Empowerment of Under-represented Groups

Some individuals and groups in society share common characteristics that make them more susceptible to 'falling through the cracks.' These groups run the risk of being excluded and disadvantaged by programs designed to address the majority, not to take into consideration the specific needs, positions, and interests of different populations. The individuals concerned are most likely to slip through the net of peacebuilding programs and become (or be reinforced) in their status of social outcasts who, for many of them, barely survive on the margins of society. Indeed, "socially vulnerable people are likely to be more affected by an armed conflict[...]. However, they are often left behind in post-conflict recovery and reconstruction and are unlikely to capture peace dividends. Unless support for these people who need special assistance is implemented immediately after a conflict, they will not be socially integrated into a post-conflict society. In this case, these vulnerable people could become a burden on economic and social development in a mid- to long-term perspective, and in turn, this could lead to fixed disparities in socioeconomic status." 1

Women have often been found in that position as, traditionally, many formal peacebuilding activities and policies were gender blind, overlooking the meaning and role of gender and gender relations in the peacebuilding process, as well as the specific needs, concerns and experiences of women in the aftermath of violent conflict. This concern has gradually led to the recognition that gender mainstreaming is crucial as a strategy to support both gender equality and peace. The notion of empowerment is central in that approach and emphasizes that women should be considered in their full capacity of key actors, and be able to formulate and express their views and participate in decision-making processes.

Other groups in post-conflict societies face similar challenges. Among them are children and youth who have been more easily perceived as agents or victims of violence, rather than being identified and acknowledged as having an active role as peacebuilders. As for women, the notion of youth empowerment and the call for their full participation in post-conflict recovery processes has now been endorsed by most actors. However, experience proves that it is not always easy to maintain the balance between the need for protection of individuals and groups particularly at risk in face of some forms of violence, on the one hand, and the imperatives of empowerment, on the other hand.

The same is true of persons with disabilities, the last group considered in that section. They too have both particular needs and capacities which are often forgotten in the design and implementation of peacebuilding programs. That these people do have capacity to contribute to, and participate in, recovery programs is the clear message and experience of those who push for their better inclusion.

The link hereby established between the situation of women, children & youth, and persons with disabilities in peacebuilding processes does not imply a conflation in analysis. The specific situation of each group is actually addressed in three distinct subsections:
However, it is not by pure chance that their situation is often compared in the peacebuilding literature and that they are often referred to as both the most affected by war violence and the most forgotten and at times 'invisible' in peacebuilding processes.

The literature on these groups highlights that it is insufficient for the purposes of mainstreaming to simply add on components to existing activities. Rather, scholars and practitioners argue such issues should beat the centre of policy decisions, programming, institutional structures and processes, so that all components of a post-conflict society can influence, participate in and benefit from peacebuilding processes. This may require changes in organizations, structures, procedures, but also cultures, relationships, values, attitudes, to create organizational environments which are inclusive and conducive to the promotion of equality and, ultimately, more favorable to peace.

This introductory section briefly defines a number of key notions that are referred to throughout the discussion of these issues and how they may apply to each topic:
  • Vulnerability
  • Discrimination
  • Protection
  • Empowerment
Further elements regarding definitions and conceptual issues are developed in each subsection.

Some common challenges referring to the three subtopics are also summarized at the end of this overview.

The notion of vulnerability

There is no single approach to the definition of vulnerability and the notion itself is contested. Individuals concerned can also display remarkable strengths and assert themselves as genuine actors with an agenda, resources, and strategies. In other terms, no individual is 'vulnerable' as such. In practice, practitioners generally identify groups as vulnerable on the basis of contextual circumstances. This overview offers a few elements about:
  • How to understand vulnerability;
  • How to assess vulnerability;
  • Who may be considered as particularly vulnerable in peacebuilding contexts.

