Eight Women Fighting for Peace

Mar 6, 2015 · 22 min read

These interruptors should be on your radar for International Women’s Day… and every day

When it comes to women and conflict, the media often delivers two narratives. On one end of a restricted spectrum, we see women victimized and under siege — vulnerable, isolated, and helpless. And on the other end, as evidenced by recent coverage of female Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq, we see a celebrated, if not fetishized, image of women as warriors — sexy gun-wielding badasses.

But what often gets lost are the stories of the women in the middle — those working tirelessly on conflict resolution; those who raise not their voices, but their actions.

We talked to eight of them — all on the speakers bureau of Peace is Loud, a nonprofit organization working to amplify the voices of women peacebuilders— and asked them about their inspirations, the books on their nightstands, and why peace might not be so elusive after all.

Leymah Gbowee

In 2011, Leymah Gbowee co-won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading a nonviolent movement “that brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating, fourteen-year civil war in 2003.” According to the Nobel Committee, “this historic achievement paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It also marked the vanguard of a new wave of women emerging worldwide as essential and uniquely effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security.”

Leymah is the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. She was the founding head of the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative, and was the co-founder and former Executive Director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa.

FPI: Which country and/or issue needs the most spotlight right now. Why?

Putting priority on a particular conflict in effect puts a higher value on the lives of people living in that specific context of conflict. Violence, war, killing, rape, abuse — it is all wrong and must be denounced. Where there is pain and violence happening in one place, all of us should be concerned.

All sixty-four global conflicts should be prioritized. Where one is killed in the name of crisis or where 10,000 are killed in the name of crisis, the value of one is no less than the value of 10,000. This is what we should seek to do: instead of prioritizing which conflict is more than important than another, we should seek to prioritize global peacebuilding and conflict resolution in every part of the world.

FPI: What inspires you? What keeps you going?

Anger keeps me going. The issues that keep me up at night, that make me toss and turn, is the fuel to speak truth to power and to take action. What keeps me awake at night is the suffering of women in conflict. It enrages me, but it keeps my spirit up because there is still much work to do. So long as conflict impacts women, and women continue to be excluded from the peacebuilding process that would relieve their suffering, I am angry and I know I have to keep going.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

Related to my work:

My book — Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

Unrelated to my work:

Konkai: Living Between Two Worlds by Mardia Stone

“So long as conflict impacts women, and women continue to be excluded from the peacebuilding process that would relieve their suffering, I am angry and I know I have to keep going.”

Karima Bennoune

A longtime human rights advocate and former Amnesty International Legal Advisor, Karima Bennoune’s most recent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, highlights not the victimhood, but the resilience of those at the forefront of that fight. The Economist writes:

Her reporting is diligent, passionate and convincing…[her] strongest stories are also her most bitterly personal, about the war that ravaged her homeland throughout the 1990s after the army stopped Islamists taking power. With courage and empathy, she takes readers to hardscrabble streets where Islamist militias unleashed a wave of almost indiscriminate butchery.”

FPI: While working on your book and interviewing 300 people in almost 30 countries, what surprised you the most? What did you learn?

Even though I have worked on this subject for 20 years, as I carried out my research, I was floored by the scale of the devastation wrought in Muslim majority societies by fundamentalist movements claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Their crimes against humanity — whether mass indiscriminate killings of civilians by the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 90s, or widespread targeted assassinations of intellectuals in Algeria by jihadist groups in that same “dark decade” — have never gotten the international attention they warranted. I learned that such silence is a second victimization. National or international amnesia guarantees that bereaved families will not receive justice, and increases the likelihood that others will suffer the same fate — as we see today in Iraq and Syria.

Telling the stories of those people of Muslim heritage who have fought fundamentalism — and those who have fallen to it — is both a plea for justice for events of yesterday, and an appeal for peace today.

FPI: Million-dollar question: How do we best combat Muslim fundamentalism?

