Four years ago, when producers Abigail Disney, Pamela Hogan, and Gini Reticker hatched the idea for Women, War, and Peace, the five-part documentary series currently airing on PBS, they couldn’t possibly have predicted quite how perfect their timing would be. Just three days before the first episode premiered, one of their real-life heroines, Leymah Gbowee, was among three women to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work shepherding peace into a war-ravaged region of sub-Saharan Africa.
Fittingly, it was Gbowee who inspired the series itself. Disney was in the midst of making Pray the Devil Back to Hell, her award-winning documentary—and second episode of the PBS series—about the group of Liberian women, led by Gbowee, whose peaceful protests helped bring about the end of a 15-year civil war, ushered the brutal dictator Charles Taylor out of power, and paved the way for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—one of the other recipients of this year’s Nobel—to take the helm as Africa’s first female head of state.
As Disney was putting the film together, she was stunned by the dearth of footage documenting the women’s extraordinary efforts. (There was, of course, no shortage of film showing combat and warlords.) Hogan, meanwhile, was simultaneously struck by the realization that in the seven seasons that she’d been producing PBS’s Wide Angle, an award-winning show focused on international news, virtually every story that aired that had to do with war had focused on men almost exclusively. The resulting collaboration proved truly prescient.
Not only did Gbowee just win the Nobel Prize, but the series also comes on the heels of a slew of watershed moments for women. Last month, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to open the United Nations General Assembly. And just a week earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chaired the first-ever Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation High-Level Policy Dialogue on Women and the Economy. Her main message? That female empowerment and inclusion—both politically and economically—lead to stronger economies, less warfare, and greater political stability.
It’s all part of a larger push, one that seems to be gaining traction, to encourage world leaders—particularly the ones leading those nations emerging from the Arab Spring—to take the role of women, both during times of war and times of peace, seriously. With that in mind, there might be no better time for a series of this kind. We are introduced not only to Gbowee and the women of Liberia, but also to Bosnian women who banded together to testify about being raped by Serbian forces—collectively breaking a societal taboo, and securing a judicial triumph that in turn led to new international laws on the use of sexual violence in warfare; Afghan women crusading on behalf of their compatriots to ensure that what rights they’ve secured aren’t lost altogether; and a pair of Colombian trailblazers fighting a violent battle over the rights to their land.
One of the absolute truths that emerge from the series as a whole is that, while for previous generations war may have been a primarily male domain, modern wars are equal opportunists. Instead of being fought by defined armies within a defined space, today’s wars largely are fought by gangs and warlords—not on the battlefield, but in front yards and on sidewalks. As a result, women are suffering more than ever, and are increasingly the targets of sexual violence. But—and it’s this point that both the series’ producers and its subjects hope to drive home—they’re also playing critical roles in establishing peace.
This message was given additional gravitas when the Nobel committee announced the winners of this year’s peace prize. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” Thorbjorn Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway and current head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee remarked in bestowing the honor upon Gbowee, Sirleaf, and Yemeni peace activist Tawakkul Karman. The committee, he said, hoped to send a message that might “help bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries.” PBS, it seems, hopes to help with that.