Crisis Group and Hillary Clinton Honor Women in Pursuit of Peace

Swanee Hunt on the women leading the charge to change how war and peace are waged.

Craig Barritt / Getty Images

On Saturday in New York City, in a pedicab amid a sea of yellow taxis, I made my way a dinner hosted by Crisis Group, one of the world’s most influential sources of advice on prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.

I was thinking about the four women being honored and how fitting it is that the Statue of Liberty was just south of the venue on the Hudson River, looking on as her global sisters stepped into the spotlight. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an outspoken proponent of women’s role in creating stability, would be the keynote speaker.

When I walked into the fancy reception, the photographer beamed. An image worthy of his lens! Celebrating last weekend’s Nobel Peace Prize, I was wearing to this dinner my mother’s diamonds and rubies with a red white and blue cotton dress printed with multiple faces of laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, presented to me five years ago by women who stopped the brutality in Liberia and elected the first (and sadly only) woman president in Africa. Oh, and I had a traditionally showy headdress out of the same fabric. “Next year, we’ll see it in Paris,” assured one fan.

Crisis Group named this dinner “In Pursuit of Peace.” Lots of events have pithy names, but this one was in fact apt. I recognized many diplomats and others who’ve spent their lives “in pursuit of peace,”—ironically sometimes with weapons. I went over to my friend Wes Clark, former U.S. presidential candidate and Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (heading NATO). He asked if I’d pre-screened Angelina Jolie’s Bosnian war film In the Land of Blood and Honey. I told him yes, and how my colleague Miki Jacevic had just shown it in Sarajevo to about 20 heads of organizations of traumatized women. ‘It was ultimately good and also necessary, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Miki had said—strong words for a war refugee. “The women were re-traumatized, not just wailing and crying, but nauseated.”

“I’m not surprised at all,” Wes replied, describing flashbacks he had after watching the film. As American Ambassador to Austria at the time, trying to intervene in the war from nearby Vienna, I understood all too well; it struck me that Angelina—as writer, director, and producer—was also among us Friday night, “in pursuit of peace.”

An hour later, Secretary Clinton gave her rousing keynote. She and I have had many a conversation over the years about our shared passion for bringing women into the concept of security. In her speech, she reminded us that of the 300 peace accords signed in the last 20 years, half have failed. “What’s missing from the peace talks?” asked the secretary. “One answer is women.”

War has changed, but the way we approach peace hasn’t. The secretary emphasized that we need a new way to build lasting stability—and that new way is the untapped power of women.

She described vast networks of women in almost every conflict zone, whether lawless mountains of Pakistan or “up-country” in the forests of Liberia.

Women are preventing wars and healing stricken communities. When we recognize that, we’re looking at global security from a new perspective.

Clinton emphasized that most men aren’t warmongers, and women aren’t universally altruistic. In fact, we make peace because it’s the smart thing to do. Women understand the cost of war because we pay that debt long into the future—through psychological trauma, pregnancy and HIV/AIDS from mass rapes, schools and clinics destroyed, and family ties broken. But most important, women want to protect their children. “Sustainable peace” is not just a set of buzzwords to us or to them; it’s an imperative for a secure home as well as a secure world.

A dozen years ago, as some of us created the Women Waging Peace Network (now well over 1,000 women leaders from 40 conflicts) we discovered that women have invaluable, comprehensive understanding of their communities. As Hillary said, they recognize the early warning signs of war, know to lower the temperature of heated debates, root out causes of unrest, and name essential needs that must be met if peace is to hold. When women participate in negotiations, they make sure other marginalized groups are represented. The agreement turns out to be more practical and more likely to succeed in the long term.

The secretary was interrupted seven times by applause as she recounted the power of women ameliorating conflicts in a score of locations. “It’s not about being the softer sex,” she insisted. She told how when during Darfur negotiations the men were stuck on who would have water rights from a certain river, the women pointed out that the river had long since dried up. The audience broke into laughter. “I love that one,” Clinton grinned. Even war has its moments of wry levity.

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At the end of her speech, the crowd (which former president Bill Clinton and Queen Noor of Jordan, among other luminaries) stood and cheered. Hillary Rodham Clinton had broken open the whole concept of security: Not just bombs and bullets. Not just warlords and militias. And, to use her words, not just women as victims, but as actors.

In fact, the actions of four honorees bore out the secretary’s point.

Sihem Bensedrine spent 20 years as a human-rights advocate in Tunisia. Even when leaders of a repressive regime threatened, beat, and jailed her, she kept fighting. After two years of exile, she returned home when the regime was toppled earlier this year and now heads up the Arab Working Group of Media Monitoring.

Shukri Ismail founded the nongovernmental organization Candlelight for Health, Education and Environment, which started tiny and has grown to provide healthcare training, education, support for income generation, and environmental protection in all six provinces of the dangerously “failed state” of Somalia.

Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey is a justice-system reformer currently serving as Guatemala’s first female attorney general. She has led the effort to finally prosecute those responsible for atrocities during Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which ended 15 years ago.

Sima Samar, now head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, has long championed women’s equal participation. After 17 years building 55 schools, she was asked to join President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet in 2002. She set up the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs and helped lead the campaign for women’s right to work and girls’ right to education. And when there are crimes against women and girls, she argues all the way up to the conservative mullahs on the Supreme Court. If there is still no justice, she goes to the president.

Saturday morning, after the dinner, I had brunch with Dr. Samar, with whom I’ve worked for nine years through our Institute for Inclusive Security. I introduced her to a few friends, saying I knew her when her hair was black. (Lady Clairol and I have since stuck our own alliance.) But rather than showing any signs of slowing down, when asked about her personal source of energy, Sima had a ready answer.

I’ll relay it as she told it:

“This past week a government official said to me, ‘I wish you had been doing your human-rights work 50 years ago.’ Then he explained how his mother’s brother and the brother’s friend exchanged their sisters to be wives, like pieces of property. Then when he was 8, he saw his mother beaten by her brother. And one day, as his mother leaned over the round open oven, where she was making traditional bread, her father-in-law came up behind her, grabbed her hair, and tried to push her face into the fire.”

“The man was crying as he told me,” Dr. Samar said. “So was I,” she added.

So were millions of others, Sima. So was your nation.

And so has ours been, because we’re all ultimately connected.

Hillary Clinton’s speech to Crisis Group was more than a review of how things are. It was a call to create a new future. As we finally end the war in Iraq, let’s stop this violent madness. And let’s do it by elevating massive numbers of women into the decision-making of war and peace.