Women have the power: united they cannot be defeated

Women have the power

By Danielle Bonner

There’s a certain energy created when you have a group of women come together for a common cause, an energy that can lift your confidence and empower you to take on any challenge.

In April I attended the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) 2015 conference, on women’s power to stop war. It was an extra special conference because it also celebrated 100 years since the organisations formation when 100s of women came together on 28th April 1915 at The Hague to call for the end of the First World War.

100 years on again some 1000 women came together from over 82 countries some travelling from ongoing conflict in their country such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan and other conflict war zones. To hear, share and discuss the ways we can end conflict and lay foundations for peace.

Over 3 days I listened and talked with women from all over the world, like Fatima from Pakistan whose supporting women in her country through the promotion off human rights and the use of technology.

The women from Syria who spoke of their everyday coordination with other women across the county to end the conflict and highlight the crimes being committed, to the women from Iraq and Libya highlighting their efforts against extremism in their communities.

On my last day I talked with Maureen an energized 83 year old from America. She’d been round the world twice on what she called borrowed money! Though she always paid back. In 1995 she travelled with 200 other women from Helsinki to Beijing on the peace train to be present at the 4th UN women’s conference, which produced the Platform for Action to support women, an agreement still in effect today which sets the framework to support the rights and empowerment of women.

 The diverse stories told by women were inspiring, empowering but also eye opening, while stories of conflict can be seen in the news, when you are sitting in a room with a survivor of conflict and you hear their personal story you cannot but feel a wave of emotions.

The issue of sexual violence as a weapon of war was a widely featured topic during the conference, one journalist from Colombia spoke of her kidnapping and rape at the hands of a militia, and while it was difficult for her to speak about her experience she explained she did so to bring a human face to the reality of sexual violence and the impact it has. Similarly a young women from Uganda and a victim survivor of the terrorist group Lord Resistance Army (LRA), spoke of the continual injustice victims of sexual violence faced in her country and the lack of support provided to them in the aftermath of experienced violence.

Commitment to action was also demonstrated, during the conference a lady from Yemen highlighted she found herself stateless because she could re-enter her country because of the recent imposed closed borders and international military airstrikes in Yemen. The next day WILPF prepared a statement for government action demanding the end to these imposed sanctions, which was hand then delivered by 20 women to 12 foreign embassy residing in The Hague who influenced the conflict in some form.

Amal Basha from Yeman and Sameena Nazir from Pakistan, calling for action to end conflict in Yemen

The actions of the women were reported in the media drawing awareness to the conflict and the realities people faced. This collective action is an example of the power and solidarity women have to create change. A solidarity I’ve seen in my own work in the women’s sector which connects locally and nationally to support women, raising awareness to issues effecting women’s lives, to the women’s groups across communities who provide friendly support relief for women in their communities.

The conference too highlighted the importance of sharing and giving voices to women’s lives, while it demonstrated the great leadership women have across our world’s communities. It brought voices to the many talented women working to end conflict and build peace in challenging circumstances.

Research shows including local women in a peace process increases the chance of violence ending by 24%. Yet despite this research women find it particularly challenging to even gain a seat or have their voices heard at peace negotiation tables, further allowing women’s rights to be under prioritised and omitting women from having any input in peace process and decisions affecting their lives as women. Women in Peacebuilding

Women’s security, rights and political inclusion are common challenges face by women in conflict and post conflict environments. It is therefore vital that we ensure international laws such as the UN Resolution 1325 and other agreed human rights and laws are not only implemented but continually developed to ensure women are protect and have a voice in peace processes.

The Women’s Power to Stop War conference provided an international platform for women to come together to share work, ideas and empower each other particularly youth women to address and play an active role in bringing war and conflict in our world to an end.

And while the many may never no their names or hear about the great work these women are currently doing they are the silent backbone to peace in our world. They prove we can and should all do something to unmask injustices & create change in our world.

Why Peacebuilding is important to me

In September I was asked by the Red Elephant Foundation to write about my peacebuilding and advocacy work and my ambition to help Afghans bring peace to their country.  Here is my frank peace talk entitled “Building Peace, Brick by Brick“.

