Women, War, and Peace

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On March 13th, IPI and Peace is Loud co-hosted a policy forum on women’s participation in peace negotiations and peacekeeping, featuring a screening of two scenes from the new PBS documentary film series Women, War and Peace II. Filmmakers and prominent women peacemakers took part in a discussion on the two films.

In welcoming remarks, Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, credited the filmmakers for “surfacing the reality of women’s lives in relation to the very narrow vision we get shown.” She spoke of how in her own work she had seen women “doing things so great with no recognition. These films, she said, recast historical narratives of war and peace to include women and helped to eliminate the notion that all men are violent. “Men and women can build peace together against forces of violence,” she said, and argued that this message could help inform a future of sustained peace.

The first film was on the Northern Ireland peace process and called Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs. Monica McWilliams, Co-Founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and a negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, told the story of the group’s formation. In the decision, early on, as to whether to push forward and enter peace talks as women, a voice shouted out, “It’s time to wave goodbye to dinosaurs,” and with that, they launched a political party under this name. “We were ordinary women who fell into extraordinary times,” she said of the group. “Men felt that they were going to be shot. Women often felt, ‘We will reach out because what’s happening to our children is incredibly dangerous.’”

She reflected on what she had learned in this process and what she would have done differently, and pointed out how men in the peace talks were deeply influenced by their tradition of never talking to their opponents. “Reaching an accommodation is a strength and not a weakness,” she said. “Talking to your enemies is a strength and not a weakness. We were asked, ‘where did these women come from?’ We had been around for 25 years.”

Ms. McWilliams emphasized the need for civil society to be involved before, during, and after peace talks, because “what’s promised needs to get enforced.” After being told to go home once the peace treaty was signed, she noted instead the necessity of long-term persistence that ensures women’s participation in future negotiations. Her advice to negotiators was to “always think of the day after.”

Ms. McWilliam’s story inspired Eimhear O’Neill to direct the film Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs. She referenced the famous quote by the Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin, that “it’s not that women get written out of history; it’s that they never get written in.” Ms. O’Neill said that her aim in creating the documentary was to reverse that. “In order to affect change, you have to expose your identity…You have to say no and you have to ask and demand that change can happen. I think wherever you are in the world, where you can wave goodbye to dinosaurs, you should, and where you haven’t been able to just yet, start waving.

Geeta Gandbhir, director of the second film, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, said she had been troubled by the simplistic portrayal of Muslim women in the media. She wanted to show a new vision, rather than the one-dimensional image of them as victims, voiceless, or as aiding and abetting extremist groups and terrorists.

The documentary centers on the all-women Bangladeshi Formed Police Unit that was sent to Haiti during the cholera epidemic. Not only did she note the effect that women in peacekeeping had on the host community, but also the personal growth that peacekeeping afforded the women themselves, emboldening them to combat patriarchy, not least by giving them financial stability.

“We understood that having women in peacekeeping forces and participating in the process could empower women in the host community…They could help make the peacekeeping force more approachable to the women in the community. They were able to assist and aid survivors of gender-based violence, they were also able to interact in societies where women were prevented from speaking to men. They provided role models, a greater sense of security to local populations, including women and children.” When met with pushback by the local community, they responded differently than male peacekeepers had, said Ms. Gandbhir. They “realized the basis of anger and frustration was often about systemic poverty and corruption that was implicit. In some ways their response to protests and people being hostile towards them was met with understanding.”

In addition, she said, they cultivated trust of the United Nations within the community. “When male peacekeepers patrolled camps, women and children would go inside and not come out. And when the women patrolled the camps, the women and children would come out and follow them and walk through the camps with them, and want to hold their hands, and want to talk to them. And after a while the women would sometimes bring little treats for the children, they would try to interact with them. They would play games with them. It was…inspiring for us to see,” Ms. Gandbhir said.

The women peacekeepers also derived benefits for themselves. “Women themselves were able to broaden their skills and capacity and bring some of what they learned home,” she said. “They also experienced a freedom that they did not have at home: they were able to bond with each other, work together, they were given responsibilities that they didn’t have at home. Some were happy to be free of the burden of childcare and cooking. For them that was a joyful thing even though they missed their families terribly. Financially, the money they made from mission was three times what they made at home. So they were effectively the breadwinners, they were able to support their families and became role models for their own children.”

Witnessing these clear examples of emboldened women showcased the positive impact of women’s involvement, said Nahla Valji, Senior Gender Advisor in the Executive Office in the Secretary-General of the UN. “The power of these movies [is that] …until you see relationships being built in front of you, I don’t think we fully understand the impact that we can have through women’s participation.” The ways in which we view women in action alters our definition of effective leadership, she said. “It role models a different way of being. It also brings 50 percent of the world’s population and their diverse perspectives to the table.”

Ms. O’Neill said she was “delighted” that the media was now capturing the voices of the young women. “The more examples we have of other women who’ve done it, the more confident we feel. I often feel like we need permission to step forward. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission internally. It’s about feeling confident, it’s about feeling safe, that you can step forward. Increasingly younger women are starting to talk about that.”

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel gave opening remarks, and Senior Fellow Sarah Taylor moderated.