Women Waging Peace, an initiative of the Hunt Alte

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–Logic would suggest, said former U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, that a woman who lost a son or daughter to a war based on ethnic hatred would become bitter and broken. That mother might be expected to devote herself to vengeance, further fueling the fires of hatred.

“But what we find,” Hunt said as she hosted a recent gathering, “is women who say ‘thishappened to me–and it must never happen toanyone else, because I know how terrible it feels.’

“So please don’t feel sorry for these women,” Hunt continued. “These are giants. These are women of enormous commitment and courage.”

Sawsan Al-Barak, for example, comes from a city in the hills of Iraq called Hilla. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, more than 20,000 of Hilla’s half-million residents were killed. Many more were taken prisoner, interrogated and left with hideous physical and emotional scars. Last June, Al-Barak, an engineer in her country’s Ministry of Industry, co-founded the Fatima Al-Zahara Women’s Center, one of the first such organizations in post-Ba’ath Iraq. Along with computer classes, the center provides legal advice, aid to battered women and English instruction.

Visaka Dharmadasa of Sri Lanka is founder and chair of Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action and the Association of War-Affected Women. Working to end the bloody civil war that has gripped her country for two decades, she educates soldiers, youth and community leaders about international standards of conduct in war and promotes the economic and social development of women across conflict lines.

Dharmadasa currently is bringing suit against the Sri Lankan government to force DNA testing on soldiers’ remains, in order to help families learn about the deaths of their loved ones.

Working Overtime

These women and dozens others like them around the world form the core of Women Waging Peace, an organization based in Cambridge and Washington that Hunt founded four years ago to show the often central role that women must play in rebuilding places that have been damaged by violent conflicts.

Citing a Women Waging Peace report, Hunt told the organization’s fourth annual colloquium, held here earlier this month, that in most conflict-affected societies women are working overtime to hold their worlds together.

Women in these areas, she said, account for substantially more than 50 per cent of the population after the conflict’s claim on male lives and are actively engaged in peace-building. Their activities range from conducting sessions in conflict resolution to developing new means of security and human rights protection to promoting training and higher education for women.

Yet because they are often portrayed as victims, they receive little recognition for their actual and potential roles in attaining peace and promoting security. It’s a perception that Hunt wants to change because “policy makers typically ignore the women on the ground and talk only to men, forgetting that it’s the women who have been organizing at the grass roots, talking to each other across conflict lines.”

Namibian Women Attack Sexual Violence

Addressing a morning session, Ambassador George F. Ward Jr., director of training at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said he saw for himself how women could transform the horizons of diplomacy while working in Namibia in 1997, when that country was recovering from a long, slow, guerrilla war.

Daily rapes and hideous degradation of women were all but ignored, the former ambassador to that African nation said, until the rape of a 2-year-old child was made public. That act shocked the country’s female population into action, Ward said.

“The women decided that enough was enough. They called for an initiative against sexual violence.” The initiative led to Namibia’s president condemning sexual violence on television and new laws.

Place at Diplomatic Table

In addition to documenting the role of women as peacemakers, Women Waging Peace pushes for their place at the diplomatic table by putting them in touch with one another and with those in various positions of influence.

The recent forum, which gathered women from more than 40 global conflict areas, did just that. Government officials, directors of nongovernmental organization, educators, businesswomen and journalists met with women who have lived through unimaginable ravages and devastation in countries from the Sudan to Sri Lanka, from Colombia to Bosnia and from the Middle East to Sierra Leone.

With debate raging in Washington over the reconstruction of Iraq, Ala Talabani, the co-founder of the Iraqi Women’s High Council, used the forum as a chance to push for a bigger role for her gender, arguing that women could help overcome the ethnic and cultural divisions in the country. Founded in October, the Iraqi Women’s High Council already has drafted policies on the role of women in Iraq’s post-conflict reconstruction.

“We are more than 55 per cent of the Iraqi population,” Talabani told an audience that included high-level U.S. and U.N. officials. “Iraqi women want to play their rightful role in reconstruction. We are a very mixed society. We have Kurds, Turks, Muslims and others. But we Iraqi women are united. We have said over and over, we will be the peace-builders. We will not let ethnic divisions destroy a country that has not been destroyed by a dictator who ruled for decades.”

The forum also hosted some international disagreements.

U.S. Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, for instance, said her agency is working with Afghan women, “trying to encourage them to participate more in the nation’s development and growth.” As a sign of progress, Dobriansky said 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s 5 million students–or 200,000–are now are girls, not to far below the high-water mark of 350,000 female students in the pre-Taliban period.

Ambassador Pierre Schori, permanent representative of Sweden to the United Nations, however, was not content to let U.S. policy in Afghanistan go unchallenged. He criticized U.S. efforts in the country for being overly focused on Kabul. Schori said the vast countryside of Afghanistan has made scant strides since the fall of the Taliban, as the U.S. has resisted expanding peace-keeping efforts outside the capital city.

Crossing Lines

At the forum, women from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Israel sat beside women from Fiji, Guatemala, Kosovo, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They talked about peace strategies and the frustration of dealing with diplomatic bodies dominated by military men. They also shared stories about their lives and their families. As panel members raised familiar points, they occasionally interjected enthusiastically.

“Yes, that’s it!” Kemi Ogunsanya of South Africa burst out when Noeleen Heyzer, head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, praised women peacemakers for “daring to break the culture of shame and silence.”

At roundtable sessions, female leaders from Rwanda, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Tibet met with senior diplomats from U.S. and foreign governments for seminars on diplomatic strategies, as well as disarmament, demobilization and security reform at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Hunt directs the Women and Public Policy Program.

In an address to the group, Hunt said that women often show less deference to national, political and ethnic boundaries. Because of this, as well as their ability to elicit greater mercy from hostile forces, they can be crucial to the formal and informal peace process.

“Women will run up in front of rebel leaders. They will put their hands up when guns are raised and say, ‘STOP!’ Women are going into places where men, frankly, would be killed. They are particularly adept at working across the conflict lines. What women are able to do is that they will say ‘yes, I may have a particular ethnic identity–Serb, Croat, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian–but I am also a woman, and I identify with other women in this situation.'”

Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

For more information:

Women Waging Peace:

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars–
“More Than Victims: The Role of Women in Conflict Prevention”
(Adobe PDF format):