The Shameful Neglect Of Angola's Women

International help is needed as UN peacekeepers leave a war-torn land

The world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force will start to leave Angola next month. It has been there for the past two years, ensuring that Angola's government and rebel UNITA forces abide by the peace agreement, known as the Lusaka Protocol, which called for a cease-fire, a massive demobilization effort, and the creation of a new, joint army. The country is vast - larger than California, Texas, and Arizona combined - with the United Nations forces spread out across eight areas where demobilized soldiers are being quartered.

A Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children delegation visited Angola last month to look at the humanitarian response to Angola's 30-year war and to investigate whether women and children are getting help. As in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Chechnya, families bore the brunt of the violence, but women are not included in the peace negotiations nor the planning of humanitarian relief programs.

One of the women we met was Albertina, a mother whose family disappeared in 1984. She remembers the day clearly. She was in her house caring for her nine-year-old daughter who had stayed home from school because of a cold, when their village came under mortar attack. Bombs began exploding in her backyard, and Albertina bundled up her daughter and ran into the street. Dozens of her neighbors were running east, toward the border with Zaire.

Along the way to Zaire, Albertina searched for her two sons and her husband. At one point in her journey, as she begged for food by the side of the road, she found her brother-in-law and his family. They took her in and continued on their way to Zaire. Albertina was still without word of her husband or her sons.

Longing for lost sons

After a year in Zaire, Albertina decided to move on to Zambia, on word that the refugees from Angola were more welcome there. For 10 years Albertina lived in a refugee camp in Zambia. In 1995, better odds for peace were beginning to coax refugees to return to Angola.

Albertina left with her daughter and walked 100 miles back to her home in Moxico province. She learned only a few months ago that her husband had been killed the day their town was attacked 13 years ago. Recently Albertina met a farmer who had lost his family during the war and they married. And her daughter, now 21, has also married. But Albertina says she still longs for peace of mind, which will come only when she finds her two sons.

Albertina's story is echoed by thousands, perhaps millions of others in Angola, which has been wrecked by the decades of war. Although no census has been conducted in 20 years, almost every official we asked remarked that the majority of Angolans are female, and most families are headed by women. But Angola's women are largely illiterate, without political power and afraid to speak out.

In dozens of interviews with international humanitarian organizations, United Nations donor agencies, and government officials, we heard of millions of dollars spent on the demobilization of soldiers, the trucking and transportation of young men after they shed their uniforms, and the building up of vocational schools, but few efforts directed toward women.

Help from Canada and Sweden

Caritas, the local Catholic church program, sponsors a literacy course for women.

Development Workshop, a Canadian development organization, is studying the role of women in the marketplace and pushing hard for the Angolan government to make changes in their policies so women will have more access to goods and services.

The Swedish government is supporting projects to train government ministries about the need to provide services for women in communities, as well as a study on violence against women and how to address this growing problem in Angola.

These types of efforts need expansion and duplication if they are going to change the lives of women, their families, and their communities. We spoke to a group of women who had returned to the country after 12 years in exile.

"If we speak out for peace we will be killed," said one. "It is not our place to tell the political leaders what to do. We pray. If God believes we should have peace, He will make it so."

The United Nations and the international community have done a remarkable job helping to hold together a fragile peace. Angola still has an opportunity to tap its vast reserves of oil, diamonds, and minerals.

But Angola's greatest treasure is its people - women, men, and children - and the nation will profit only if we invest in all of them.

* Mary Diaz, director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and Sandra Sennett Tully, a consultant to many nongovernmental organizations and CARE's representative at the United Nations, participated in a Women's Commission fact-finding delegation to Angola in December.

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