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Bring in the peacemakers
Boys will be boys, and they do love their war games. Why not give women a crack at settling disputes?


THE OLDEST QUESTION about global conflict is why can’t we all just get along? But the second-oldest has to be what if women were in charge? Might women bring something to the peacemaking and -keeping table that men do not? The short answer is yes. Qualities universally perceived, often condescendingly, as women’s strengths — an ability to listen, share experiences, empathize with all sides of an issue, and compromise — while useful in negotiations, are rarely seen in the almost exclusively male circles of international diplomacy, where a premium is placed on the ability to outsmart the person sitting across from you.

Women Waging Peace (, a project of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, works to break open those diplomatic circles "by identifying the essential role and contribution of women in preventing violent conflict, stopping war, and sustaining peace in fragile areas around the world." For three years, the project has hosted an international colloquium on how to involve women in the rarified circles of global conflict resolution. This year’s colloquium, currently taking place at Harvard University, has special resonance in light of the war in Afghanistan and the threat of even more terrorist attacks hanging over the United States.

As the wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo have shown, and as the current international crisis further attests, geopolitical conflicts in the post–Cold War era test the limits of international diplomacy as never before. Brokering peace in these hot spots is a much different game than the high-stakes chess played by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Wouldn’t it make sense to look to the half of the population that has been silenced for so long — and the one that traditionally uses peacekeeping skills — to create today’s new diplomacy?

"The makers of war should not design the peace. It’s a bad habit," says WAPPP director Swanee Hunt, a former ambassador to Austria. "The women in Bosnia said, ‘If we are going to be the victims, we want to be part of the decision-making.’ I go even further: I say, let’s draw from a bigger talent pool."

Hunt describes a UN official who recalled that African men didn’t want women on their negotiating team because they feared that the women would compromise. She smiles at this notion as if to say, precisely.

THIS YEAR’S colloquium has drawn about 200 women from around the world, many from war-torn regions marked by centuries of tribal and territorial conflict, including Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, and the Middle East. While few of these women hold positions in the power structure of their countries, they represent the world’s community organizers. These are the grassroots activists, educators, health-care workers, academics, researchers, and religious leaders who keep their countries running even in times of war. They do the unheralded traditional work of women, and, judging from the participants’ stellar credentials, they do it with excellence.

But the Women Waging Peace (WWP) colloquium aims to push these successful women from behind-the-scenes support positions into the corridors of power where they can affect change on a much larger scale. Toward that end, many of the panels and talks at Harvard focus on giving them the practical tools to make their voices heard. The cornerstone of this strategy involves sharing personal stories of survival, justice-seeking, and fragile rebuilding efforts in ravaged countries.

Sheenah Kaliisa listened to emotional testimony from a delegation of Cambodian women. Kaliisa, a young journalist working for radio outlets including the South Africa Broadcast Company and the East African Standard in Nairobi, covers her native Rwanda. Most of her stories focus on the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocidal war, during which some 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The Cambodian women’s stories — detailing how a lack of justice and resolution following Pol Pot’s 1970s genocidal regime has kept Cambodia in the stranglehold of unresolved conflict — helped put her own work in perspective, says Kaliisa. In other words, the political became the personal and vice versa.

"I try to build peace by telling the stories of war, by disseminating information about women because no one else will tell their stories," she says. "Genocide was not committed by the army or the government; it was neighbor cutting up neighbor. Rape was rampant during genocide. Men were shot and cut up, but the women had to be raped first. They saw their daughters raped. I know one woman who was raped by 30 men, one after the other. Then they raped her 15-year-old daughter.... There can be no reconciliation if women who are living and dealing with it are not included."

In sessions that translated personal stories into strategy, women also shared experiences as researchers and experts in a particular region. In a panel discussion on transitional justice and reconstructing war-torn communities, women researchers grappled with the issue of what happens to a country and its people after war or conflict. What is the role of women in countries trying to reconcile with the citizenry and attempting to rebuild? For the panelists, women are the key to the process of rebuilding.

"There is an African saying, ‘Women make memory,’ " says Paola Cesarini, a political scientist at Columbia University. "Women are often the widows, mothers, and orphans. They have a key role in the passing on of memories of the struggle or the change from a military regime to a democracy. Women live longer. They are the caretakers of children and the elderly."

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Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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