  • By supporting those on the frontlines of the struggle against it — women’s rights defenders, secularists, artists, civil society groups, liberal religious leaders, ordinary people — on the ground from Pakistan to Mali. Ironically, it is often easier to get funding for jihad than for organizing peaceful opposition to it. So, these people need resources, and they need to be heard and acknowledged.
  • By supporting education. Everywhere I went, activists highlighted the importance of humanist education as part of the long-term battle. Think of it as the war on ignorance. Some on the frontlines like Dr. Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghanistan Institute of Learning stressed to me how the international community had failed to adequately support groups like hers trying to wage just that.
  • By taking on not just jihadist violence but also the ideology that motivates it. In the face of much of the politically correct Western rhetoric in recent years, Algerian victims’ rights advocate Cherifa Kheddar insisted to me that, “instead of just battling terrorism, you must fight fundamentalism. Fundamentalism makes the bed of terrorism.”
  • By not repeating the mistakes of the past when the West has at times supported Muslim fundamentalists. The West must also stop collaborating with fundamentalists — even when it may appear politically expedient to do so in the short term — as it has done for many years with the extremism-exporting countries of the Gulf like Saudi Arabia, or with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, or with the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood after the revolutions of 2011. These forces are not “moderates” as they have sometimes been wrongly labelled. (Nowadays, we are even told there are “moderate Taliban” the U.S. can make peace with.) They are often viewed this way because these particular forces mainly target their own people rather than the West. In fact, the real moderates are those who fight fundamentalism. They are everywhere, and they are the ones the international community must partner with. Malala is a true heroine — but she is also one of thousands. We must stand with that army of peace and tolerance that she represents.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

For a text directly related to the work I do: the wonderful new volume edited by the Algerian founder of the network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) on whose board I sit. It is entitled The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America: Women from Migrant Descent Facing the Rise of Fundamentalism” and is newly available on Amazon.com.

This volume is a reminder that Muslim fundamentalism has also taken up residence in the West where its proponents often persecutes women of Muslim heritage, and transform the vocabulary used by the West to talk about Muslims into one which conforms with a fundamentalist agenda. As this dossier documents, migrant women have led the counter-offensive.

Editor Helie-Lucas notes:

“To their horror, they witness the replication in Europe and North America of situations that they themselves, or their parents, fled from….They should be heard.”

For a book that is perhaps less obviously related, I think of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

Though I often dislike the way Camus described indigenous Algerians in his fiction, the universal message of hope and persistence in this deceptively slim volume of non-fiction is deeply inspiring. Come to think of it, there is a link between these two books. As I wrote in the afterword for the paperback edition of “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” which came out last December:

“…in 2014, the victories seem terribly small, and the defeats substantial. Yet, rather like Sisyphus, my colleagues in the network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws — like so many other women activists of Muslim heritage around the world, always pick up the boulder yet again and head back uphill. They could use a little help! But someday I know they will make it to the top.”

Madeline Rees

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the oldest women’s peace organization, WILPF, and courageously exposed human rights abuses related to the sex trade in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Madeleine is also the inspiration for one of the heroines in the film The Whistleblower, played by Vanessa Redgrave (#LikeABoss).

FPI: What are still some of the challenges of conflict resolution in Bosnia and Herzegovina? And what can other countries learn from the country’s experiences?

The major obstacle to real peace in BiH is the actual peace agreement itself. By negotiating only with the architects of the conflict, and including a constitution for the country in the agreement itself, the war was effectively institutionalized in the structures of power that were created. The constitutional arrangements are unworkable. The layers of governance are so cumbersome that the majority of the budget is spent on supporting it. Politicians are the same — in many cases literally the same people — as in 1996 with the same nationalist approach using fear of the other ethic group in order to retain power.

Women were excluded from the negotiations and have never been able to regain the space lost in terms of participation, real access to rights, and gender equality. The economy has stagnated and BiH is dependent on the IMF for budgetary support. Erosion of social and economic rights has continued and this has exacerbated tensions within and between the ethnic groups. The list of failures is appalling. There has been no transition and convicted war criminals who have served their sentences are now back in political life.

There is little or no sense of justice having been done.

Lessons learned: Do the opposite of what was done in BiH! The international community misdiagnosed the conflict and so brokered a peace which did not address the root causes and did not serve. Without the participation of civil society, and particularly of women who see the conflict from a different perspective, this will always be the case.

Also absent was any real plan for a transition and the plethora of international organizations working in BiH sadly contributed to this failure, again by not conducting real consultation as to how to effect transition. In particular the absence of gender analysis by the majority of organizations and a top down approach proved inimical to any meaningful change, let alone the transformation that was needed.

FPI: What’s your definition of peace?

Difficult, but I think the major element must be the absence of violence — physical, emotional, psychological, and economic. But defining it in the negative still feels as if we do not actually have agency to create it so maybe we should use the presence of love and affection…..or something almost as corny.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

That’s tough. I have been influenced by so many brilliant women (one or two men but mainly women!) that to choose one is cruel.

I love the work of Cynthia Cockburn and Cynthia Enloe.

