William & Mary

Symposium highlights role of women in building post-war constitutions

  • Post-conflict constitution building:
    Post-conflict constitution building:  Professor Christie Warren (left) director of the Law School's Center for Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, served as the symposium's moderator. Speakers included, from left, Justice Gresa Caka-Nimani of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo; April Powell-Willingham, former director of the U.N. Office of Constitutional and Legislative Affairs in Baghdad and former head of the U.N. Joint Constitution Unit for Somalia; and Melanie Allen J.D. '21, former project director for International IDEA’s Constitution Building Processes Programme at the Hague.  Photo by David F. Morrill
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In 1946, Beate Sirota Gordon, a 22-year-old naturalized American citizen living in occupied post-war Japan, participated alongside U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the drafting process of Japan’s post-war constitution. Over the course of seven days, Gordon wrote two clauses enshrining women’s equality and equal civil rights for women, including in financial, marital and family issues.

Since then, women have been working in conflict and post-conflict settings for many years, advising on constitutional issues in war-torn environments that are often difficult and dangerous. On Nov. 12, the Center for Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (CLS/PCP) at William & Mary Law School hosted a symposium that shined a spotlight on the substantive constitutional work women have been doing for decades in countries recovering from conflict.

During her opening remarks, Christie S. Warren, professor of the practice of international and comparative law and director of CLS/PCP, emphasized that women who do this work are — and have to be — tough. Conditions are not easy, and the fields of constitutional law and post-conflict constitution building remain mostly male-dominated.

April Powell-Willingham, former director of the United Nations Office of Constitutional and Legislative Affairs in Baghdad and former head of the United Nations Joint Constitution Unit for Somalia, began with a question for the standing-room-only audience: “How can those in a society overcome fear and suspicion amongst themselves in order to build trust and move forward in peace?” This question has arisen time and again in the countries in which she continues to work, most recently in Afghanistan and South Sudan. Building trust may not seem like a priority immediately following conflict, genocide or war crimes, but its absence negatively impacts progress on the substantive work involved in constitution building, including with issues such as federal frameworks, institution building, decentralization and capacity building, she said.

Gresa Caka-Nimani, justice of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, provided an account of the constitutional process in her country, which coincided with the drafters’ gradual realization that inaction by the Security Council would necessitate a declaration of Kosovo’s independence. Discussions with the Albanian majority and Serb and other minority groups about options for decentralization, rights for minority groups and control of the narrative of the conflict — which reached an apex during heated disagreements about the contents of the preamble to the new constitution — were contentious and, at times, dangerous. Caka-Nimani, who traveled from Pristina for the symposium, stated that contributions by international actors were useful during the constitutional process both to provide a framework of international standards while also mitigating passions of the drafters, many of whom had lost family members during the war.

Melanie Allen, former project director for International IDEA’s Constitution Building Processes Programme at the Hague and a current first-year student at W&M Law School, spoke of the need for inclusivity, not merely participation, during constitutional processes, as well as in the wording of the constitution itself. Allen, author of "Constitution Assessment for Women’s Equality" and former interim director of IDEA’s Nepal office, emphasized that language alone does not guarantee or even necessarily promote gender equality in constitutions. Instead, each constitutional issue must be analyzed for its substantive impact on women’s development, or lack thereof, especially in post-conflict environments, she said.

The symposium, made possible, in part, by generous funding from the Reves Center for International Studies at William & Mary, was moderated by Warren, who is the founding director of CLS/PCP. Warren has advised on constitutional processes in Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Somalia, Sudan and Ukraine and served as the 2010–2011 senior expert in constitutional issues for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs Mediation Support Standby Team.

Learn more about the Center for Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding by visiting the website.