Women aim to increase role as global peacemakers

Next month, delegates meet in Geneva to forge a plan to tap women's help in conflict resolution.

Two years ago, 1,200 of the world's religious and spiritual leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations-sponsored Millennium World Peace Summit. The mission of the summit was to create a greater role for religious and moral leaders around the world to help bring peace to longstanding conflicts.

But just 15 percent of the delegates were women.

Now women are insisting that the other half of society be heard. As conflicts continue to fester in areas such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa, consensus is growing that involving women in conflict resolution is vital .

To this end, some of those same religious leaders reconvened at the UN Thursday for the launch of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders. The initiative, organizers say, will press for a greater role for women at the negotiating table, and spotlight successful women-led efforts at reconciliation. Hundreds of delegates will convene next month at the UN's Geneva offices to forge a plan of action.

"It's not that I think women magically have the answers and men are the problem, but I think adding women's voices to the debate can only help," says Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the first woman to serve as spiritual leader and general secretary of the US National Council of the Churches of Christ. "Women tend to look at an issue from a more family-oriented stance, and it's in our nature to think about what will happen to the children. And most women – not all women – prefer peaceful alternatives to war."

Women as peacemakers is not a new concept, but this is said by organizers to be the first time that women spanning the world's spiritual and religious faiths, together with women in business and government, have united for the cause. It's also the latest in a series of moves to shatter the glass ceiling for women in conflict resolution.

Two years ago, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which, among other things, called for greater involvement of women in peace processes and for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appoint more women as envoys. (Women's groups are still pushing for the resolution's full implementation.)

Meanwhile, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last year called for greater roles for women in security issues, following what they say were failures to include them in the reconciliation process in Macedonia and Serbia.

And the new International Criminal Court will also pursue "gender justice" for such crimes against humanity as systematic rape and sexual slavery.

The effects of war on women often differ from those on men, say movement organizers. For example, women are often raped by soldiers during war time, and, as was the case in Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor, women are left to raise the babies resulting from these rapes. Or, in the case of Rwanda, women were denied hereditary rights to land, so the loss of so many husbands, sons, and brothers to genocide often left women impoverished.

"People always expect the warring factions to sit down at the negotiating table, but you can't expect warlords to develop a formula for lasting peace if they're not addressing all of society's needs," says Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the peace initiative's UN partner. "You need a diversity of views, from all the different actors."

Organizers of the new initiative say they'll restrict their activities to the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Rwanda with the goal of achieving tangible results. Then they'll apply the lessons they learn there to other conflicts.

Two projects are already being considered. A group of Jewish American businesswomen plans to reach out to Palestinian women who are either struggling in business or with ventures off the ground, offering financial support and marketing, advertising, and management expertise.

And in Afghanistan, after women have been sequestered inside the home for years, some two dozen community centers may be built for women to socialize, network, and hatch business ideas. Foreign corporations may sponsor the centers, while international religious and spiritual leaders will teach values like tolerance and respect, says Dena Merriam, convener of the peace initiative.

With growing desperation worldwide about many seemingly intractable conflicts, organizers say, their enthusiasm is running high for the Geneva conference. But expectations from outsiders are mixed.

An initiative to involve women in peace-building "is not so new," says Hattie Babbitt, senior vice president of the three-year-old US-based international group, "Women Waging Peace," and former US ambassador to the Organization of American States. "But any effort that brings greater attention to the work women are doing and enhances their chances at the negotiating table, is a good one."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for one US think tank, who requested anonymity, is skeptical of the new initiative.

"It sounds interesting, but I looked at the list of [participants] and it doesn't look like something that's going to change the world," he says.

Merriam said she'll try to keep expectations realistic.

"We're not going to have peace overnight, but we have a choice between taking no step or taking small steps," she says. "We have no alternative but to keep pressing forward to find ways to avoid conflict and violence, for the sake of our children."

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