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16 women who are standing up to violence

A Path to Progress

Today (March 8) is International Women's Day. From Ukraine to Mexico, women across the world are finding creative ways to break cycles of violence in their communities.

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    Fleure Zebi, a hair salon manager, is seen in her salon in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last month. Women have long played a dominant role in agriculture in this West African country. Now some are breaking through into the most important positions in government and business – positions long held by males in this traditional society.
    Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters/File
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Violence takes many forms. The pernicious abuses behind closed doors, hidden by family members in the name of honor. Structural and economic violence that disadvantages particular groups, condemning them to lifelong marginalization and insecurity. The encompassing devastation wrought by war.

Whatever the cause, cycles of violence require tenacity, courage, and understanding to break.

The 16 women profiled here—who recently came together at Inclusive Security’s annual colloquium—are standing up to violence, in all its myriad forms. From Mexico to Myanmar, Sudan to South Sudan, Iraq to Ukraine, they are defying the notion that violence is inevitable, or that injustice should be tolerated.

Khadija Al-Jabiry Na’ama has sown the seeds—literally—for peace and reconciliation in Iraq. As owner of a plant nursery, she hosted an informal outdoor “salon” where women met to discuss their daily security issues.

“It was like a space of freedom,” she says now. Khadija emerged from these meetings with an understanding of women’s needs and priorities. Over two terms on Baghdad’s provincial council, she fought for schools, hospitals, sewers, clean water, and other basic services for her constituents. “If the government fails to provide for urgent needs,” she explains, “people will be less invested in their communities…which offers an opening for extremists.”

Nowadays, Khadija’s specialty is bridging the gap between the country’s highest decision makers—the prime minister, parliament, and ministries—and its citizens.

Apuk Ayuel and her family fled Juba during Sudan’s civil war in 1996, eventually settling in the US. Yet she never forgot her homeland. In 1998, she remembers seeing a photo of a starving child in famine-stricken southern Sudan, and thinking “this could have been my fate.” After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, Apuk became a diplomat, serving her new country in South Africa and the US.

When war resumed in December 2013, she became a refugee once again. As part of the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women in Sudan and South Sudan, she helped organize women from both sides to pressure the government and opposition to stop the senseless violence. She reflects now: “The fact that we were women, and not seen as a threat, was our most important asset.”

“I never expected to become a character out of my own PhD dissertation on forced migration,” observes Iryna Brunova-Kalisetska. But after speaking out against Russian annexation of Crimea, her home region, she had to flee in order to avoid arrest. For more than 15 years, as a professor and a psychologist, she trained people on how to avoid conflict and solve misunderstandings. Now, the place where she taught peace has become an epicenter of violence.

From her new base in Kyiv, Iryna directs a center supporting education for the prevention of conflict. “In my country,” she says, “people don’t usually share their stories of suffering.” But she believes that talking—and listening—to each other is the path to reconciliation.

Lilia Aguilar grew up with more than 20 “brothers and sisters”—most of whom weren’t related to her. As a result of her parents’ political activism, which caused them to be closely monitored by the government, she was placed in a house with children of other dissidents. At age 21, Lilia was elected to local congress in Chihuahua. Because of her campaign to end the epidemic of missing and murdered women in the city of Juárez, she was threatened.

“This was my first lesson in the dangers of leadership,” she says. But she persisted, and was elected to the national legislature of Mexico in 2012 as a leader of the opposition. Since 2014, she’s been one of the most prominent voices within the government demanding justice for 43 students who were forcibly “disappeared” while traveling to Mexico City.

Naw Rebecca Htin recalls the reason she and her husband, both doctors, started a mobile clinic to provide care to ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s rural areas: “Those of us who had grown up in the city hadn’t felt what [the war] was like.” Apart from the bad roads and infrastructure in those provinces, she learned that people there fear every day for their lives and property.

Following this sobering experience, Rebecca sought to address the root causes of the conflict. She currently supports ceasefire negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups. “Democracy alone won’t solve all our problems,” she insists, “It has to be linked to addressing the grievances of ethnic groups.”

Huda Shafig has, by her own account, led a privileged life. Unlike many women in her native Sudan, she grew up in the city, went to private school, and had all her basic needs covered. As she got older, she realized that violence and inequality in faraway regions impacts the whole society.

“Even if I’m not living in a conflict zone, it still affects me,” she says. “If a part of your body is suffering, you suffer too.”

In 2009, Huda cofounded a youth organization to monitor human rights throughout the country. Over the last few years, as part of the Taskforce for the Engagement of Women in Sudan and South Sudan, she has advised the government on how to make the country’s national dialogue process more inclusive—increasing the positions reserved for women from 10 to more than 200 seats (29 percent of the total).

Olga Bogomolets grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine, when it was still part of the USSR. “There was only one god,” she now says, “and his name was Lenin.” But she rose above this restrictive upbringing to become a doctor, a renowned folksinger, and, finally, a national political leader.

She remembers the day her life changed: “I was in a village and got a call from a journalist, who said that there were a million people in the street.” She rushed over to the site of what would become the Maidan revolution, and spent the next three months coordinating medical care for the protesters. Sixteen young, unarmed men died in her arms over just three days in February 2013. This experience inspired her to run for president.

“I couldn’t be a doctor anymore in a country where people are just shot in the streets and I have no chance to save their life.” She came in fifth, but was elected to parliament later that year, and has used that position to advocate for reform.

“It’s hard,” she says, “but this is a chance and a choice to change your country.”

