Published in the Harvard Gazette
When three women, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an alumna of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), received the Nobel Peace Prize
in October, it was more than just a testament to their work. The prize
was also a clear signal to the many unheralded women around the world
that their peace building efforts were not only noble but necessary.
Several such women from across Africa and the Middle East gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Wednesday to share their stories and convey a similar message. “Why Women Won the Nobel Prize,” hosted by the Institute of Politics, the Center for Public Leadership, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and the Women and Public Policy Program at HKS, testified to the influence of women in peace efforts around the world.
The Nobel was just another example of the ways women leaders, both at
the highest reaches of government and at the ground level, are
“changing the whole security paradigm,” said moderator Swanee Hunt,
Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy. “Right now, security, in
most people’s minds, means bombs and bullets.”
Increasingly, however, leaders recognize a need for women’s
participation throughout the entire peace process, from street-level
protests to formal negotiations. President Obama, for example, recently
signed an executive order on women, peace, and security that he hopes
will provide “a comprehensive road map” to increasing female
participation in peace building, Hunt noted.
Women bring “soft skills” to the negotiation table, said Orit Adato, a
retired lieutenant general in the Israeli Defense Forces and former
commissioner of the Israeli Prison Service. Those traits — “the ability
to see the whole picture but at the same time to identify and give your
attention to the details,” to contain situations and deal with them, and
to balance priorities — are crucial to the peace process.
Samira Hamidi, director of the 5,000-member Afghan Women’s Network,
noted that women, so often denied a role in peacemaking, are likely to
show steadfast commitment to the process if given the chance — if only
to prove to themselves and their families that their presence at the
table is worthwhile.
In the summer of 2010, she recalled, at Afghanistan’s national peace jirga,
three rockets hit just outside the tent where she and other delegates
had gathered for an address by President Hamid Karzai. While many male
delegates left to ensure their safety, the women remained on principle.
“Peace is too important,” Hamidi said. “It is dangerous, but we are proud of what we’re doing.”
Mossarat Qadeem, a Pakistani activist, discussed her work
rehabilitating young men formerly of the Taliban and other radical
militias. The work often involves getting the boys’ mothers to trust her
“Those boys would dare not come to a woman like me,” she said. “The
most difficult part is reintegration into their communities.”
In the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which gained its
independence from Sudan in July after nearly 20 years of conflict, women
leaders are hoping to turn “years of fear into opportunity and
stability,” said Rebecca Joshua Okwaci, founder of Sudanese Women Empowerment for Peace. Women recognize the importance of building up civil society and individual rights to create long-lasting peace, she said.
Her years as a “freedom fighter” for South Sudan’s independence
confer not power but a great responsibility to her fellow citizens, said
Okwaci, who is now deputy minister for general education and
instruction. The new government must repay the sacrifices the South
Sudanese made for so many years to support the war.
“The same way their eggs were taken from them [during the war], it is
time now for us to give them peace,” Okwaci said. “Their chickens were
taken from them — now it is time to give them stability. Their goats
were taken from them — it is time to give them independence, give them
recognition, and give them hope.”
The evening, which ended with a call-and-response performance of a
traditional Arabic song and impromptu dancing led by Okwaci, seemed to
inspire those in attendance.
Those who follow conflict for a living “flirt a lot with cynicism,
and I didn’t hear a note of that tonight,” said Jina Moore, a human
rights journalist, during the question-and-answer session. “Which
reminds me that cynicism is a luxury for people who think about conflict
and not for people who are forced into living with it. For me that was
Women activists from conflict regions have been coming to Cambridge since 1999 as part of an annual conference supported by the Institute for Inclusive Security, a program of Hunt’s family foundation, Hunt Alternatives Fund.