The Nobel Women’s Initiative conference called Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict is taking place here in Montebello, Quebec, Canada, very close to Montreal. Women from 35 countries have joined together for 3 days under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire to talk about and strategize around the issue of sexual violence in conflict.
This is not an attempt to make war safe for women but an effort to magnify and spotlight the work of women’s rights activism worldwide. We are here to collaborate and convene women of different cultures and experiences to address sexual violence and to contemplate concrete strategies of action. There are women from every continent present, interpreters of three different languages, and tables of women of all color of dress and expression.
Day 1 began with an opening plenary from the Laureates, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi on video, expressing thoughts on the state of the world as it pertains to violence against women.
Here are my take aways from that plenary: we need to reclaim the word ‘peace.’ We need to reclaim the peace process and address the continuum of violence against women. Every act of violence is a choice. We need to address the roots of violence and come up with a road map to overcome it. Violence starts in the mind; emotional, intellectual, societal, and physical violence. We need to have the courage to think in a completely different and new way, we need new perspectives, new wisdom. We need to rethink our whole mindset.
After the opening plenary, we went straight into our first panel discussion on Protection and Prevention with panelists from Rwanda, Manipur (which is in India if you didn’t know – I didn’t!), UN Women, the USA and Swedish Armed Forces. The session’s moderator was from Action Aid International in South Africa.
Our afternoon panel was on Justice and Accountability with the moderator from Physicians for Human Right and the panelists from Service Women’s Action Network from the US, Women’s League of Burma and Red Mesa de Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. We need to translate laws into saving lives, coordinate a driven, focused campaign, and a civil society voice that can provide context for the big picture. We must change the policy from a perpetrator centered response to a survivor centered approach. Countries need to acknowledge their own accountability and we must stop impunity. We need to acknowledge the intersection of violence and militarism while realizing we have an opportunity to work together to change the paradigm.
At the table discussions, we answered the following question: How do we overcome lack of political will in prosecuting rape? This is one of the biggest obstacles. My answer: sexual violence is a human issue, an issue for men too, an issue rooted in belief systems that maintain a playing field ruled by the ‘power over’. This is not truly just a women’s issue, is it? We must uproot this deeply embedded system so we can all be players in justice. Then we can all bring voice to the truth and bring about a decrease in disparities, an increase in equity in our world, for both women and men. From this dicussion, I am left with these questions: Does this require a grand social movement? Does global society care about the cries? Do policymakers hear the cries? Do we have to make them cry to get action?
Though I do stand on hope, I know that it will take a concerted and collective effort to bring a stop to sexual violence against women. It is a horrible and pervasive problem. It will take having women’s voices at the table, women empowered through their own grand spirit or through the grace of others, women at the table because they love their communities, their children, or because they just can’t take it anymore. Women can be brokers for peace, which was so divinely illustrated in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
I also know that by just standing up and saying “No More!” one person at a time, alone and together, we can build a great beginning. Continuing to have conferences and convenings of this sort with this level of action and expertise in the room allows a force to go out into the world, to be the model, the spark for that change we so desperately desire and need. So, after day 1 of the conference and the ideas and actions that resulted and a vision of great beginnings, I look forward to what is to come on day 2.