By Megan Cooley
Monday, May 7, 2001
Lost children staggering in the Sudan desert, Russian conscripts dying in the snow, young South African villagers massacred by white policemen--all of them are gathered to the bosom of activist mothers who nurture, forgive and shape the future.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)--Orphaned children wandering aimlessly through the desert are a byproduct of 46 years of war in Sudan, and when women in one village saw the child refugees, their instincts spurred them to help. These women, some as young as 16 and many not yet biological mothers, collected the lost children and adopted them as blood relatives, despite resistance from authorities.
Providing homes to orphaned and unaccompanied children and easing some of the suffering in Sudan has been the task of many Mobilized Mothers, part of an international movement of women who believe that determined women working together in civil society can make a difference in war-torn societies.
"When the men fight, women and children mostly suffer," said Atema Eclai, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former trainer in conflict resolution in Kenya. "So the women organized and collected the roaming children."
Because the mothers accepted the children wholeheartedly as family, the Sudanese government was forced to recognize them as such. And when village elders weren't convinced, the women sang songs of acceptance and peace--persistently--until authorities agreed.
"What is green pasture if our sisters and brothers are fighting?" Eclai sang in her native tongue--one of the powerful songs of belonging--during a roundtable discussion about women making a difference here this weekend.
Eclai was one of three mobilized mothers who told compelling stories about their peace-making and community-building in their homelands, demonstrating that women can bring about change, even in some of the most desperate conflicts in the world.
The women were brought together by Swanee Hunt, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and current director of the Women Waging Peace program, an international collaborative based at Harvard University. The program aims to touch and mobilize students and is part of the 2001 Harvard Colloquium on International Affairs. Hunt's program promotes women's active participation in the public policy process by sponsoring conferences, conducting research and bringing together women facing similar adversity around the globe.
"Mobilized Mothers" describes hundreds of organizations that are led by women trying to influence foreign policy outcomes in conflict situations. Women are increasingly influential in nongovernment organizations, often steered by women, and they occupy senior government positions with growing frequency, according to the Women Waging Peace program.
At the roundtable, the mobilized mothers spoke of human rights issues and, at the conclusion, U.S. Rep. Michael Everett Capuano, D-Mass., argued that human rights has been ignored in U.S. electoral politics.
"The American people right now, in my opinion, have focused on the wrong things," said Capuano. During his two election campaigns, his own constituents in the Boston area--a group he called among the best-educated in the country--never questioned him on his positions on human rights violations in the United States or abroad.
Russian activist Ida Kuklina, told stories of abuse of Russian soldiers at the hands of their officers. Kuklina, secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, described one winter day when she witnessed stray dogs eating the corpses of troops left in the snow in Chechnya.
"There are no human rights for soldiers," said Kuklina, whose organization provides relief to 40,000 young men and their families each year. "The boys are dying even in the peaceful time."
Kuklina's Moscow office serves as the hub for the 300 committees nationwide. In an interview, she described her three-room office as a revolving door of activity and emotion. Mothers line up inside and outside the building to lodge complaints of abuse committed against their sons.
A single handcuff hanging on the wall reminds the volunteer staff of an 18-year-old soldier who came to them after escaping his superiors miles away. Officers handcuffed the man to a heating system as punishment for a minor offense, said Kuklina. For three days they neglected and did not feed him. The soldier managed to free himself from one handcuff and jump from the building, breaking his legs in the fall. Once he reached the committee's offices he received help, and now he serves as a symbol to weary volunteers.
Russian men, required to serve in the military from ages 18 to 21, often are sent to fight Muslim rebels in Chechnya. According to Kuklina, military service is brutal and chaotic: Soldiers regularly die from starvation and torture at the hands of officers. Others are maimed in accidental and combat explosions.
"We are mothers and every mother has a right to defend her child," said Kuklina.
The committees fight to abolish involuntary conscription, reform military practices and force the state to accept responsibility for conscripts' well-being. They also provide medical treatment, basic provisions and other needs of demobilized soldiers.
While Kuklina spoke of mothers as protectors, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of South Africa discussed the role of mothers as forgivers.
"Forgiveness is essential to the transition from vengeful citizens to caring citizens," said Gobodo-Madikizela, a former member of the Human Rights Violations Committee of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Gobodo-Madikizela described a 1996 incident in which several black villagers were ambushed and murdered by white police officers. Families only learned of their sons' deaths as the news was broadcast on television. The footage, promoted by police as a victory against terrorism, showed the men being shot at close range.
While the massacre of their sons caused tremendous grief, the mothers accepted the ambush leader's apology years later before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "'My child, you are the same age as my child,'" Gobodo-Madikizela quoted another mother as saying of the young man who murdered her son. "'I forgive you with all my heart.'"
Gobodo-Madikizela added that the role forgiveness played in the mothers managing their grief.
"How do you maintain balance? To forgive," Gobodo-Madikizela told the audience. "When someone shows remorse, that person invites you to show humanity. If you don't respond with empathy, you're closing the door to possibility for transformation."
Hunt, who organized the discussion, recognized the power of motherhood, whether actual or symbolic.
"Women are using motherhood as a theme," she said. "It unites women across divisions."
Congressman Capuano praised the panelists' courage in the face of atrocity.
"You have to be angry and you have to be willing to fight," he said. "I don't know if I'd have the courage to fight on the level you women have."
As the United States' version of Mother's Day approaches and children scramble to buy cards and buy gifts, Kuklina recalled a gift an appreciative soldier sent the mothers in her office.
The man had lost both arms and both legs while serving in the Russian army and Kuklina was able to provide him with a prosthetic arm. To practice using his new arm, the boy cut thousands of paper flowers and presented her with a bouquet.
Megan Cooley is a journalist in Boston, Mass., covering community, social, education and women's issues.
Women Waging Peace:
Women and Public Policy Program:
The 2001 Harvard Colloquium on International Affairs:
U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano:
Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia:
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: