Bring in the Peacemakers

The oldest question about global conflict is why can't we all just get along? But the second-oldest has to be what if women were in charge? Might women bring something to the peacemaking and -keeping table that men do not? The short answer is yes. Qualities universally perceived, often condescendingly, as women's strengths -- an ability to listen, share experiences, empathize with all sides of an issue, and compromise -- while useful in negotiations, are rarely seen in the almost exclusively male circles of international diplomacy, where a premium is placed on the ability to outsmart the person sitting across from you.

Women Waging Peace, a project of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, works to break open those diplomatic circles "by identifying the essential role and contribution of women in preventing violent conflict, stopping war, and sustaining peace in fragile areas around the world." For three years, the project has hosted an international colloquium on how to involve women in the rarified circles of global conflict resolution. This year's colloquium, currently taking place at Harvard University, has special resonance in light of the war in Afghanistan and the threat of even more terrorist attacks hanging over the United States.

As the wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo have shown, and as the current international crisis further attests, geopolitical conflicts in the post–Cold War era test the limits of international diplomacy as never before. Brokering peace in these hot spots is a much different game than the high-stakes chess played by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Wouldn't it make sense to look to the half of the population that has been silenced for so long -- and the one that traditionally uses peacekeeping skills -- to create today's new diplomacy?

"The makers of war should not design the peace. It's a bad habit," says WAPPP director Swanee Hunt, a former ambassador to Austria. "The women in Bosnia said, ‘If we are going to be the victims, we want to be part of the decision-making.' I go even further: I say, let's draw from a bigger talent pool."

Hunt describes a UN official who recalled that African men didn't want women on their negotiating team because they feared that the women would compromise. She smiles at this notion as if to say, precisely.

This year's colloquium has drawn about 200 women from around the world, many from war-torn regions marked by centuries of tribal and territorial conflict, including Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, and the Middle East. While few of these women hold positions in the power structure of their countries, they represent the world's community organizers. These are the grassroots activists, educators, health-care workers, academics, researchers, and religious leaders who keep their countries running even in times of war. They do the unheralded traditional work of women, and, judging from the participants' stellar credentials, they do it with excellence.

But the Women Waging Peace (WWP) colloquium aims to push these successful women from behind-the-scenes support positions into the corridors of power where they can affect change on a much larger scale. Toward that end, many of the panels and talks at Harvard focus on giving them the practical tools to make their voices heard. The cornerstone of this strategy involves sharing personal stories of survival, justice-seeking, and fragile rebuilding efforts in ravaged countries.

Sheenah Kaliisa listened to emotional testimony from a delegation of Cambodian women. Kaliisa, a young journalist working for radio outlets including the South Africa Broadcast Company and the East African Standard in Nairobi, covers her native Rwanda. Most of her stories focus on the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocidal war, during which some 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The Cambodian women's stories -- detailing how a lack of justice and resolution following Pol Pot's 1970s genocidal regime has kept Cambodia in the stranglehold of unresolved conflict -- helped put her own work in perspective, says Kaliisa. In other words, the political became the personal and vice versa.

"I try to build peace by telling the stories of war, by disseminating information about women because no one else will tell their stories," she says. "Genocide was not committed by the army or the government; it was neighbor cutting up neighbor. Rape was rampant during genocide. Men were shot and cut up, but the women had to be raped first. They saw their daughters raped. I know one woman who was raped by 30 men, one after the other. Then they raped her 15-year-old daughter.... There can be no reconciliation if women who are living and dealing with it are not included."

In sessions that translated personal stories into strategy, women also shared experiences as researchers and experts in a particular region. In a panel discussion on transitional justice and reconstructing war-torn communities, women researchers grappled with the issue of what happens to a country and its people after war or conflict. What is the role of women in countries trying to reconcile with the citizenry and attempting to rebuild? For the panelists, women are the key to the process of rebuilding.