There is no official number, Sylvia Aguilera notes, but “tens of thousands of people have been ‘disappeared’ in Mexico over the last eight years.” She is working with the victims’ families to transform their suffering into structural change. Sharing their experience of how they searched for their loved ones is not only healing for the individuals. Sylvia channels this information to decision makers to ensure that new legislation to end forced disappearances is responsive to the needs of the victims.

“It won’t bring all their loved ones back,” she says, “but if we find one ‘disappeared’ person, it will be worth it.”

When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, Liza Hido gave up a 25-year computer engineering career to enter political life. After winning election to her district council, she used her position to condemn rampant violence against women. Because of this, and her later role in establishing the Baghdad Women’s Association, armed extremists have harassed her repeatedly.

“My life is a continuous threat,” Liza says. But she refuses to stop. More recently, she’s been assisting women fleeing the onslaught of ISIS, as well as advising the Ministries of Defense and Interior on how to include women in countering violent extremism.

The Nuba Mountains, in southern Sudan, is a rich land, whose farmers feed the whole nation. Yet there are no schools or health centers, says Kamilia Ibrahim Kuku Kura. This disparity between different regions is one of the root causes of persistent violence in her country, and one she has been working to correct for decades. Drawing on her own experience being displaced by war, she has courageously spoken out on behalf of civilians stuck in the line of fire and has helped provide humanitarian aid to those in need.

Kamilia also elevates and mobilizes women across ethnic, tribal, and national lines to increase their participation in peace processes.

“We need to work not as Darfuri women or Nuba women,” she insists, “but as Sudanese women.”

“I grew up in an educated, open-minded family,” says Suzan Aref Maroof, “but culture is culture.” Widowed at age 27, with three children, she learned firsthand how women are prevented from participating in economic or political life. To protect her family’s honor and reputation, she was forced to stay hidden in her parents’ home for eight years. She contemplated suicide, but convinced her father that she was better free than dead. After that, Suzan founded an organization to empower other women like her.

“I want a strong country that depends on both men’s and women’s contributions,” she says. To this end, she’s helped more than 50,000 women find jobs and escape violence, and successfully advocated to raise the legal marriage age from 16 to 18.

A woman is killed in Mexico every four hours, notes Katia Ornelas-Nunez. Only 25 percent of overall crimes are reported because most citizens don’t trust the judicial system. A lawyer, Katia spent eight years pushing for criminal justice reforms, culminating in an amendment to the constitution in 2008. But then she realized, she says, “that all the violence and the underlying inequities could not be solved” by the justice system alone. So she designed a model to address the cycle of conflict, heal psychological trauma, and better serve victims’ needs.

As Deputy Director of a violence prevention program, she is now replicating this model in communities across the country. “We have to understand that violence is something we’ve been learning,” Katia insists, “but we can learn other ways.”

“My mother told me: If you’re not educated, you’re like a blind woman,” Suaad Allami remembers. Though she grew up in Sadr City, one of the poorest areas of Iraq, she became the first in her family to graduate from university. Shattering more taboos, in 1992 she became a lawyer; at the time, one of only three female lawyers in her city. She remembers an early client—18 years old and seeking a divorce, the woman’s family prevented her from pursuing legal help, and eventually one of her children died in her husband’s care.

“This is how the tribal system compromises women’s rights,” Suaad says. Because of examples like this, she is an outspoken advocate for women in Iraq, and has been recognized by the US State Department, UN, and others around the world for her courageous leadership.

Tabitha Mathiang spent 10 years in the bush, fighting for justice and freedom for South Sudan alongside her husband, a general in the liberation movement. When the peace agreement was signed in 2005, she was hand-selected to lead the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of more than 3,000 women and child soldiers.

But, she says, even after the armed groups handed over their guns, “There was still a culture of war.” When renewed conflict broke out in December 2013, 10 of Tabitha’s relatives were killed. With her friend Apuk, she provided support to the peace talks, reasoning that “Maybe when they see us together, a Dinka and a Nuer, these men will think differently.”

The warring parties signed a peace agreement in 2015.

Though her father came from the ethnic Burmese majority (50 percent of the population), Phyu Phyu May Sabe grew up among the Kachin minority of her mother (1.5 percent). At 19, she decided to marry a Kachin man—but her father disapproved, saying that Burmese men are smarter. When she went forward anyway, he refused to talk to her for 10 years.

“Discrimination and inequality are so deeply rooted in our country,” she says. “It doesn’t only affect me as an individual,” but is the cause of Myanmar’s 68-year civil war, the longest-running in the world. Phyu Phyu insists that the new government must make space for everybody to participate in solving the conflict. To that end, she directs the Gender Equality Network, which ensures women’s participation in the country’s ongoing peace process.

In 2013, journalist Oksana Romaniuk’s email was hacked and her personal stories and photos were published online.

“I was already a troublemaker for the government,” she says, because of her strong stance against censorship. Her opponents published articles—even made a documentary film—based on her private emails, accusing her of “immorality” and working for foreign interests. When she reported the attack, the police responded by interrogating her parents and colleagues.

Instead of succumbing to intimidation, Oksana redoubled her work. When the Maidan revolution started a month later, she immediately organized a campaign to provide journalists with helmets and bullet-proof vests, so they could safely cover the protests and subsequent crackdown. She also advocated for media reforms, which were recently passed in parliament. But, she says: “The biggest task—implementation—is still in the future.”

This article by Kristin Williams was originally published by The Institute for Inclusive Security.

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