Women Peacemakers

January 18, 2012
By Katie Koch, 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 on Jan. 11 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, 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.”

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.

“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 to intervene.

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.

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 very powerful.” Read more

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Panelists (L to R): Samira Hamidi, Mossarat Qadeem, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Orit Adato, Zaynab El Sawi, and Rebecca Joshua Okwaci.

Panelists (L to R): Samira Hamidi, Mossarat Qadeem, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Orit Adato, Zaynab El Sawi, and Rebecca Joshua Okwaci.

Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln

“It is dangerous, but we are proud of what we’re doing,” said Samira Hamidi.