How to understand vulnerability

Vulnerability generally refers to substantial obstacles of equal access by certain populations that prevent those individuals from protecting their own interests owing to such impediments as a lack of available resources, access to services, or subordinate position in the group. As a consequence, individuals and groups often find it difficult to advocate for, or provide for all of their needs themselves, and must rely on others for at least some support services.2 Though the degree and type of vulnerability vary over time and are highly contextual, generally these individuals experience greater insecurity than the majority of the population, with a higher probability of negative outcome, loss, discrimination, violation of their rights and welfare. This distinction is not always easy to make as widespread violence may seem to affect everybody in a society, without distinction. Yet, those who already live in vulnerable circumstances in peace-time are also often the most affected by wars. Their livelihood can go from bad to worse. This implies that vulnerability is a relative state a multifaceted continuum between resilience and absolute helplessness.

How to assess vulnerability

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suggests a basic distinction between vulnerability arising from physical characteristics and vulnerability arising from social, economic, political and cultural factors.3 Because of ICRC's mandate, this distinction is based on international humanitarian law but it can also be useful for peacebuilding contexts.

Vulnerability arising from physical characteristics

Under international humanitarian as well as human rights law, rights of all groups are upheld, amongst which are women, children, youth, and the disabled. The focus is put on eliminating barriers that prevent any group from accessing their human rights. For example, women and children are the object of special respect and must be protected in particular against all forms of indecent assault.4 Such special protection is also granted to children because of their age (their physical and mental immaturity, their limited abilities and their dependency on adults), whereas in the case of women it is granted in consideration of their specific health, hygiene and physiological needs and their roles as mothers.

People with disabilities and their families are considered vulnerable on the same grounds.5 They also can represent a large group in post-conflict contexts. In particular, in a heavily mine-affected country or a country plagued by prolonged conflict, there are a great number of people who are physically disabled or mentally traumatized; those pertaining to this last category, in particular, may be more easily 'invisible.' This latter group and individuals within it are not considered 'vulnerable' per se, but in certain circumstances, owing to lack of equal access to services based upon their physical characteristics and specific needs, may be regarded as such.

Finally, it is useful to distinguish between those that are 'war wounded' --that is, their disability has been a consequence of conflict-- and other disabled people.6 The diversity in circumstances can impact the type of vulnerability and recovery, as well the choice of modalities to empower the individuals concerned in the peacebuilding process. For instance, among individuals with physical disabilities, land mine survivors (and others who have been harmed by weapons) and persons born with developmental exceptionalities tend to be placed in the same categories whereas they may have different needs as well as resources in terms of managing their impairment.

Vulnerability arising from social, economic, political and cultural factors

Vulnerability may become exacerbated when changes in the social and political environment heighten inequalities toward specific groups. Such changes are commonplace occurrences in armed conflicts and situations of internal disturbances. The particular circumstances of each context and the situation of each group or individual determine who is truly vulnerable. Those who are vulnerable in one context may not be so in another. For example, widows may benefit from solidarity mechanisms in some contexts and be stigmatized in others. In assessing a population's vulnerability, one should therefore take into account socio-economic factors such as employment (or income), human assets (access to education and health care), housing, socio-economic roles and their distribution within households, social assets (solidarity networks, reciprocal relations between households, relations with the State and private institutions), but also political and cultural contexts.

On that basis, the vulnerability of different groups-- whether male, female, elderly, infant, etc.-- will differ according to their exposure to a given problem and their access to tools needed to tackle that issue. A thorough needs assessment is therefore required in all cases to take into consideration specific circumstances (sometimes at a very micro-level) that shape the degree of vulnerability and hence the type of action necessary.

Who is potentially vulnerable in peacebuilding contexts

Support for socially vulnerable people in peacebuilding assistance targets those physically disabled or traumatized by armed conflict, and those classified as 'socially vulnerable' even in pre-conflict periods, including people with disabilities and the war wounded, children and youth (in particular former child soldiers and war orphans), women and other socially marginalized people.7

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The notion of discrimination

Discrimination means that girls and women, children and youth, and persons with disabilities do not have access to the same opportunities as other individuals in the society for education, jobs training, employment, meaningful careers, political influence, and economic advancement. This lack of equal access is often exacerbated by violence.