On law: Christine Chinkin and Hilary Charlesworth but if I have to go for one then it’s Jacqui True’s The Political Economy of Violence because it draws from the work of these brilliant women and brings a coherence of argument which is compelling and which simply explains how it all works and hence what we have to do to fix it.

Unrelated? I could go for Game of Thrones but then there are analogies that could be made… Very hard but one of the most influential on me was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Just brilliant.

Almudena Bernabeu

A Spanish-born international attorney at San Francisco’s Center for Justice and Accountability, Almudena Bernabeu has “led the prosecutions of several of the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Latin America.”

Her work led to the May 2013 sentencing of former president of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, who was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, though the verdict was overturned 10 days later on procedural grounds. Last January, the retrial was opened, only to be suspended until an appeals court can name a new judge.

In short: Almudena’s work is never finished.

FPI: Latin America doesn’t make the news as much as the Middle East or even Africa. What are some issues you feel are being ignored?

It’s unfortunate that despite all the efforts made by the different countries in the region —particularly their absolutely extraordinary efforts to achieve some peace and stability — the geopolitical priorities have changed, turning their backs on Latin America.

All central American countries and some South American countries still face important problems of inequality, corruption, and military and security forces with an immense amount of power. There has not been accountability for the abuses committed. And in many countries, that has translated into endemic violence.

New violence in the hands of gangs, drugs cartels, etc., are in many occasions the consequence of the violence during the civil wars and dictatorial periods. We don’t talk about it, though. Some economy recovery has been enough to get the north to look elsewhere.

FPI: What is the most difficult case you’ve worked on?

The Guatemalan genocide case. An impressive effort I was lucky to lead with the help of fantastic colleagues from Guatemala and many other countries that ended with two litigations, one in Spain and a miraculous one in Guatemalan courts.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

Unrelated to my work: The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt, a unique account of contemporary issues dictated from one’s death bed by one of the most important British political writers of the last 20 years.

Related to my work: Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt, the first honest account about international justice and political opportunism.

Dawn Engle

Dawn Engle is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization, The PeaceJam Foundation, which brings youth together with thirteen Nobel Peace Prize Laureates including the 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

FPI: You began your career working for U.S. Congress, than later worked as an economist. How has that background helped you in conflict resolution?

I began my career working for the U.S. Congress in 1977, and I gained invaluable skills in the twelve years that I served there. I worked my way up from research assistant, to legislative aide, to a position as an economist for the Senate Budget committee. I then became Legislative Director for U.S. Senator Kasten (R, Wisconsin), and after five years I was promoted to the highest position in his office, Chief of Staff. All of this happened at a time when there were very few women in policy positions, so you really had to prove yourself, every day. I had a front row seat, watching policy being made, and seeing what did work — and what did not.

Much too often, I watched as our Congress tried to solve a problem and failed, or even made the situation worse. I began to see the value of working at the grassroots level to address the root causes of the problems we are facing (micro economics, if you will), instead of the over-arching, top down approach used most often in Washington, D.C. (macro economics). This informed my decision to co-found the PeaceJam Foundation, and all of my experience in government made it possible to convince 13 Nobel Peace Prize winners to join our Board, and our movement to create change from the ground floor up.

I work with 13 Nobel Peace Laureates, and all of them have really fantastic senses of humor — they tell me that it keeps them sane.

FPI: What is your definition of peace?

Peace is not simply the absence of war or the absence of violence. True and lasting peace can only exist when there is social justice and human rights for all. Governments keep making the mistake of trying to achieve peace by investing in the weapons of war. Instead, we should be investing in human security — and what I mean by that is ensuring that everyone has their most basic human needs met: clean water to drink, enough food to eat, a safe place to sleep, basic health care, and access to a good education. This is the only way to create a lasting and sustained peace.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

The first would be “Desmond Tutu: The Authorized Portrait” by Mpho Tutu and Allister Sparks. It is the best book I have ever read about how to create a movement, and how to create change. It is absolutely uplifting and inspiring, and it is chock full of amazing photos and personal recollections from those who are closest to this great man of peace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The second is “Grace (Eventually)” by Anne Lamott, for two reasons: first, because the subject of the book is faith, and you have to have a lot of patience and a lot of faith in order to do this work of peace building; and second, because the book is wickedly funny, and if you are going to be an agent of change, it is absolutely essential that you keep your sense of humor and remember to laugh!

I work with 13 Nobel Peace Laureates, and all of them have really fantastic senses of humor — they tell me that it keeps them sane.

