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Diverse Women Leaders Emphasize ‘Soft Power’ Approaches to Peace at Capitol Hill Forum

WASHINGTON DC —A panel of women leaders told a forum at the U.S. Capitol on May 13, 2014 that women have played an under-recognized role in fostering peace in families and communities and need to be empowered to assume greater authority in formal political and multi-sector peace initiatives.

“Peace doesn’t come by force or simply by signing papers,” Global Peace Women Secretary General Shinsook Kwak Kim, discusses women's contributions to peace at a forum on Capitol Hill in Washington, told participants representing faith communities, government agencies, universities and community organizations. “Lasting peace is a state of heart, manifested in action, putting the benefit of others first.”

“The ability of women to perceive the intangible aspect of life, the unspoken emotions, the characters of each person, the spiritual dimension, is part of what makes women especially valuable for the work of building peace,” Ms. Kim added.

The forum, “The Role of Women of Faith in Service of Making and Keeping Peace,” was sponsored by Global Peace Women, Global Peace Foundation USA, and Strengthening Families and Communities Coalition.

GPW Capitol Hill Forum collage

Fawzia Abass Etmadi, Vice President of the Muslim Women’s Association, presented a short overview of women’s historic contributions to peace. “In the earliest societies, women took the lead role in the development of agrarian societies—domesticating animals and building the first villages, while also raising children in very primitive conditions to make a happy home,” she said.

With later political and religious divisions, she explained, violence against women became the norm, and “women became prisoners of prejudices, stripped of basic rights and banned from education.”

 Ms. Etmadi said her work to promote peace, justice and gender equality in Afghanistan convinced her that women need to regain their voice. “After many wars word peace is not even known to many women in Afghanistan. But we are at crossroads today. As traditional caretakers, as mothers and healers, women can play a major role, in the context of their culture, when they regain their confidence.”

 Julia Maciel, a Counsellor at the Paraguay Permanent Mission to the United Nations and recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, reflected on the personal significance of her scholarship, quoting a private letter from U.S. Senator Fulbright in which he referred to the ancient concept of barbar, or “barbarian”— people “out there” whose language could not be understood and so were not trusted. She said Sen. Fulbright intended the international education scholarship to advance understanding and bridge the divisions between peoples. “In order to understand and respect other we need to talk with one another rather than about one another,” she added.

The ability of women to perceive the intangible aspect of life, the unspoken emotions, the characters of each person, the spiritual dimension, is part of what makes women especially valuable for the work of building peace.

Gail Hambleton, the National Director of the Interfaith Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking and Vice President of Global Peace Foundation USA, described her experience during two civil wars in Africa and in the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda. She also reflected on the disproportionate impact of conflict and violence on women,  and in the disturbing correlation between genocide and the growing “industry” of trafficking in human lives.

Gail Hambleton GPW Capitol Hill Forum

Citing genocide studies, Ms. Hambleton said that in the first of an eight-stage process that created the conditions for genocide, a division of the population between “us” and “them” enabled perpetrators to dehumanize the other. Similarly, traffickers treat trafficking victims as chattel, as a “stable”—property to exploit without any moral inhibition.

 She related that in Rwanda a Hutu gang arrived at one school for girls and demanded that the Hutus be separated from the Tutsis. The terrified girls clung to each other and to their teachers and refused to separate, so the armed band gunned down the entire student body. Relating this story Ms. Hambleton said she meant to honor those girls and their example. “To end identity-based conflict we need to recognize our common humanity, a shared identity that is prior to any ethnic, religious or gender status.”

Significantly, Ms. Hambleton noted that the anti-trafficking movement in the United States is largely led by women leaders of federal agencies and civil society organizations, and is making tremendous progress as different sectors of society that don't usually work together are actually working together.

 “Women are stronger than we know,” she told the forum. “We have a role as women in peacekeeping and we need to step up and take our place at the peace table. Because after all, who usually sets the table?”

 Global Peace Women is a division of the Global Peace Foundation, which is a convening partner of the Strengthening Families and Communities Coalition. The forum was moderated by Ms. Diann Dawson, a, child welfare advocate, human services consultant and former federal official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

GPW Capitol Hill Forum wide collage