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Protection of rights

Protection of rights refers to all actions aimed at ensuring that women, children and youth, and persons with disabilities get their rights protected. Protection activities aim at preventing or putting a stop to a specific pattern of abuse or violence (for instance sexual and gender-based violence) and/or alleviates its immediate effects; restoring people's dignity and ensuring adequate living conditions through reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation; fostering an environment conducive to respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the relevant bodies of law. Protection of rights activities "may include responsive action, remedial action and environment-building and may be carried out concurrently."8

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The notion of empowerment

Empowerment is generally defined as a bottom-up and participatory process that engages the actors concerned in reflection, inquiry, and action. Devising coherent policies and programs for individuals' empowerment requires careful attention, because external agencies/bodies tend to be positioned with power-over target populations. Identically, empowerment requires an understanding of power relations in a given community. International actors can support individual and collective empowerment in a number of ways, including: supporting specific organizations which work to advance the causes of specific groups in society and promote equality, promoting individual and groups' participation in peacebuilding processes and supporting their capacity building, fostering dialogue between those in positions of power and those who may be discriminated, etc.

The rationale of empowerment approaches is that those are not only valuable in themselves and beneficial for the individuals and groups concerned but are also perceived as the surest way to contribute to the overall peace and development.9 In other words, the notion of empowerment refers to mechanisms to ensure that all individuals can exercise their responsibility as citizens and be engaged in the peacebuilding process as equal members of society. It also recognizes that values the potential for contribution to the progress by all. In that perspective, empowerment also entails paying attention of ownership issues. 10

Finally, the writing presents a short summary of some of the key debates and implementation challenges discussed by academics, practitioners and policymakers in relation to the process of fully including persons with disabilities in peacebuilding processes. In brief, these challenges highlight: the diversity of disabilities; the importance of a holistic approach; the importance of a community-based approach; the importance of active participation in the different stages of peacebuilding programs; the practical constraints of approaches centered on this group. These elements and other dimensions of the concrete implementation of the persons with disabilities agenda are detailed in the key documents and the wide range of guidelines presented at the end of this section.

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Common challenges in empowerment practices

Five general debates are summarized here; they are addressed in greater detail and with some variation in each subsection:

  • The underestimation of ongoing change in the societies concerned;
  • The need to acknowledge the diversity of individual situations;
  • The respect for local resources and cultures;
  • The importance of community ownership;
  • The material limits of current practices.

Underestimating pre-existing challenges

Discourses often refer to the idea of 'restoring' or 'returning to' something associated with the status quo before the war. However, in many situations, war and violence have been going on for several decades and influence local cultural systems. Changes brought by war may become structural, and additional transformations may be brought by peacebuilding programs. Those changes maybe uneven and put some individuals and groups in the society (such as women and youth for instance) at greater disadvantage than in the past, or, on the contrary expand their role, depending on which area of their life is concerned. These non linear evolutions need to be fully taken into consideration when working on empowerment programs.

The diversity of situations

At times it is difficult to keep identical attention to the needs of each individual and take into consideration the diversity of their experiences. Indeed, there might be a tendency to aggregate each group's experiences (as women, children, youth, disabled persons, refugees, former combatants, etc.), forgetting the diversity of positions and circumstances individuals face. The same applies to communities. As a result, some categories of persons may have access to less information and fewer services, and become even more 'invisible' and 'hidden' from public view.

The importance of a community-based approach

Community-based approaches are thought to be the most successful to address the situations of most vulnerable and underrepresented groups, as they are the most inclusive. In particular, this ensures that the members of the targeted group are not the only one to benefit from the initiative as other members of the community are also affected by their work and encouraged by their example. Researchers and practitioners alike have also stressed the importance of approaching the situation of each individual in a holistic manner that embraces the family, the community and local cultural conditions.

The respect for local resources and cultures

It is essential for those working in post-conflict societies to fully grasp the nature of the conflict, including the roles of victims, perpetrators, and by-standers.11 Indeed, without contextual insight, it is difficult to mobilize resources and help people cope with their life and build a future. Most practitioners also emphasize the importance of designing programs and interventions that are culturally appropriate and sensitive, taking into consideration communities frames of reference and strategies.12

The respect for local resources and belief systems also requires that their diversity be understood and acknowledged. The literature now largely emphasizes the need to address those cultural dimensions, and the necessity to take on a 'do no harm' (DNH) approach,13 i.e. to be cognizant of the unintended consequences some aid programs may have, especially with respect to the situation of vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

