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American Women Draw Attention to Role of Women in Peace Efforts - 2003-03-07

As International Women's Day approaches, and the world braces for a possible war with Iraq, American women are drawing attention to the role women have played through the ages in peace efforts. These peace efforts have come not only before wars and national conflicts, but have continued afterwards.

The ancient Greek play Lysistrata tells the story of how the women from opposing sides in the Peloponnesian War got together and used their only advantage to bring about a peaceful resolution - they denied sexual favors to their men.

The play was revived recently by New Yorker Sharron Bower, co-organizer of an anti-war theater event called the Lysistrata Project. It involved more than 1,000 readings and performances of the Greek play in nearly 60 countries, by people opposed to military action against Iraq. "Lysistrata is a play about women who want to stop a war. And, because they have no power and no control in their society, they have to come up with a resourceful and creative way to be heard and to make the change," she said.

Panos Kouros, who organized a reading of the play at a Kurdish refugee camp in the modern-day Greek city of Patra, said the play was relevant to the suffering of refugees from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Because they are Kurds, of course they suffered from Saddam. It was very interesting to have these, all these discussions around ways that they have to resist on this specific situation," he said.

Although the Greek commedy by Aristophanes is over 2,000 years old, it has modern resonance. Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria and currently director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the story was recently invoked by former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela. "For example, when Nelson Mandela was overseeing the peace talks in Burundi, and when the rebels refused to come to the table, he asked the women of Burundi to withhold conjugal rights," she said. "Now, by that he meant sex, but then he smiled and said, "you know, like cooking, etc., etc." But it was straight out of the Greek play, Lysistrata you know, 'don't sleep with these men, unless they're willing to give up their arms and come to the peace tables.'"

Ms. Hunt started an organization called Women Waging Peace in 1999, with the goal of integrating women in peace processes to prevent violent conflict, stop war, and sustain peace in fragile regions of the world.

One reason women have been able to take leading roles in rebuilding war-torn countries is a simple case of demographics, said Elizabeth Powley, the group's case worker for Rwanda. "Immediately after the genocide, women and girls were 70-percent of the population. That has stabilized somewhat now, with the return of refugees and the re-integration of former soldiers, but women are still about 54-percent of the local population," she said.

In Northern Ireland, women took an active role in working to bring about peace there. Betty Williams, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her leading role in the Northern Ireland peace process, told a 1998 conference that her motivations were very personal. "Their names are Deborah and Paul, my children. And I didn't really want my babies to be brought up in a society that was destroying children," she said. "And so, the movement for peace in Northern Ireland was begun by women. And I believe that women have a huge role to play in creating a just, non-violent and peaceful world."

But the positive example for women in Northern Ireland has not always played out in other countries. While serving as ambassador in Vienna from 1993-to-1997, Ms. Hunt was heavily involved in efforts to facilitate peaceful resolutions to the Croatian and Bosnian wars. She said she noted that women were completely shut out of the Balkans peace negotiating processes. "There were dozens of people involved in those negotiations who were from Bosnia and Croatia, and yet, there was not one woman," she said. "They were all men. And the reason that's so interesting is that Yugoslavia has the highest percentage of women [with doctoral degrees] of any country in Europe. So, they would actually have to work at not having a woman, because there were so many qualified women."

Ms. Hunt did not say what she personally thinks about the possibility of war with Iraq. But she had one question regarding plans for rebuilding the government and society of a post-war Iraq - where, she asks, are the women?