By Paul Rodgers
Sunday, July 29, 2001
From Cambodia to Ireland to South Africa to Israel, women are finding ways to make their voices heard on the crucial issues of whether civil wars and ethnic conflicts will continue to claim lives, divert valuable resources and destroy communities.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Two Cambodian women seized the moment and ended the carnage within their nation's borders.
The year was 1987. Cambodia had been carpet bombed, illegally, by U.S. President Richard Nixon, terrorized by Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge, invaded by the communist Vietnamese and torn by a decade of civil war.
Dr. Kek Galabru, the daughter of Cambodia's first woman member of parliament, cornered Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Vietnamese-backed ruler of most of the country, while two of her friends appealed to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the deposed monarch in exile in Paris.
Galabru's efforts led to the first face-to-face meeting between the rival leaders on Dec. 2 of the same year and the fragile, flawed, power-sharing peace that exists today.
Yet, when it came time for the interested parties to sit down around a conference table to hammer out a deal, she and women in Paris who had helped to bring about the meeting were excluded, Galabru said in an interview. The only female participant was the Prince's wife.
"During the peace talks, I asked the wife of a minister to ask her husband what has happened," said Dr. Galabru, who now runs a human rights group, Licadho, in Phnom Penh. "The husband looked surprised and told her, 'That is not for you. You go and make me some drink.' Maybe it will take another hundred years to improve things."
Or perhaps a bit sooner.
Until recently, women were seen as victims of conflict, in need of protection but not powerful enough to deserve a seat at any talks about peace, reconciliation or reconstruction. However, a string of international bodies, from the United Nations Security Council to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, have started calling for women to take a more active role in peacemaking.
It was the turn of the Group of Eight foreign ministers this month to issue a 500-word communique urging women to take part in conflict prevention and resolution. In particular, the ministers from seven major industrialized countries and Russia called for peace missions to be trained in gender issues and for more women to be appointed to senior political positions in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
"Our comprehensive approach to conflict prevention is incomplete if we neglect to include women," the ministers said in a statement. "Women bring alternative perspectives to conflict prevention at the grass-roots and community levels."
Overshadowed by the riots outside the heads of government meeting in Genoa a day later, the document, like those before it, was largely ignored by the world's press. But Swanee Hunt, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria, insists that it was significant.
"The G8 sets the tone for many other countries, and there were hundreds of other issues that they could have addressed instead," Hunt said.
The proposal to involve women in conflict resolution, put forward by the United States, survived the transition from the Clinton to Bush administrations far better than the Kyoto climate accord or the germ weapons treaty. And diplomatic sources said it won broad support from the other G8 countries--Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Italy and Russia--gaining additional clauses about the special needs of demobilized female fighters.
Women are being allowed to participate in peacemaking because international organizations are realizing that women's concerns are central to reaching a lasting peace.
The United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, is eager to point to women's successes and has published a book, "Women at the Peace Table: Making a Difference," detailing some of them. One notable case is South Africa, where women were instrumental in the writing of the new constitution after apartheid ended. They also served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed and then set aside atrocities of the past in the hope that they will not rise to justify future conflicts.
And, during the Security Council debate last October, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "For generations, women have served as peace educators, both in their families and in their societies. They have proved instrumental in building bridges rather than walls."
That process of bridge building, argues Ambassador Hunt, the director of the Women in Pubic Policy Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, peacemaking is more than an exercise in dividing up the power and the spoils of war. The goal at the peace table must be to create a civil society.
In the south of Sudan, for example, women in the New Sudan Council of Churches organized the Wunlit tribal summit in February 1999. It brought an end to hostilities between the Dinka and Nuer peoples with an agreement to share rights to water, fishing and grazing land.
The official encouragement by the Group of Eight foreign ministers also reaffirms the stance of nongovernment organizations and academic institutions.
"It's a field that has attracted women's participation," said Patricia Gonsalves, a former chairwoman of Mediation UK, a charity representing 170 community mediation centers across Britain. "In peacemaking and conflict intervention, women's qualities can shine."
As evidence, Gonsalves points to research at the University of California at Los Angeles by Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology. A post-doctoral student had noticed that most stress studies--the ones that had established the fight-or-flight response as "normal"--were based on studies of males, said Professor Taylor. Intrigued, she conducted her own experiments with women, and got quite a different response, which she called tend-or-befriend.
