one small window…

on the world: a view on human rights

Women on the Front Line of Peace

Women and children are the first casualties of war. Yet, in both war and peace-making efforts, women are often sidelined. Across the spectrum, the contributions women make to peace efforts are often assigned secondary importance. 

Peace efforts take place both within conflict and post-conflict situations. Like physical infrastructures, social infrastructures need to be repaired and bridges between communities rebuilt. This takes time, patience and understanding. As a human rights activist, I believe that peace and justice have a symbiotic relationship; justice is essential to heal wounds the eye cannot see.

Conflict is not as remote as media reports suggest. I spoke to three UK-based women peace activists, who have all worked in conflict situations, about the work they do on a regular basis to make the world we live in a more peaceful place.

Maya Evans from St L???????????????????????????????eonard’s-on-Sea in East Sussex works with Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK. She was the first British peace activist to visit Afghanistan in 2011 since the US/NATO war broke out there in 2001. She has recently returned from a 3-month visit working with internally-displaced people and on peace-building projects between ethnic communities in Kabul. In 2010, she successfully brought a legal case against the British army’s detainee transfer policy in Afghanistan, effectively exposing the involvement of the British army in torture in Afghanistan, and preventing the handover of Afghan prisoners to potential torture in Afghan prisons.

What do you do & why?

I started out as an activist 13 years ago with my local anti-war group, Merseyside Stop the War. I felt urged to do something after 9/11, which promoted the invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, our political leaders Blair and Bush were gesturing to the world that war would be their method of resolving terrorism. I had very little knowledge or understanding of global politics, economics or geographic strategy, but I was motivated by the plight of ordinary people whose lives were going to be destroyed for reasons that had nothing to do with them. My humanitarian instincts told me this was wrong and as a person I should do something, however small, to help innocent people who are no different to myself or my friends and family in the UK.

How do you do it?

I currently focus on the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This involves working closely with a peace group in Kabul called the Afghan Peace Volunteers who run peace-building projects in their local community, as well as international outreach and campaigns. In the UK, I promote support for this group as well as countering pro-war attitudes and government foreign policy. This includes giving talks, organising actions, disseminating information, making short documentaries, writing articles and on occasion, prosecuting the government for war crimes.

How do you see the future of the issue?

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am full of fear and dread for the indented path NATO and the US have taken in Afghanistan. The Bilateral Security Agreement will no doubt eventually be signed or possibly even bypassed through illegal memorandums of understanding; either way, foreign troops and/or private security contractors will be staying in Afghanistan and the use of armed and surveillance drones will intensify in a country which is already the drone capital of the world. On the other hand my work and connection with optimistic Afghans who aspire to another possible world gives me hope. The majority of people want and need peace. The options are: a) resign yourself to being trampled by the powers which represent the 1% or b) strive for a better world which will benefit the majority of people.

Why Does It Matter?

If we don’t stand up for humanity we’re all doomed.

Muna Othman froMuna Othman m London is a Yemeni-British peace activist and writer. Raising awareness about social and political problems in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries, she uses her writing, public speaking and campaigning to draw attention to issues such as drone warfare and women’s rights, as well as working on social projects in Yemen. Devastated by decades of civil war and now tribal wars, war with Saudi Arabia and drone warfare, Yemen is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world, with high levels of infant mortality and poverty.

What do you do & why?

I see myself as a writer and what would be perceived as an activist, although that is such a broad term nowadays. With respect to my writing and raising awareness of issues or events, whether campaigning or public speaking, I mainly concentrate on events in the Middle East, in particular Yemen, where I’m from. I started getting more politically active and in particular on social media networks when the Arab Spring sprung. I personally started doing this because I was tired of seeing misinterpreted and often manipulated versions of events and commentary in the mainstream western media with respect to Yemen.

My motivation to continue to be politically involved has since expanded to British politics – my adopted land as opposed to just my motherland; as well as a range of other issues other than just being anti-war and pro-democracy. As a woman from the East brought up in the West, I feel it is necessary and even a duty to continue to show the world there is another side to the story, one which is often lost in the commentary of chasing headlines.

How do you do it?

I continue to write and campaign about what I feel passionately about in terms of sustainable projects in Yemen as well as child marriages and how to implement long-term plans with regards to education, in particular for girls in Yemen. I don’t naively believe in the impossible but rather hope for the impossible and try to be a part of and educate in order to achieve what is possible. With issues like child marriages, drones and education, I’ve seen how even in rural areas people are more willing now to talk about it rather than pretend it’s the ‘norm’. I don’t think this would have been possible 3 or 4 years ago, but since the revolution it seems people have broken down some of their misconceptions, albeit slowly.

How do you see the future of the issue?

