Want to help resolve conflicts? Be sure to include women. That is the message delivered by Women Waging Peace, an organization uniting hundreds of female activists from around the world. Several prominent members of the group pressed their case in Washington Thursday.
Liberian Juanita Jarrett, a mother and grandmother, came to the United States in 2003, the same year her country's 14-year civil war ended. Ms. Jarrett says the years of war left her convinced women are far from powerless in times of conflict. "Africa is a male-dominated society, but they [men] have great regard for the women who gave birth to them," she said.
A lawyer by profession, Ms. Jarrett helped form a network of female peace workers in Liberia in the 1990s. She says the group was able to travel to war-torn locales and reach influential combatants in a way that no group of civilian men could ever have hoped to accomplish. "We used the human touch. For instance, there were some rebel leaders who were church members of [belonged to the same church as] some of the women. Some of them were also former students of some of the women. So, we used that human touch to get out to them and talk to them as our sons. That was very effective," she said.
Iranian-born Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, who has led a project documenting women's contributions to peace, says there is a lesson to be learned from Ms. Jarrett's experiences. "Very often, the more autocratic your society is, the more they [leaders] view women as mothers and in the home. So, if those same women who are mothers suddenly come out and use that identity in opposition, it is very powerful," she said.
Ms. Anderlini points to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,Argentine women who publicly protested the disappearances of their sons during the country's former military regime,as an example of women who used their revered maternal position in an otherwise male-dominated society to press a point.
Ms. Anderlini, who speaks excitedly about women increasingly asserting themselves in her native Iran, says women are natural peacemakers and conflict resolvers. "They [women] are the glue that keeps things together. In the worst war situation, if you find a woman, she probably has a bunch of kids and is probably looking after some elderly people and the sick. So, in the worst conflagration if there is an island of peace it is probably being run by the women in the community," she said.
Women Waging Peace points out that, in the aftermath of conflict where large numbers of male combatants have lost their lives, women often make up 55 percent to 65 percent of the population or even more. Excluding them from a peace and reconciliation process makes no sense, according to Harriet Babbitt, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States who now directs the Washington office of Women Waging Peace.
"What we are aiming for at Women Waging Peace is to make it automatic that, when there is conflict, when there is a post-conflict situation, that the whole international community apparatus thinks it would be impossible to move forward without including the voices of women," she said.
Women Waging Peace works closely with the United Nations. In hopes of expanding its membership, the group has created a "tool kit" of information and resources for women in conflict zones, and is in the process of having it translated into dozens of languages.