"Fight-or-flight is a response that doesn't involve the hands-on protection of others," said Taylor. "But females needed to protect their young, and affiliating with a social group afforded more protection for females with one or more young children."
Ambassador Hunt describes a similar process after the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Women were able to forge links between communities where men would have been condemned as traitors, she said.
"They're able to go under the radar."
When the bridge over the Neretva River was rebuilt at Mostar, linking Serb and Albanian communities, women were the first to cross it.
"That led to the launch of a cultural center where they could hear an artist play or see some paintings," she said. "It was a normalizing of relations."
Kate Fearon, the policy advisor for the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, agrees about the need for women to take a larger role in making peace, but is less impressed by the G8's pronouncement.
"Those are fine words, but we need help on the ground--financial help," she said. And the foreign ministers in Rome offered nothing new in the way of funding. "We need to see practical outcomes," said Fearon. "The key is systematic participation in democracy."
There was nothing systematic about the entry of women into the Northern Ireland peace process. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, joint winners of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, met after a republican terrorist, fleeing from British soldiers, was shot and killed in Belfast. His car crashed into a group of pedestrians, killing three children; their mother later committed suicide.
Thousands of people from both communities joined the marches organized by Corrigan, the children's aunt and Williams, who was first on the scene, demanding an end to the violence. The hardened men of the Catholic and Protestant communities didn't listen, though, and it was 20 years before the main paramilitary groups ceased their bombing and shooting campaigns.
By then, a second generation of women activists had come to the fore. In elections to the provincial power-sharing assembly that followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition took two seats out of 108.
"Just saying 'We Want Peace' wasn't enough," said Fearon. Instead, the coalition acted as a bridge between the factions. "We were a party that spoke to every other community, even those outside the process."
Significantly, the coalition argued against the expulsion of parties associated with terrorists at either end of the sectarian divide.
Northern Ireland is unusual, though. In Sri Lanka, another island with a long-running war, the only woman at the peace table is the president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
"It's mainly because of our culture," said Monica Alfred, the co-founder of Ahimsa, the Center for Conflict Resolution and Peace. "We tend to think it's men who are fighting and they must solve it."
Alfred, a Tamil raised in the dominant Sinhalese community, is teaching women nonviolent conflict resolution techniques, but she admits it could be "five or six" years before ordinary women will be able to play a role in her country.
Rose Mpisi, a magistrate from the Democratic Republic of Congo now based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has been trying to find out why women are absent from the peace process in her home country. Much of the Congo has become a free-fire zone for the seven armies and their proxy guerrilla units fighting over the country's lucrative diamond fields. Women's groups have been formed in Kivu, in the east of the country, and they are trying to form alliances with women in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.
"But there's a lack of trust," Mpisi admits. Elsewhere in the Congo, women's lack of motivation and knowledge of their own rights keep them out of the peace process.
The Middle East, and the latest Intifada, has thwarted the efforts of all peacemakers.
The problems of trust that women face when reaching out to other women across the battle lines are amply illustrated by Jerusalem Link. For seven years, the organization has brought Israeli women from Bat Shalom together with their Palestinian counterparts in the Jerusalem Center for Women.
"The idea was that we would agree on a solution and declare it to the public and get the authorities to discuss it," said Amneh Badran, the acting director of the center. At first, they succeeded in hammering out proposals on the less contentious issues. But when they got to the fate of Jerusalem two years ago, they bogged down.
They agreed that both sides should share the city, but not how to draw the dividing line. Talks then ground to a halt over the issue of returning Palestinian refugees. And they all but collapsed when the Palestinians accused Bat Shalom of having on its team a Jewish settler, a member of a group they refused to talk to. "We need to rebuild trust," said Badran.
Debby Lerman, a Bat Shalom board member, admitted that Jerusalem Link was "at the low ebb of a bad situation. Our major achievement, even though all these problems are going on, is that the Jerusalem Link still exists. Even though it's tenuous and slim, we keep on communicating."
Like women in peace groups around the world, Bat Shalom members also have to deal with hawkish members of the general public. Some have received telephone threats. "People are using the language of racism and hatred," she said.
But Lerman and her colleagues take hope from the success of another peace group, now dissolved, called Four Mothers. Its members campaigned for years against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
"Slowly they eroded the support for staying there," said Lerman. Her choice of words is telling though. The Four Mothers is not "credited" with bringing about the Israeli Defense Force's retreat, but "guilty" of it.
Paul Rodgers is a Canadian free-lance writer and editor working in London.