I’m instilled with a sense of hope when I see people debating and actually questioning what should be accepted or shouldn’t be accepted in society. When I meet and see youth, in particular young women, exercising their right to speak freely and think freely on strategies of how to create a better country, my sense of duty to carry is only further strengthened. It’s quite extraordinary how campaigning on the ground and writing on the web opens you up to such a vast audience of different people; it’s this very concept of seeing and experiencing change that makes it worthwhile.

Why does it matter?

I think it’s important to continue what I do and hopefully expand and be a part of more campaigns and projects in order for people to learn and not be sucked into having a one-sided misconception of a country and culture so unknown and misunderstood. I’ve been blessed to be able to commentate in English and feel I should utilise this to bridge the gap between people and cultures such as my adopted homeland and my motherland. I believe it’s important as a woman to continue to show people it is possible to be a woman of culture yet still have a voice in such a male-dominated arena.

Clara Reilly from Belfast is the Chairperson of RLondon_Clara_Reilly_showing_plastic_bulletelatives for Justice (RFJ) and the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets. A community activist and leading rights advocate since the conflict in Northern Ireland flared in the 1960s, she has documented conflict-related abuses by all actors to the conflict and identified support mechanisms for those who suffered violations. In the 1970s, she successfully lobbied the Irish government to take action against the British government at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), leading to a landmark ruling on torture, involving the use of stress positions and other torture methods by the British military on Republican prisoners. Although banned, they have been used more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What do you do & why?

There are two answers to this. The fundamental answer is that I came from a family that viewed duty to our fellow person’s dignity as an essential part of our journey through life. We were always a family that opened our door to those in need. Both my mother and father had very strong principles in an area that suffered extreme poverty and deprivation as a result of discrimination.

Secondly, the conflict as it arose around me was unimaginable. We were all thrown into the middle of a militarised zone which was still our community. The introduction of internment in particular saw unprecedented state violations. We had little recourse to any form of law or justice.

In the absence of any formal accountability we formed an Association for Legal Justice. We took statements from those who suffered violations first hand and those who witnessed the violations. Very soon we had piles and piles of files all pointing to systemic abuse, torture and the illegal use of lethal force. In the days before mobile phones and common access to cars or computers, every task was difficult and time consuming.

I was lucky as I had a phone, which meant that my home became an incident centre as parents and family members frantic about the whereabouts of their loved ones phoned police barracks, hospitals and morgues to find out where their relatives might be.

In the middle of all of that, what choice did I have? I had a civic duty to my community and to wider society. If we were ever going to find a way through our conflict it needed to be on the basis of human rights and dignity – and I tried to play my part in that.

All the time I was raising my family of six and holding down a job in the hospital. It was not easy and it was not the life I would have chosen – but it was the privilege of the unexpected path, which rewarded more than it cost.

How do you do it?

Back then we wrote down statements and typed them up and used carbon paper. We met people face to face. We went to homes still smelling of cordite and dug bullets out of walls, and called for first aid and doctors for families in distraught grief.

Now it is very different. We have a large professional organisation using modern technology and paid dedicated staff. We offer professional counselling and set standards in trauma recovery. We employ case workers who make submissions to the UN and the ECtHR.

What I do now is offer my experience and knowledge.

This means keeping the dignity of the individual at the heart of every development and process within RFJ. Nothing we do will be relevant if we do it any other way. So whether it be offering counselling in safe and professional settings or recording the experiences of violations and their long-term effects – all of this work keeps process and dignity at their very heart.

How do you see the future of the issue?

Right now, we are in the middle of political wrangling on how we build a process to deal with our past.

For me, looking back at where we have come from, it is encouraging that victims and survivors of our conflict are at last the subject of substantive negotiations. The question now is whether their needs and rights will be prioritised or whether they will become a vehicle for vested interests to play some sort of political end game.

The key to serving victims’ interests will be the promotion of human rights. If we keep them front and centre then all victims of our conflict will be served equally with dignity and respect – and equally all actors to our conflict will be subject to equal and fair process.

Why Does It Matter?

Quite simply because it must never happen again.

We must never allow impunity to reign and abuse and cruelty to set our agenda. We must never return to the days where children could be shot with plastic bullets outside their own homes or where women could be “disappeared” and their children left orphans.

If we learn from our past and build a strong human rights framework within which we all operate this will provide a significant safeguard.

Learning from our past will ultimately inform the future of our transitional society and safeguard us all, and our children, from the repetition of the crimes of our past.

Demonstrating the necessary interdependence between peace and justice, on UN International Day for the Right to Truth, 24 March 2014, Relatives for Justice launched a new video campaign entitled “Time for Truth – #Time4Truth” for the right of victims of the conflict in the North of Ireland to know the truth of the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of the British army:

One comment on “Women on the Front Line of Peace


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