Kori Cioca

Kori Cioca is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. She is also a survivor of military sexual assault.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 20 percent of active-duty female soldiers and 1 percent of active-duty male soldiers are sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military. Only 8 percent of reported cases are ever prosecuted, and 2 percent result in convictions.

In 2005, Kori was violently raped by her commanding officer. He was never convicted, and Kori says the Department of Veterans Affairs denied her medical benefits to pay for the surgery she needed to repair nerve damage.

Kori recounts her story in the documentary film The Invisible War, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards.

FPI: When it comes to fighting the Invisible War, how far have we come? How far do we still have to go?

We have come very far. The subject of sexual assault in the military is now being discussed openly and policy is being challenged for change.

The awareness from the documentary has helped victims and survivors of this crime to stand up and reclaim their voice. I write a countless number of emails in a week responding to survivors who are in need of help or just someone to talk to; it makes me sad to find most of these women have kept it a secret for years or quieted by their “support system.”

But due to the film, they felt empowered to speak out and know there would be support this time around. I also speak at military bases and the feedback I get afterward keeps me powered up to make change. It isn’t negative feedback: its letters from service members who tell me how the presentation either helped or sparked their own mission to make change. It leaves me with hope that we can change the future for others and protect our service members.

However, there is still quite a way to go when battling this epidemic and if we keep the conversation going, educating, passing legislation, we can change the culture that victim blames and breeds perpetrator behavior.

FPI: What’s your definition of peace?

There are two different aspects of peace: inner peace and outer peace. Inner, being ourselves and having a state of contentment with how we view ourselves. Not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be better, but doing it for ourselves, on our own terms in a positive self-constructive way.

Outer peace is recognizing that there are many flaws in our culture, not to accept the flaws but finding how we can help mold a better community and culture for those who come after us. In my lifetime, I hope to see outer peace prevail in the way of properly convicting rapists, a government that doesn’t make female healthcare choices or vote against equal pay, and a media that ceases to sexually objectify females.

I know these requests may seem one-sided and selfish to some, but I recognize that part of my inner peace is knowing my daughter has her rights, equality, and a community that forbids and prevents violence against women.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

Diary of a Predator: A Memoir by Amy Herdy

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena Yacoobi co-founded Creating Hope International and is president and Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL).

Yacoobi founded AIL in 1995 to provide teacher training to Afghan women, to support education for boys and girls, and to provide health education to women and children.

According to Peace is Loud, AIL was the first organization to offer human rights and leadership training to Afghan women. After the Taliban closed girls’ schools in the 1990s, AIL supported 80 underground home schools for 3,000 girls in Afghanistan.

AIL now serves 350,000 women and children each year through its Educational Learning Centers, schools and clinics in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

FPI: What is the biggest misconception about Afghanistan?

The biggest misconception that people have about Afghanistan is that the Afghan people do not like Americans. I really do not believe that this is true. Afghan people are just people. They are not politicians. When the Americans came to get rid of the Taliban, the Afghans gave the troops flowers and gifts when they saw them. The Afghan people know that the Americans have sent their sons and daughters to protect them, possibly even to die for them, and the Afghan people have not forgotten it.

No matter what you hear, the Afghan people are very grateful for the Americans and for all the positive things they have done for our country. When you hear negative things, people saying that the Afghans do not like the Americans, this is most often propaganda coming from politicians working for their own purposes, not from average people who appreciate and remember all that the Americans have done for them.

FPI: What is the country’s single biggest challenge?

My country has so many challenges, but our single greatest challenge is security.

The lack of security in my country stops people from being able to go about their lives. It impacts everything and stops Afghanistan from being able address other challenges. Whatever people plan to do— get an education, go to work, become healthy—they first have to know what is going to happen in the morning. Can they open their shop? Can their children go to school? Will their house still be standing?

Living day to day becomes increasingly difficult because of the security issues. People don’t feel safe or protected. There is no one to protect them. There are not enough soldiers or police, and the soldiers and police that we have do not have enough training. How can a person feel safe if their defense ministry is being attacked? They can’t.

Afghanistan is facing many problems — weak economy, lack of education, lack of healthcare, violations of rights — but the lack of security stops all of those from being addressed. The world seems to have moved on from our country, but children and women and men are still living in war, and, before we can address Afghanistan’s many other challenges, the people must feel safe.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands

The first book is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The book reflects the current situation in Afghanistan, and gives readers a very good picture of some of the issues facing Afghans, particularly women.

