Building peace, restoring hope: women’s role in nation building

08 March 2016
By Leymah Gbowee, Peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner

Just like women’s invisible work in the household, women’s work in community building and conflict resolution, which has significant human development implications, often goes unacknowledged.

Women’s peace-making efforts are not a strange phenomenon; they have been happening since the outbreak of violence and wars at the end of the cold war. From Bosnia and Herzegovina to Liberia, Burundi to Sierra Leone, Congo to Uganda women have been mobilizing at the local level to effect change, including during and after civil wars. In fact, I can unequivocally state that women’s active engagement in ending wars and all types of violence is critical. The only sad fact is that policymakers at the global and national levels are too slow to embrace this reality.

My own experience began with the civil war that ravaged Liberia for almost two decades. There I saw how war can strip a whole society of its humanity, its deference for life and the respect for the rights and dignity of persons. How war can tear the fabric of society, break down the norms that keep in check the terror that comes from man’s ego. There I lived the rule by man, and all its diabolical manifestations.
It was in this vacuum of order, of rights, of civility that the women of Liberia stood up to reclaim the soul of our country, of our society. Thousands of women across Liberia, under the banner of the Liberia Mass Action for Peace, risked their safety to protest against the war, against the despicable acts perpetrated in the name of war.

But this story is not unique to Liberia. It reverberates in most war-affected societies. About a year ago, when I had the opportunity to travel to three provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I saw that the story of women mobilizing for peace was the same. I met the same category of women that were part of the Liberian peace movement— the context is different, but the characters are the same; the virtues, qualities and principles they bring to their work are the same. The women of these communities are also stepping up and responding to their sisters’ need for counselling and humanitarian assistance and their community’s need for peace. Women in Nigeria are also persistently protesting for the 200 Chibok girls that are still missing. The stories of women’s struggle for peace, for human rights and for justice are consistent.

When the wars end, women’s role in recovery and peace building diminishes. Patriarchy steps in and forgets about the efforts of women. In no time patriarchy lays the foundation for the next war, for the next institutionalized violations of the rights of women, children and the vulnerable. This has remained the tragic tale. This is the story that women must begin to tackle— to insist on a place in the rebuilding of the polity, the economy and the state that is created after wars. In many communities post-conflict reconstruction fails to take women’s unique needs and concerns into consideration, leaving women who had already borne the brunt of these conflicts to further impoverishment.

To address this situation, in many communities women are also mobilizing and forming cooperatives for farming and other enterprises as a means of providing for them and their wards through their work. This is fundamental to sustaining human rights, consolidating gains for peace.

The hope for this new agenda in women’s search for human rights and peace is strong. This is evident from the growing number of women who are assuming leadership roles in public offices; more women’s voices are heard against the violations against them and their children thanks to new platforms made possible through technology.

I strongly believe that it is time for the world and global bodies to recognize the critical role that women can and are playing in conflict resolution and community building. While recognition is important, I believe engaging women’s expertise is also crucial to finding solutions to global conflicts. If we must reverse the tidal waves of conflict and insecurity globally, I believe we urgently need all hands on deck to accomplish the task.

Leymah Gbowee is Peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner. This blog entry is a special contribution made to the 2015 Human Development Report “Work for Human Development” Please see page 40 for original format.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

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