One key issue across programs has to do with who decides what the local 'cultural resources' and norms are and presents them to outsiders. This relates not only to an understanding of power dynamics within these societies, but also the strengths and liabilities inherent. Local norms and customs may be, but are not necessarily, supportive of peacebuilding and human rights. It is useful for external actors to be particularly aware of this source of tension and put in place informed identification processes and mechanisms that allow for discussion at the community level. Indeed, without breaking down the structures present during conflict, as well as the support of outside perspectives, "local communities may remain trapped in the power of war-based structures of thought, with little to move them to another perspective."14 It is also important to move beyond simplistic, and at times essentialist visions of what constitutes cultures and so-called 'traditions' and looking at the way these traditions are constantly changing and being changed according to evolutions in the societies in which they are embedded, in particular under the lobbying of both women and men, children and youth, and persons with disabilities.15

The importance of community ownership

It is widely agreed that community ownership is essential for effective and sustainable psycho-social processes. However, a differentiation between involvement and actual ownership must be made. Empowerment practices do not always ensure an actual inclusion of the individuals and groups concerned at every stage of the peacebuilding process, from strategic planning to the assessments of programs. However, the different subsections provide concrete examples of experiences that have supported actual ownership process. They also show the multiple ways women, children and youth, and persons with disabilities participate in the community life and the different aspects of the peacebuilding process.

Limits of current practices

Programs aiming at empowering women, children and youth, as well as disabled people often suffer from insufficient funding and short-term perspectives. Too often, these concerns also fail to be actually integrated in policies and programs from the outset; beyond the relative increase of attention to these groups of population, most programs targeting them are merely ads-on. In other cases-- like for persons with disabilities-- aid organizations have partly adapted their rhetoric to integrate the vocabulary in regard to integrating persons with disabilities into their policies, but this is still not sufficiently implemented.16 In all cases, huge gaps persist in knowledge and expertise available soon enough and in sufficient quantity to actually inform peacebuilding processes.

As a reflection of the evolution of analyses and practices, a wide range of key documents and guidelines are presented as part of each subsection.

1. Source: JICA. "JICA Thematic Guidelines on Peacebuilding Assistance." 2003.
2. SCAN Report. "Service Community Assessment of Needs." (accessed October 5, 2008), 47.
3. ICRC."Women in War: A particularly Vulnerable Group?"
4. See articles 76 and 77 of Protocol I additional to the 1977 Geneva Conventions.
5. United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
6. Communication with Maria Kett (5 December 2008).
7. Source: JICA. . "JICA Thematic Guidelines on Peacebuilding Assistance." 2003.
8. ICRC. "Workshop on the Development of Human Rights Training for Humanitarian Actors." International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 2001.
9. UNDP. "Human Development Report." New York: UNDP 1995, p. 12.
10. Communication with Tirza Leibowitz and Nerina Cevra, Survivor Corps (8 December 2008).
11. Lykes, M. Brinton and Marcie Mersky, "Reparations and Mental Health." (In by Pablo De Grieff, ed, 589-622, The Handbook of Reparations, New York: 2006); Staub, Ervin. "Reconciliation after Genocide, Mass Killing, or Intractable Conflict: Understanding the Roots of Violence, Psychosocial Recovery, and Steps toward a General Theory." Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 6, 2006.
12.See for instance N. Boothby, "Working in the War Zone: A Look at Psychological Theory and Practice from the Field," in Mind and Interaction 2 (1990), 30-36.
13. Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support PeaceOr War (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1999), 38.
14. Culbertson, Roberta and Batrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining peace after mass crime: A dialogical exchange between insider and outsider knowledge" (In Pouligny et al., eds., After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities,Tokyo / New York: United Nations University Press, 2007), 281-284.
15. Roberta Culbertson and Beatrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining peace after mass crime: A dialogical exchange between insider and outside knowledge," 273-274.
16. BEZEV, Documentation of the International Conference: Disasters Are Always Inclusive! Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Emergency Situations (Notes on the conference Disasters are always inclusive!, Disability and Development Cooperation, Bonn, Germany, November 7-8, 2007).

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