The second book is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression in to Opportunity for Women by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Together Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn traveled the world and talked to people. They have touched the hearts and opened the eyes of many by writing about the reality of the hardships of women living in the countries around the world and by interviewing various NGOs who are working to change conditions for these women. The book shows what is happening in third world countries that travelers do not often see. Those who read their book are now reaching out to their sisters around the world.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda

As a trained human rights lawyer, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda has worked to advance women and children’s human rights, with a special focus on crisis countries and addressing issues of violence against women, peace with justice, property rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and HIV.

Since 2007, Nyaradzayi has been the General Secretary of the World YWCA, a global movement of 25 million women and girls in over 120 countries.

FPI: What issue or challenge keeps you up at night?

The level of violence, wars and intolerance and its impact of women and children really makes me angry and keeps me up at night.

We started the year with a deep and painful reminder as we witnessed the atrocities in Nigeria and France, while many communities are still bleeding across the world. Fifteen years ago, the United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security which spoke strongly to issues of prevention, participation, protection, and peace-keeping. Yet, until today there is insufficient political will to translate these profound commitment to tangible efforts.

We still have very few women in peace negotiations ether as mediators or as delegates or experts; there is limited resources to sustain women’s involvement and again women’s bodies remain the battleground for such conflicts. The world has and is still failing to protect women and girls. Today almost one year later, the abducted Nigerian girls are yet to be rescued.

The other issue that I struggle with is child, early and forced marriage. Its painful that girls are sold into sexual slavery, experience rape and sexual abuse and such is usually termed “child marriage,” thus providing a crime with social acceptability and a measure of legality.

Child, early and forced marriage is the intersection of multiple violations of the rights of girls: lack of investment in women and girls in development and absence of safety, security and protection. Culture and faith should not be abused to justify this unacceptable practice. I therefore advocate for education, empowerment, health, and economic opportunities for girls and women.

Interruptors must see things beyond the here and now, beyond naming the grey zones, but must dare name the painful and dream the impossible and innovate within that space.

FPI: Africa is often treated as a monolith. Which countries deserve distinct attention for progress in advancing human rights? And which countries are trailing behind?

Indeed, Africa is a a continent of 54 countries and not a single country.

Equally within each of the countries, there are huge diversities and inequalities that demand significant attention. While some countries have political stability and have had peaceful transitions of governments over years without violence like in Botswana or Ghana, one can not be complacent because the institutions of governance still need to be continually strengthened.

Even where there is progress on the economic rights, we still find violence against women, vulnerability to HIV, and difficulty in accessing healthcare treatment. We then have countries like South Sudan, DRC, Central Africa Republic, and Nigeria that are experiencing the trauma of conflict.

The countries in West Africa like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, which are post conflict and still fragile states, have seen the Ebola crisis eroding and undermining all these efforts as the countries have to rise to the challenge of saving life and rebuild health infrastructure and trust in communities.

Amid all these challenges in individual countries, it has been important to see the robust policy discussions and efforts at the continental level to address some of these difficult and complex issues.

There has been a constant reference to “Africa rising,” which echoes the long term vision of a prosperous Africa which is at peace with itself, as set in AU’s agenda 2063. In terms of women’s human rights the commitments to the Protocol on Women’s Rights and the Solemn Declaration on gender Equality has made positive steps. In addition at the institutional level, its critical that the AU Chair of the Commission appointed a special envoy on women, peace, and security in addition to existing special rapporteur on women’s rights.

This year, for the first time since 1963, the African Union Summit will be focusing on women’s empowerment and development, therefore creating a space and opportunity for women’s rights, empowerment, and security to be at the center of the regional and country efforts. Yes, there are mixed trends of human rights and development on the continent, and yet there is an opportunity to leverage Africa’s resources, peoples, and technologies for a renewed commitment to advance human rights.

The specific is as important as the general, while the local and global are intertwined in more ways than we dare explore.

FPI: What are two books — one related to your work and one unrelated — that interruptors should have on their nightstands?

I love and have a good collection of Maya Angelou. I love her poems and writings and also her life story. She remains a solid voice that challenges and brings meaning from that deep space which is not just the mind but the total being.

Interruptors must see things beyond the here and now, beyond naming the grey zones, but must dare name the painful and dream the impossible and innovate within that space.

I recommend Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarebgwa, a Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker. She explores the complexity of life in context of conflict, poverty, and choices that a young woman had to take.

This is a book that relates to my work, and simply explains that context is everything — it explains that the specific is as important as the general, while the local and global are intertwined in many more ways than we dare explore.


Written by


Changing the ratio. Amplifying female voices. Interrupting Foreign Policy. Co-founding Interruptors: @EndeavoringE @LaurenBohn Holler: info@fpinterrupted.com

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