9 Women Forging a More Peaceful World

   •    February 2, 2017

With global conflict on the rise and record numbers of refugees fleeing violence in their communities, the world can seem more dangerous than ever. Yet there are countless rays of hope. The nine women below—who recently attended Inclusive Security’s annual colloquium—are just a few examples of those risking their lives and livelihoods to forge a more peaceful path. From Colombia to Syria, these women are stopping wars, negotiating ceasefires, and rebuilding societies.

Note: Our 10th colloquium participant, Naila Ayesh, was unable to get a visa in time to attend. Read about her decades-long leadership for peace, justice, and women’s empowerment in Palestine here.

Photos by Mel Snyder

After Kenya’s contested presidential election erupted into ethnic violence in 2008, Alice Nderitu not only served on the national commission created to address the crisis—she took steps to ensure it would never happen again. She created the Uwiano Platform for Peace, a conflict prevention agency that encourages citizens to report warning signs of violence via their mobile phones. “In 2008, people had seen the violence coming,” she says, “but they didn’t know who to tell.” Uwiano focuses particularly on teaching women to identify conflict indicators, such as schools, hospitals, or other public spaces closing. Thanks to them, Kenya’s next election in 2013 was peaceful. “Everywhere in the country,” Alice says, “women are doing little things in every space to try and end violence.”

Mariam Jalabi was running a fashion company in New York when the Syrian revolution began in 2011. As demonstrations quickly met with violent reprisals, she organized rallies to support the democratic cause and joined the largest political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition. She has directed the coalition’s office to the UN since 2013. “Worldwide, we believe the way to solve problems is violence,” she says, “We have to reevaluate this paradigm.” As part of that, she has advocated passionately for women’s inclusion in the Syrian peace process, counseling negotiators and spearheading numerous initiatives to expand political participation. “Men are carried up to where they are by patriarchy. So we, as women, need to be carried up by feminism.”

Gloria Mercado’s impressive career has spanned high-ranking local, national, and international positions in the government, military, and academia. She is currently Deputy Cabinet Secretary in the Philippines government, and was recently promoted to be the first female Commodore of the Philippine Navy Reserve Force. In her military capacity, she oversaw relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation for 11 island provinces affected by severe earthquakes. She also spearheads advocacy and empowerment programs for women, like herself, who work in the male-dominated security sector. Undersecretary Mercado sees women’s leadership not as an issue of equality, but of capability. “You have to come to the table more than prepared; you have to bring something that the men wouldn’t think of.”

As a former refugee, Precious Dennis understand first-hand the consequences of insecurity. “It’s not just about me,” she says, “but about what I would do to prevent another girl or boy from going through what I did.” Following 14 years of war, she founded the Security for Women through Advocacy Coalition to help transform Liberians’ negative image of the security sector and recruit young women into the country’s reformed police and military forces. More recently, she was part of a network of women who risked their lives to stem the deadly spread of Ebola by teaching families and communities how to halt infection. To her, “peace is not just the silence of the guns,” but the opportunity to live in economic, political, and social stability.

Palwasha Kakar has dedicated her life to advancing peace, gender equality, and religious understanding. An Afghan-American, she returned to her father’s home country in the early 2000s to support civil society and local governance initiatives. Despite the predominant storyline of Afghan women as victims, she soon realized that many women acted as conflict mediators, arbitrating disputes within and between families, villages, and even different armed insurgent groups. “We need to learn from the women on the ground,” she says. Often, they have the moral authority to “really speak truth and power.” This ability has been critical to Palwasha’s work facilitating dialogues among Afghan religious leaders to convince them to publicly support women’s rights.

Israela Oron has broken gender barriers throughout her career: She was the first woman to command an all-male officer training course in the Israeli Air Force, the first to serve as Deputy Spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, and the first to join the faculty of the National Defense College. Today, she is an advocate for peace and social justice. Recently, as part of the “Women Wage Peace” movement, she marched together with thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women calling for renewed negotiations to end the conflict. “If we’re not in power, we’re not paralyzed.” Israela says. “Nowadays, you have a lot of ways to influence things. You don’t have to be in government.”

As a leader of the women’s movement, Rosa Emilia Salamanca worked intensively on the recent peace process between the Colombian government and FARC armed group, contributing to one of the most inclusive peace agreements in the world. “When you’re building a new architecture for society,” she says, “peace is about acknowledging difference, beyond putting down weapons.” As part of the Women, Peace, and Security Collective for Reflection and Action—a network of 100 women from more than 50 Colombian organizations—she facilitates dialogues and generates strategies for women from diverse backgrounds to collectively lobby for a just peace. Critical to this, Rosa says, is “bringing on board women’s voices and those of other [marginalized] people, which will make the agreement more sustainable.”

After her second son—a Sri Lankan military officer—went missing in action, Visaka Dharmadasa founded the Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action. As she puts it: “The war was at my doorstep.” As a result, she now raises awareness about international standards related to the conduct of war, especially treatment of prisoners, so that no mother has to endure an experience like her own. Recognizing her authority, the LTTE insurgent group asked her to carry messages to the government and international negotiators when peace talks were foundering. According to Visaka, if we want a lasting end to war, “We have to make the enemy secure. Then they won’t be an enemy anymore.”

Hanaa Edwar has been a leading advocate for women’s rights, peace, and democracy in Iraq for more than 50 years. She has led countless campaigns for gender equality—including to advance women’s role in the constitution-drafting process—and participated on the expert team tasked with drafting a law on domestic violence prevention. “We’re fighting against the phenomena of not seeing women as human beings,” she says. As co-founder of the Iraqi Women’s Network, which represents more than 90 women’s groups throughout the country, she is ensuring that women’s voices are present in decision making. According to Hanaa, “There can be no democracy without women.”

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