for 18 years until Israel withdrew its troops in 2000. 

UN troops still patrol roughly along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and that patrol is referred to as the ‘Blue Line’.

“It’s away from the coast, in more arduous terrain,” O’Flynn says of where she and her battalion are stationed. 

“A lot of population in South Lebanon actually commute to Beirut and return at the weekends, but since the Beirut explosion there has been a knock-on effect and a dampening of their spirits. A lot of them have returned to their local villages.”

TheJournal.ie had an opportunity to speak to O’Flynn as part of a look at the 20 years since the UN launched its ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda (WPS).

The UN agenda aims to lessen the effects of war and conflict on women and girls through putting women at the forefront of peacekeeping missions – we spoke to O’Flynn and the Irish chair of Ireland’s WPS Oversight Group to see what difference it has made in the past two decades. 

O'FLYNN1 Captain Kate O'Flynn. Source: Defence Forces

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was established to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, and restore peace and security in the area.

In 2006, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon: the Lebanese government deployed 15,000 of its own troops to the south, and UNIFIL expanded its mandate – it now has around 10,500 peacekeepers from 45 countries in the area. 

There is a total of 336 Irish personnel deployed to UNIFIL on this rotation. The Irish troops are deployed with contingents from the Polish, Hungarian and Maltese militaries, collectively referred to as ‘IrishPolBatt’.

O’Flynn’s battalion is a civil military cooperation cell, nicknamed  ’Cimic’. 

Although all Defence Force personnel on peacekeeping missions are given training on engaging with local communities in areas of conflict, this cell is unique in how this is its main focus – although it also supports the Blue Line patrol.

Since the 116 Battalion arrived in June, O’Flynn says they have supported “quick impact projects to help strengthen the self-sustainability” of the people of South Lebanon – such as equipment for locals who have returned to agriculture since the economic downturn, which has been made worse again by the Covid-19 pandemic.

O’Flynn says: “We sponsored agriculture equipment for the pressing of olives and the milling of wheat.”

Other projects include installing street lighting, water purification, solar panels and a beekeeping initiative (O’Flynn says Irish organisations have been asked for equipment to help the local Lebanese beekeepers). 

When asked about what difference a female captain has, or other female military personnel have on the women and girls in that area, O’Flynn says that seeing women in UN patrols, female firefighters, female translators, and having female medics available – which make healthcare easier to access for women in the area – all have an influence.

“We actually have a male dental nurse, something that they probably wouldn’t normally see in South Lebanon, but it just kind of breaks down that gender norm again.”

She also mentions a specific initiative that is focused on helping women return to work, thought up by working with a local mayor, who O’Flynn calls “an incredibly progressive individual”, and his female secretary. 

“She has an incredible knowledge,” O’Flynn says. “They’ve set up a place to sell local produce for the winter months – herbs, spices, tomato sauces, wheat, olives. It’s a lovely place to walk into.

But they solely employ females, so it’s a great means of encouraging females to return to the workplace, and this is a project we’ve really been heavily involved in.  

lebanon-olive-oil-processing Olives picked in Borj Qalaouiye, south Lebanon. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Another example of progress is making self-defence classes available to women, said O’Flynn.

“Previously self-defence classes were only for males. But in the last number of years, we’ve been approaching mayors – or the head of the town or village – and asking ‘Would this be open to women?’ A lot of them have been very approachable and have welcomed self-defence classes for women in their society.”

Sometimes we have to have just women with women, and it works. We always have a workaround and we respect their cultural beliefs.

O’Flynn says that she has seen examples of gender-based violence during their tour.

She found that when she went through the process to help protect these individuals, “there are a lot of systems in place”, like safe houses and aid organisations. She added that awareness of gender-based violence in Lebanon “is on the increase”. 

The battalion’s tour ends after six months, meaning O’Flynn and her team leave at the end of November and are replaced.

Chair of Ireland’s WPS: Nora Owen

When the United Nations set up the Women, Peace and Security programme 20 years ago, its aim was to try to alleviate the effects conflict and war have on women and girls, acknowledging that they are affected differently by these issues than males.

Gender and sexual-based violence, as well as sexual slavery, are among the most severe disproportionate effects war has on women.

But in areas where women have a secondary place in society beforehand, during and after a conflict those issues are exacerbated: their access to healthcare can be limited, and they’re affected more by displacement. 

Ireland’s Oversight Group on the WPS agenda has published three Action Plans to implement these peacekeeping aims. 

WPS Source: WPS

Ireland’s chair of the Oversight Group is former Justice Minister Nora Owen, who said there had been “some progress, but not huge amount of progress” over the past 20 years. 

“There are women suffering hugely in conflict-resolution situations, and it’s not really recognised as much as it should be. And it’s certainly not recognised by the leaders of some of those countries.”

Owen says she has always been interested in development aid – in the 1980s, then-Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald appointed her as chair of a committee on developing countries, and she joined the board of Trócaire after losing her Dáil seat in 1987. In 2003 she joined the board of Concern.

Owen says that although the agenda is mostly about areas of conflict and post conflict, it was also important that problems disproportionately affecting women in Ireland, such as Direct Provision, must be addressed before Ireland looks at issues in other countries.

When I took over for the second [Action Plan] it coincided with a growth in more migrants seeking asylum and to be minded here. And so I felt as a Group, we had to take that issue on board, because whatever about telling other countries how they deal with conflict, we had now a set of people who needed to be cared for in Ireland. 

She said that the group has raised issues faced by women in Direct Provision with the Department of Justice. When asked what these were, Owen said that the Department of Justice were already looking at issues of forced marriages and domestic violence in DP centres.  

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“I sent several letters to the Department, to the HSE, to the Department of Justice, to the Department of Education – we tried to stimulate across government the recognition that Women Peace and Security involved them – it wasn’t just Foreign Affairs.”

She said that things have improved in Direct Provision centres, but adds “it’s not right yet”.

“My role was to make sure we here in Ireland are delivering by making sure that there weren’t people in our country that are not being taken care of,” adding that the Group would keep “a watchful eye” on what happens in Direct Provision centres.

Owen says that achieving peace in Northern Ireland is a template and an example that is valuable for other areas of conflict around the world, and cites that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and its founder Monica McWilliams “was very involved” in the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

I think where the pressure has to come on, is on leaders of countries where there’s conflict – they must recognise that if they want to have a Good Friday Agreement-type peace agreement, then they must involve the women of their country in that. They can’t just keep ignoring those needs.

Owen is quite frank on the limits of the WPS agenda, too. On Lebanon, for example, there is no minimum age for marriage, and – as was written about here as part of TheJournal.ie-Simon Cumbers series of articles on Lebanon – it has a serious impact on women. 

Replied Owen: “The problem is there are a lot of traditional actions in many countries that are very definitely ones that we would not allow – like multiple marriages, and early child marriage. 

“I remember being in Botswana many years ago and hearing two men talking about their brother who had died, and one of them was saying ‘Well I’m taking the wife, she’s coming to me’.

“And I was appalled and I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘Oh yes that’s what we do here, we take over, and she becomes another wife to me whether she wants or not’. Religious leaders need to be involved in recognising that the world has moved on from a lot of these traditions.”

But the only way you can make those changes is not interfering, but participating in roundtable discussions where people are sitting down – even with countries that you and I mightn’t want to.
At the end of the day, if they’re not talking, they’re not making the changes that are necessary. You find a format that you can talk to people without lecturing them: ‘We had to make these changes in our country – we usen’t to allow women to go back to work in the civil service after they got married – we changed that law now.’ You use your own experience to try and move people on in their lives.
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Gráinne Ní Aodha

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