Rewind twenty years—Rwanda, 1994. One million people killed in 100 days, a slaughter by farmers, teachers, priests and others, directed by local officials.
“The worst was the bloodstains,” one friend said of her first impression after the genocide, when she returned to Kigali after three decades as a refugee. Another friend recounted: “From houses and the bush, people were emerging with wounds, emaciated. The streets were full of corpses. Young. Old. Survivors had lost confidence in themselves.” But mothers, daughters and sisters pressed on. They buried parents, husbands and children, and then set about rebuilding their nation.
From picking up crushed remnants of Rwandan society to organizing five tiers of female councils (starting with 15,000 villages), and designing a new constitution guaranteeing their rights, the women of Rwanda have been a stabilizing force for peace.
In just the last ten years, life expectancy has jumped from 48 to 58. Now women can own and daughters can inherit property—an extremely important step toward their advancement. For the first time, girls attend primary and secondary school, even in slightly higher proportion to boys. And women play a globally historic role in government; with 64 percent, theirs is the first parliament in the world with a female majority.
Rwanda provides the most dramatic example in history of women putting their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their nation. Their story radiantly illustrates what I’ve learned from decades of work in 40 conflict-ridden countries—women are the greatest untapped resource for peace and stability.
Obviously not every female, but across history and continents, women writ large have transformed peace processes. In Liberia, they united as Christians and Muslims, demanding an end to a horrific 14-year war. They won, and so did Liberia. After being long excluded, women in Darfur were finally allowed into the room with male warlords who were haggling over a certain river. The women let them know that it had dried up years before; they, after all, fetched the water.
In Northern Ireland, women created a Catholic and Protestant women’s political party to gain a seat at the negotiating table. Once there, they insisted their children be taught from the same textbooks, instead of learning conflicting histories perpetuating conflicting futures. And in Washington, DC, last fall, a bipartisan group of female senators broke political gridlock, reopening the federal government and saving the US from a first-ever default.
Whether creating a mass movement in Liberia, bringing real-life experience into debate in Sudan, reaching across the aisle in the US, or insisting on a peaceful next generation in Northern Ireland, women have broadened negotiations beyond who gets the spoils. They address underlying drivers of conflict and change negotiating dynamics from zero-sum thinking toward consensus. They wield great influence over their neighbors and families and can sell a peace agreement in their communities. Seen as credible, fair and rarely instigators of war, they’re not as threatening as men, creating an environment of stability and confidence.
Of course, progress worldwide is uneven, at best. It’s been three years since the tumultuous overthrow of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak, the result of mass protests that brought women and men pouring into the squares. How have women fared? Of 22 Arab countries, Egypt ranked worst on the basis of gender violence, reproductive rights, the treatment of women in the family, and their inclusion in politics and the economy, according to a Reuters poll last year.
In contrast, after more than 40 years of violence between Colombia’s government forces and guerrillas, with millions of citizens caught in the crosshairs, in 2005 Parliament adopted the Justice and Peace Law. Women pressed for a key provision: the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation. With significant female leadership, the commission consulted with civil society, including survivors, indigenous rights groups and Afro-Colombians, leading to the extraordinary 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law. This was in itself iconoclastic: major public policy focusing on the needs of those most affected by violence, while conflict was still going on.
Clearly, progress doesn’t travel in a straight line. In 2004, we were riveted by images of grinning Afghan women holding up blue-inked index fingers as they emerged from the polls. A girls’ school I visited in Kabul—a former Taliban madrasa—holds three full sets of classes each day, with hundreds of students sitting outdoors beneath an overflow tent. Twenty percent of university students are females. That said, illiteracy is still sky high. And as I write, planes out of Kabul are filled with international workers fleeing election-related violence. “Negotiations” may give the Taliban a role in government, and women worry their gains will be bargained away. It’s a realistic fear: Last year President Karzai named as human rights commissioner a former Taliban who opposes women’s rights.
The work before us would be daunting—except that it must not be. Battles rage in Syria, Congo, South Sudan…. But like their Rwandan sisters, women in these nations are strong, wise and willing. Whether by circumstance or sheer will, they’re determined to make their voices heard. They (along with an increasing number of policymakers) know that their leadership is one of our greatest hopes for lasting peace. And the rest of us? We can’t wait for stars to align. We must help align them.