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Building Women, Building Peace

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Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
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Globally, we find ourselves living in very turbulent times; violence and many evil vices have taken over our world. We have close to 64 nations at war with itself or others, 584 conflicts involving militias and guerillas, four of those namely Mexico, Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq accounts for more than 10,000 or more deaths annually.

The impact of these conflicts on the lives of women leaves very little positives to imagine. The inequities and inequalities that girls and women face are exacerbated during conflict. In 2000, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Elizabeth Rehn, conducted a study for United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), now UN Women on Women, War and Peace. One of their conclusions in the report was that “the impact of conflict on women’s lives is a reflection of the interaction during peace time”. Simply put, all of the socio–political inequities, discrimination, sexism and other vices that disadvantage women in peacetime, are at the core of the level of rape and abuse they experience during war.

This dimension of war has also given rise to an urgent need, the calls for women to be involved in all aspects of local, national, and international peace and security processes. Women have not always heeded this urgent call. Most often people’s reaction is if women in Liberia and other places have done it, why not women in all conflict affected areas. It has been tested and proven that for women to build peace effectively, there must be a time and space for them to also be built.  In 2003, a group of women and I decided to stand up to the tyrannical rule of men, and little boys toting guns and machetes. We decided to challenge the culture of violence that had taken over our country for over 14 years. The story of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace has many versions, however, like other stories of triumph, the back-story is often never revealed. In early 2000, I had the opportunity to be part of a team of all men doing trauma healing, and peace building training, for the security forces in communities across Liberia. This program became necessary, because community members that were the beneficiaries of previous trauma healing programs, had specifically requested that we offer similar training to the police and military if we wanted to effectively change the communities. During our work, just as I was the minority among my colleagues, so were the women in the training. The standard number of trainees was 50, on a good day we would have 5 women, on a very bad day, 2. These women would often be silent through out the training. After sessions however, they would come and chat with me about how I came into doing such work. Then it would trigger a whole session of revisiting the day’s training and making very valuable and legitimate points. When asked why they didn’t speak up during the official session most said they could not because they were women and also the men present were primarily higher-ranking officials.

I went back to my bosses and asked if I could do a specialized training for women in the field. They agreed to my request, and this was the beginning of many hours of building women to build peace. At the very first session, I realized that we could not progress if we didn’t stop to address issues of violence that the women had faced, during, and in some cases, after the war. As lead facilitator, my colleagues and I had to change strategies and organize a circle process called “shedding off the weight”. This was a special session that would focus on trauma healing for women, the space was safe, it was timeless, and very sacred and confidential.

Over a period of almost 20 years, I have done tons of shedding off the weight, the impact and results have been the same where ever I go, women tell of their pains and sufferings, in some cases offer forgiveness in other cases decide to hold on to their anger as they are not psychologically prepared to let go.

What I have learned from my experience of shedding the weight, is that in the case of women, survivors of conflict carry so much pain that they’re unable to express it, because they are most often required by socialization to be strong for the rest of the community. The metaphor I often use is that women are the sponges; “they absorb all of the dirt around them”.

Building peace non–violently requires total release from toxicity and hatred; revenge and other negative vices that make people act violently have no place in the room. Shedding off the weight provides the first step for ridding ones self of these vices.

Building peace also requires an understanding of the conflict, and a prioritization of issues that one must tackle in order to build peace – women most often need a space where they can dialogue about the politics of war and the necessity for peace. This takes a lot of time and patience; this is the process that will ensure the coming together of diverse religious and social factors.

Building peace requires a precise and concise agenda; in most communities due to women’s absence from the political space, it is important to have the ‘would be’ actors for peace identify key agenda items that they are willing to see accomplished. I have been to places where people often ask, why women are not buying into each other’s actions striving for peace. My response most times, is that the issue is not one that cuts to the core of every woman’s being. In Liberia, the quest for peace in 2003 was harvested at the right place, at the right time. The very fabric of the Liberian society had been affected by the war, and every corner was yearning for peace especially the women who had borne the brunt of the war.

So the question one may ask is, how do you know when what other women have been building is strong enough to build peace? The answer is very simple, when they bring an advocacy agenda and say this is our collective project.

 

In 2003, it was the women who decided it was time to step out and face the world, it was their time to give the global media another story, it was time to stand up and free our country from the shackles of war and violence.

You know the rest of the story, not only did we build peace, we also made history by electing Africa’s first female president.

I learned two things from the Liberian women.

  • The personal is also political, there is no way we can discuss issues of peace and security without discussing the impact of war on women, and seek ways to provide relief to these issues.
  • The best investment for any society is an investment in women and girls, tapping into the potentials that they possess. In most communities women are the rough diamonds, investing in them is like cleaning and polishing, afterwards they possess an unimaginable value.

I stand here as a testament to the dreams of a young woman who was polished and I am now building peace globally.

If I could do it, by God’s grace, the possibilities are endless

 

 

Leymah Gboweh is a famous social justice and peace activist, motivational speaker, Lecturer and philanthropist. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

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