Over a hundred years ago, women and men in four countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland) took to the streets to rally for women’s economic, social and political rights. Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 to honour these women and continue to fight for change.
In industrialised and developing countries, women and girls still bear most of the burden of poverty, conflict, disasters and violence. No matter the wealth of a nation, rape and sexual violence occur far too often all over the world.
However, I am an optimist; there is beauty despite the ugliness. The bravery and strength of our mothers, daughters and sisters give me hope. Even when they are the ones that have been raped, abused and battered, they take part in the process of rehabilitation and resolution – from a neighbourhood conflict to an outright war. I am in awe of the ability of women to keep communities and families together even in the midst of wars and crises.
A hundred years ago, it was unfathomable that women should vote; today, women occupy the highest positions in national government in South America, Europe and Africa. Our struggle today to end conflict is just as achievable.
‘I was in pain’
I have just returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I travelled with the Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation. War and violence have ravaged the nation, especially the women. We listened to stories that would keep you up at night. For too many of the women, each story started with “I was raped; I was in pain; I was upset and distraught…” But in the middle of their narrative, the beautiful is revealed: “…and then the women came; my sister came; my mother came; a women’s association heard and came…. They took me to a doctor; helped me with clothes; talked to me and then I regained strength… and now I am able to at least think about living again.”
The beautiful line is how women, despite the ugliness of violence, have an unshakeable sense of sisterhood and solidarity. Regardless of what the world calls DRC, I call it the “Capital of Sisterhood and Solidarity”. Their enduring hope compels every one of us to fight for peace.
This is not just the story of DRC. It is the narrative of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and other places where war has taken place and terrible wrong has been done. Women feel the urgent sense of building peace because it is with our children and on our backs that violence is fought.
It is possible for women to build peace everywhere. But they have to be meaningfully involved in the entire conflict resolution process. Politicians seeking peace in places like Syria and South Sudan tend to neglect the role women must play. But as I have seen in Liberia, where our nonviolent protests and demonstrations helped to bring an end to the conflict, women must be involved. If any changes are to be made in our societies, mothers, sisters, wives and daughters will be the ones to do it.
This is part of the problem in Syria, where women have been underrepresented in the peace negotiations and excluded from meaningful leadership positions. Many observers recognised that the underrepresentation of women was the failure of the talks and it would go nowhere. For the peace process to be successful, women and civil society deserve the space to be meaningfully involved. You cannot walk or see everything with one eye. Women are one half of the population, and leaving them out of the peace talks in countries like Syria is like trying to see everything with one eye covered. It won’t work.
This International Women’s Day, we rally again for women to meaningfully participate in the political process. A hundred years ago, it was unfathomable that women should vote; today, women occupy the highest positions in national government in South America, Europe and Africa. Our struggle today to end conflict is just as achievable.
Working to right the wrong
Although the political sphere is crucial to ending war, let us hold tight that politics is subordinate to people. When people take the human part out of conflict, and make it all about politics, that is the beginning of the failure. Wars and conflict begin with the human aspect – when communities are feeling marginalised; when there is a sense of exclusion; when there is suppression of hope and oppression of rights. It is people that feel these things, not a political ideology. There is no way you can make peace without people. And leaving women out is leaving out half of the people.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Oxfam America awarded several women the Right the Wrong award for their humanitarian efforts, and I was honoured to be among them. When we reflect on the wrongs in this world on IWD, let us celebrate the women who work to make it right.
Women are rebuilding their families and communities. Let us celebrate these women, and the work they are doing for peace. Let us celebrate the beauty in their strength and make their voices heard. We need both eyes to see clearly.
Leymah Gbowee is Founder and President, Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. Gbowee is a peace activist, trained social worker, and women’s rights advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She is an Oxfam Global Ambassador and winner of the 2014 Right the Wrong Award.