Admiring the Art in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Could you tell us something about your work in Afghanistan?
I volunteer for PaxPopuli an organisation which advocates for peace in Afghanistan and runs an on-line tutoring programme for Afghan students. In my role as a Social Media Communications Manager my working objective is to build the organisations advocacy voice and partnerships. At present Pax is a small organisation run solely by its volunteers, but its aim is to grow and help more Afghan students develop their skills and enable both students and tutors to experience and learn about each other’s cultures through interacting in the program.

Why Afghanistan?
Well, really my interest began after following the new coverage post 9/11 though when I began my Peace and Conflicts Masters in 2009 that my interest grew further. I wrote my thesis paper on the state-building process in Afghanistan post 2001 and it was during my research that I started to see the country’s potential to develop and move away from its violent past given support. This is why I enjoy my work with Pax Populi because it has given me the opportunity to support Afghans and connect with others working to bring stability and development to the country.

There is so much to war that goes unnoticed. But we cannot always offer them up for all to see. Why is that?
One thing I have come to observed is that mainstream news is a business as such its news coverage is designed to sell and to attract audience numbers. For example here for me watching UK new coverage of conflict, there is often a focus on the politics of a situation and the possible involvement of the military. Take Afghanistan for example, post 2001 there was much focus on the military intervention to remove the Taliban, but in 2003 the war became very much the forgotten war due in part to the military operation into Iraq.

It was only once the military started to withdraw from Iraq that focus went back to Afghanistan and headlines covered military lose and why the international community was still there. The same can be said of the conflict in Syria, a conflict which has been going on now for over two years, and even though everyday within those years there has been ongoing violence and destruction we have had a wave of varying news coverage.

It may also be the case that because there have been so many different conflicts in recent years, a situation has been created whereby when the public see news headlines of conflict to them one war really starts to sound like all those prior, as a result they turn away in the belief they have heard this all before. It is this type of situation which then reinforces news media to cover stories which the public will feel connected with like any national political involvement or military action in a conflict.

What are your thoughts about the West’s ideas of intervention and war? Are you a believer in the orthodoxies of international relations, that a state’s sovereignty cannot be messed around with through intervention, or are you the modern thinker?
I do believe in the importance of maintaining and respecting International Relations and Sovereignty, and while I don’t like war, I do understand how wars are started and how interventions can be justified. What concerns me however is the failure of the international community to agree a strategy on how to deal with ongoing conflicts. There is R2P (Responsibility to Protect), but in practice what does this mean?

Take the situation with Syria, there is an estimated 2 million displaced Syrians with a further 100,000 now killed. Would this not be a case for intervention? While there is condemnation of the situation as we see there is no international agreement or even support for such an intervention? It does not help that leading powers have competing interests which governs the side they will take in addressing a conflict. I have mixed feelings about any such international military action, because as past interventions have shown the international community are ill prepared to deal with the aftermath of their actions, which defeats the very intention of stopping further conflict. What I am in favour however of increased humanitarian support, to ensure that those being impacted by conflict have better access to water, food, housing and education, and the like.

Wars have the worst impact on women – be it through sexual violence or through the systemic destruction of their families. Do you agree?
Yes I would agree, and while it’s true to say that everyone living through conflict is an equal victim, there is no escaping that it is women who are the worse impacted by war and conflict. It is a sad fact that women are seen as easy targets which is proven by the countless cases of sexual violence against women in war zones. (See UN Rape: Weapon of war) Women are left vulnerable in the environment of war because they have no real to defend themselves from this weapon of war.

The targeting of woman is strategic, because through sexual violence the aggressor has a way to not only inflect physical and psychological damage on the victim but also has a way to break up families and divide communities through the sigma and cultural violations this type of violence brings. And while there is international law with the UN Resolution 1820 which aims to protect women in conflict it is still the case that violence against women in conflict is widespread.

