As Australia takes the world stage, it’s time to fulfil promises to Afghan and Syrian women

Australia is well-placed on the world stage to make a real difference to the lives of Afghanistan’s women. Jalil Rezayee/EPA

Today, the world marks International Women’s Day, recognising the equal rights and status of women.

This year, Australia is significantly placed on the world stage to make a real difference to women’s lives - particularly in Afghanistan - by ensuring they are actively represented in all peace negotiations.

The Australian government has not only secured a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) but also a seat on UN Women Executive Board.

These represent two internationally significant avenues through which the Australian government can fulfil its promise to bring women to the peace table, furthering the agenda of the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

This agenda mandates under international law that women should be represented at and actively participate in all peace negotiations, as well as making binding international commitments to eliminate violence against women and protect women’s rights.

To leverage the opportunity of Australia’s growing international role, we co-founded the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective, with the aim of ensuring that the Australian government upholds the commitments it made towards the WPS agenda during its UN Council seat campaign last year.

In his bid, Foreign Minister Bob Carr made specific use of the WPS agenda to enhance Australia’s bid for non-permanent membership. In its candidature brochure produced for the campaign, the government acknowledges that “women are powerful agents of change for peace and security” and drew attention to the ways in which Australia has supported the development of the Women, Peace and Security agenda over the years.

These included co-sponsoring UNSC Resolutions 1820 and 1888 which recognised that sexual violence was a tactic of war and threatened the potential for sustainable peace.

So we call today for the Australian government to act on its support of these initiatives to end violence against women and to become champion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, both at the UNSC and at home.

One area Australia can “flex its muscle” is Afghanistan, post-2014 troop withdrawal.

Last month, the Afghan-Australian Development Organisation (AADO) hosted a delegation from Afghanistan at a three-day roundtable in Melbourne to discuss the role of Afghan women in peace, reconciliation and transition processes.

Australian foreign minister Bob Carr casts his vote for the election of five non-permanent members of the Security Council at the United Nations on18 October 2012. Carr made specific use of the Women, Peace and Security agenda to enhance Australia’s bid for non-permanent membership. Andrew Gombert/EPA

Among the recommendations was for Australia to make women’s rights in Afghanistan a core priority during its Security Council term, and to prioritise gender equality in AusAID’s new Country Strategy for Afghanistan, focusing on the participation and representation of women.

Australia must now garner the political will to enact its stated commitment to women’s rights in Afghanistan at the highest levels.

There is an open debate on Afghanistan at the UN Security Council for 19 March, and the Australian government should use this opportunity to put the issues of women’s participation in peacebuilding, violence prevention and the protection of women’s rights on the agenda of this debate.

Further, the Australian government should host an “Arria formula” meeting to highlight the positive impacts of prioritising gender equality during and after conflict during their Presidency of the Security Council in September. This will build the international consensus to actually implement Security Council resolutions that require women to be included and represented at peace talks and on peace negotiation teams.

In addition, the UN has offered to broker peace talks between the current Syrian regime and the oppositional forces. Australia must, in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, champion the WPS agenda in the context of these negotiations.

At a minimum, we expect that the UNSC will respectively request and mandate that women experts on women’s rights in Syria are included in the UN-Syrian peace talks. Australia must make efforts and direct representations to ensure this commitment is upheld in any forthcoming peace talks around Syria.

Two days ago in New York Australia’s Minister for the Status of Women, Julie Collins stated her government’s “unwavering commitment to a safer world for women and girls”.

We call on the Australian government to uphold these principles in the Security Council.

This is an election year and critics have suggested the Gillard Government has a record of spin over substance on the issue of gender equity.

The government has a chance both to prove its critics wrong and to honour the promises it made to its voting public. Should the Australian government fail to live up to its promised commitments, we call on the Australian public to hold its representatives to account.