When most Americans think of war, the images that come to mind are typically of weapon-wielding men pushing forward on a far-off battlefield, dodging enemy bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs.
Kate Gilmore, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of the New York City-based United Nations Population Fund, is trying to broaden those perceptions. She wants discussions of war to include recognition of the often devastating impacts that armed conflicts have on a group of routinely ignored victims: women and the children they care for.
“Our common perceptions of war and peace don’t always work for women,” Gilmore said in an interview Friday at the Sun Valley Lodge. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is war?’ Since World War II, most victims of war have been women and children.”
Gilmore was in Sun Valley last weekend for the annual Family of Woman Film Festival, a benefit organized by Sun Valley resident Peggy Goldwyn for the United Nations Population Fund. The UNFPA is an international development agency that seeks to improve the lives of youths and women across the globe. Gilmore delivered an opening address for the festival Thursday, Feb. 28, on the topic of war and its impacts on women, the theme of this year’s festival.
To Gilmore, discussions of war too often ignore the tragedies that happen off the battlefield, and too rarely allow women to contribute to conversations about how to resolve armed conflicts and how to lessen the number of civilian victims.
THE RAVAGES OF CONFLICT
When people contemplate war, they generally don’t think about the incidents of rape and sexual violence that occur on the sidelines, Gilmore said. She pointed out that conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and some recent conflicts in Africa left tens of thousands of women and girls as victims of rape.
“These problems just aren’t recognized,” she said.
Studies have estimated that in the Kosovo War—merely one of several ethnic wars that occurred as Yugoslavia broke apart—at least 20,000 women were raped, Gilmore said. Then, after peace “broke out,” Gilmore said, the region became a hub for sex trafficking, with women and girls being shipped abroad to serve as enslaved prostitutes.
In the processes of negotiating peace, problems such as sexual violence are left out of the agreements, she said, and funding to alleviate those problems is rarely procured. The United Nations is working to change that, she said.
RAPE IN THE MILITARY
One of the films featured in the festival, “The Invisible War,” puts the spotlight on another prevalent but often ignored crime against women: rape in the U.S. military. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category.
In the film, it is stated that an estimated 16,150 U.S. military service members were raped in 2009. A woman in our nation’s military is more likely to be raped than to be killed by enemy fire, the film says.
Gilmore told the Express that she believes the problem is not being properly addressed, despite the fact that women are more integrated into the military than ever before.
“Rape is often trivialized, not believed,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is sort of deeply hardwired in our culture.”
Gilmore also touched on the subject while speaking to an assembly of Blaine County students Friday afternoon in Hailey.
“I told the kids that each of us needs to take a stand against these things,” she said.
Gilmore said she wanted the students to understand that each one of them is ultimately responsible for their own behavior—that positive outcomes are connected to “their values and their convictions.”
“No one has the right to demean someone else’s physical and emotional integrity,” she said.
WORK OF THE UNFPA
Gilmore and the UNFPA face a veritable laundry list of challenges in trying to bring health, dignity and freedom to millions of people living in war-torn or poverty-stricken nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Currently, she said, the agency is focusing on family planning and the millions of at-risk adolescents in the world.
Proper access to family-planning services is a key component to women’s health, Gilmore said. Toward that end, the UNFPA is making a push to get modern contraceptives to women in underdeveloped areas. A lack of access to good contraceptives, she said, leads to high rates of mortality in women. However, even if supplies and funding are provided, getting the resources to the right points on the globe isn’t always easy, she said.
“That is the real challenge,” she said.
Then, there are the hurdles associated with talking about sex.
“The best thing we can do is to get over our squeamishness,” Gilmore said. “We need to get over it. Make it safe. Sexual prohibition is nonsense.”
The UNFPA’s commitment to helping adolescents comes with an admirable tenet. In Gilmore’s words, it is that “everyone deserves a safe passage from childhood to adulthood.”
Young girls are particularly vulnerable, Gilmore said, because of their emerging sexual identity. She said many girls are forced into marriage at an age at which their bodies are still insufficiently developed to handle pregnancy.
“Becoming pregnant when you’re too young can be tantamount to a death sentence,” she said. “We need to give people a chance to get to adulthood.”
Despite dire predictions from researchers about the consequences of the world’s rapidly upward-trending human population, the UNFPA does not list or talk about target numbers that might allow long-term sustainability. Doing that, Gilmore said, can lead to a variety of human-rights abuses, including forced sterility and forced abortion.
“Great cruelty lies down that path,” she said. “The problem is the absence of choice.”
Having choices—about food, about reproduction and about where to live—brings down fertility rates, Gilmore said. But, in the end, she said, the threats that humans pose to the planet—and their own future—are not related to numbers.
“The greater threat is human behavior—too much consumption,” she said. “The world could sustain many more people in Africa right now, but not North Americans. Not the way we live.”
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