Is there a possibility for Afghanistan to rise above this turmoil? What do you believe would be the remedy to the trauma the country has been put through?
Those who may not know the history of Afghanistan may view the conflict as a 12 year war but the reality is conflict has played a destructive role in the lives of Afghans since the era of Empires. Notably the cold war and the invasion of the Soviet Union have all played their part in the country’s history of conflict. While it is also Afghanistan’s misfortune to be a land locked nation sandwiched within what has been described as a tough neighbourhood. The geopolitics within the region plays its part in the destabilization of Afghanistan with various actors taking advantage of the periods of conflict.

Through these histories and existing structures I have come to view the conflict within Afghanistan as “a story within a story” there are many layers which affect the ongoing conflict, some of which have come to overlap each other and then creating new conflicts. It is a pool of challenges which need to equally be addressed, there is no one dose of medication which will fix all problems. But that does not mean we can’t start somewhere. And while Afghanistan can’t escape its history it can learn from its past to create a better future. Ensuring all Afghans receive an education is therefore vital in ensuring that the country has the capacity and skills required to develop the country. While a reconciliation process needs to take place not just with the Taliban but also between the different ethnic groups within the country where there are hostilities caused from past conflicts.

As a peacebuilder in Afghanistan, does anything threaten you? What worries you most about your works?
I worry about the safety of those Afghans I interact with; it is difficult to imagine that because you want peace for your country and are outspoken to the fact that some within your society are preventing this peace or as a female the desire to have an education could threaten your life, but in Afghanistan this is a reality. I’m therefore always conscious that when I’m asking people in Afghanistan to do something on behalf of Pax Populi, like take part in one of our campaigns I am not adversely placing a threat to their life.

Having been involved in peace work for the last few years I also recognise that the development of peace or what we call peacebuilding is a long process which requires both the investment of time and resources. However in practice this is something I feel gets forgotten in the rush to bring stability to a society, as a result what we have seen is that many societies in fact laps back into conflict. I’ve written a blog piece about this very issue entitled “The internal battle for Peace”, which looks at the meaning of Peacebuilding, the conceptual, technical and political factors surrounding the idea and practice.

Tell us about your many different initiatives for Afghanistan.
Pax Populi operates an English tutoring service, and we do a lot of peace advocacy through social media and develop initiative campaigns. For example for International Women’s Day in March we developed the “Be Inspired” project, which included a collection of profiles and portrait moments highlighting the roles Afghan women are playing in society and their experiences as women in Afghanistan. We also sought the views of Afghan men, women, community organisations and Politicians through conducting over 30 interviews all of which are profiled on the website.

Supporting peace for all afghans

Currently we are getting ready to celebrate International Peace Day on Sept 21 with our initiative ”Voices for Peace”, which will highlight the work being done in Afghanistan to build peace, while also creating international community of support through showcasing the views of people around the world on what peace means and how we can build peace. We also like to give Afghans the opportunity to share their voice through writing and we have many insightful blog pieces written by students and supporters in Afghanistan on issues concerning their lives and educational pieces which gives the reader into life in Afghanistan. I am really proud of the work done by Pax Populi, because everything one involved is a volunteer and we are very resourceful at finding ways to connect with Afghans and others around the world promoting peace in our unique way.

There is a lot of talk about how the status of women in the aftermath of the troop draw down could find itself in a position that’s worse than what it is now. What are your thoughts on this?
There is much concern over the rights of women in Afghanistan because while they have achieved much over the last 12 years many challenges still remain. There are still attitudes within Afghan society which do not respect the rights of women especially the right to an education, these challenges are social issue within Afghanistan which need to be addressed not just by the enforcement of law in relation to women’s rights but also through educating those who do not believe in these rights.

The schedule drawdown of international troops has placed further pressure not only on the Afghan government but the international community to enter into negotiations with the Taliban in order to bring an end to violence within the country; this has led some to be concern that women’s rights will become scarified in return for a political settlement with the Taliban. It is therefore important that both the Afghan government and the international community do not support any such move that restrict the rights of women and they enforce human rights into any future political agreement.

One thing that gives me confidence in the future of women in Afghanistan is the new generation of Afghans, those who have experience life without the restrictions of the past and who want to work to ensure their country is not drawn back into its days of suppression.

If you want to get the views of Afghans themselves on women’s rights in Afghanistan please check out the Pax Populi women’s day project which features the views of over 30 Afghan men, women and community organisations.