"There is an African saying, 'Women make memory,'" says Paola Cesarini, a political scientist at Columbia University. "Women are often the widows, mothers, and orphans. They have a key role in the passing on of memories of the struggle or the change from a military regime to a democracy. Women live longer. They are the caretakers of children and the elderly."

Women create the narrative for where a country has been and where it will go after a war, adds Vanessa Farr, an expert in women's coalition-building in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Again, women's traditional role as communicators and memory-keepers isn't just useful, it is essential and underused. "Women are the transmitters of stories, but often women's own stories get lost," Farr says. "When reparations come around, women are recast, no matter what they did. Even if they were combatants or arms smugglers, they become the wives and daughters and sisters of the men whose stories are being told."

This pattern occurred even during the highly publicized and just-completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa. "Women mostly told the stories of men," says Farr. "So much of the brutality was sexualized; it was not easy for the women to talk about it. There was no space for women to talk, so their stories fell off the page."

"Until a woman has told her story, she isn't in a place to think analytically about frameworks and how it relates to policy," says Hunt. "By giving the women space over three and one-half days to talk about the death, destruction, and terror they've experienced, they start feeling like they are not alone and out there on their own." In other words, the colloquium aims to meld '70s-style consciousness-raising with practical skills such as negotiating tactics, conflict resolution, strategizing, and critical thinking.

The immediate impact of the sessions will be felt November 16, when hundreds of mostly male policymakers from the United Nations, the US State Department, and the US Agency for International Development, and ambassadors from India, Russia, the Congo, and other countries come to the colloquium to listen to some of these stories themselves.

Why is this important? Well, says Hunt, "Last year I had a former assistant secretary of defense tell me, 'I've never heard from people who were affected by our policies before.' I find that appalling."

In the end, though, what matters is what's accomplished. While there's an academic, theoretical tone to the proceedings, past WWP colloquiums have delivered results. At minimum, the conferences have given women greater access to diplomatic channels. Last year, for example, three Rwandan women were appointed to the negotiating team for the Congo/Ugandan peace talks in 2000, a move that came after Hunt met with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

WWP member Aloisea Inyumba, the executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda, visited Harvard with Kagame in February. She is now preparing villages in Rwanda for the reintegration of 80,000 prisoners who allegedly participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than three million Hutus who fled to the Congo will return to Rwanda and its Tutsi-run government; it will be Inyumba's job to make sure these Hutus are not massacred when they return to the very villages where they committed atrocities.

After the first WWP colloquium and policy day in 1999, members worked with Bill Wood, a deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department, to develop language on the role of women in preventing conflict. They also traveled to Japan for the G8 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in July 2000. This year, Wood advocated inclusion of the statement on women in the peace process in the G8 agenda. The United Nations and European Union, along with the foreign ministers of the G8 countries, have recently adopted measures supporting the involvement of women in formal peace-negotiation processes.

Heady stuff. And it all evolved from simple acts of sharing — and listening. Boston's Jaleh Joubine-Khadem, for instance, told of her work in Ecuador. Born in Iran and schooled in art history, Joubine-Khadem volunteered to go to Ecuador five years ago to help with tuberculosis education. She returns to the country each year to work with indigenous villagers and to facilitate alliances between women of means and the rural poor. The eye-opening experience, with its sense of mission, is one she wants to share with others.

"Once we help them, they take the ball and run with it," says Joubine-Khadem. "Men are simply absent from many of these villages. They go to the larger cities, claiming they will earn money and send it home, but they don't." She notes that it is the women who are left, and the women who want to learn how to protect the community's health, how to purify the water, how to make sure there is enough to eat.

As representatives from WWP prepare to sit down with policymakers in an effort to affect change on the world stage, it's clear that the personal is indeed the political. And if the WWP organizers have their way, the personal will shape policy -- however slowly and tenaciously. Women will have a seat at the peacemaking table. And when they talk, they will be heard.

We'll all be better off for it.

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