Sometimes a simple gesture of hope can change attitudes about an intractable problem. In 1971, for example, an American ping-pong team played in Beijing, helping end decades of cold-war hostility between China and the United States.
Might a walk for peace between the two Koreas, planned for May 24 by an international women’s group, do the same for those two countries?
North and South Korea are still technically at war, divided by a mined demilitarized zone, more than 60 years since their hot combat during the cold war. Over the past quarter century, various attempts to reconcile the two nations have failed even as North Korea builds up a nuclear arsenal. Now a group of 30 women that includes two Nobel Peace Prize winners as well as activist Gloria Steinem hopes their walk from Pyongyang to Seoul – across the DMZ – will help lead to a peace treaty.
The date of the walk was chosen to honor International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. But the event also represents the rise in the role of women as peacemakers. This year is the anniversary of a meeting of women in 1915 demanding an end to World War I. That gathering led to the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In recent years, the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to women involved in settling disputes or who campaigned for human rights causes. And since 2000, the United Nations Security Council has twice passed resolutions involving women and war. In 2014, it called for empowering women as a way to halt violent extremism.
That resolution, says Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile and a former UN official, “is an attempt to illuminate the often invisible, informal, and unrecognized role that women and girls play in preventing and resolving conflict, from peace activism to day-to-day interfamily and intercommunity mediation and reconciliation.”
In the past year, female peace activists have played a prominent role in conflicts in which women and girls have been targeted. In Nigeria, women led protests against the government’s failure to find more than 200 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok. And after the kidnapping of women by Islamic State, women’s groups have campaigned to rescue them.
The walk between the Koreas may put only another spotlight on a long-lasting conflict. But it will be difficult for the two states not to respond given the long history of women as peacemakers.