Looking out the airplane window at a white winter landscape in Oslo yesterday, I thought back to another flight. Several years ago, a U.N. helicopter took me “up country” to the Liberian bush. Sitting in circles on rickety chairs in the heavy heat, women leaders (albeit illiterate) told me their hopes for the country’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “If Ma Ellen can do it in that big White House in Monrovia that she’s in, then we can do it in our houses!” one said. She began a song and snake dance with the refrain, “Side by side, side by side, men not in front, women not behind, but side by side, side by side.” They and their sisters across the country had ended the brutal 14-year war. At the time, few within Liberia or around the world knew what they’d accomplished.
How far we’ve come.
Hours ago, I watched Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Both are longtime members of the Women Waging Peace Network, which we started in 1999, after I founded the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government. (Subsequently, we spun the network out of Harvard and created the Institute for Inclusive Security in Washington, D.C.)
There I was, snapping pictures and tweeting like a madwoman (@SwaneeHunt) to bring my followers virtually into the Oslo City Hall. In the wildly colorful hall, when I saw these two Liberian leaders (one with formal authority, one with informal) accepting their awards, I felt the intense surge of emotion, knowing I was inside the core of a seminal moment in history. These laureates represent the change possible when women are involved throughout what’s known as “the peace process”—leading street protests, negotiating settlements, running truth commissions, disarming militias, reintegrating child soldiers back into society, passing laws to convict rapists, ending trafficking, ruling without corruption in the post-conflict chaos…While my two friends’ names will be joined in history with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu, both of them are even prouder of what their recognition means to Liberia, and even more broadly to the global pursuit of “inclusive security.”
The first to give her address was President Johnson Sirleaf. In her long dress of royal purple, she was eloquently regal. I had the privilege of being part of her official entourage, which meant a second-row seat, close behind my good friend Abigail Disney.
Several years ago, Abby came with me (twice) to Liberia, to do a training-consultation with Liberian women who were activists or members of the brand-new government. That’s where she met Leymah Gbowee, and that’s how she came to make the splendid film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which evolved into a four-hour PBS series: Women, War, and Peace. Abby’s film put Leymah on the world stage and led to this much-deserved recognition.
So, step by step, women are making their way into what has, tragically, been considered male territory.
And what a fine job Leymah has done here! For days, a quip followed by a story followed by an impassioned inspirational admonition…
To reporters in Oslo yesterday, she said: “No longer will the world exclude us…because the world is finally saying to us: Your skills and abilities have been recognized, and we are prepared to work with you.”
I was struck by the power of those words—and particularly their place in an intense arc of events happening right now, an arc that shows the momentum of women’s place in the peace-building process. Here are some highpoints:
Just last week in Bonn, Germany, Selay Gaffar of both the Afghan Women’s Network and the Women Waging Peace Network addressed the international community. At this important conference to anticipate Afghanistan's challenges and opportunities there was unprecedented representation of women—25 percent in the government’s delegation, and 50 percent in the “civil society” portion.
Then of course today in Oslo, the world watched as the Nobel Committee honored the familiar “nonviolent struggle for the safety of women,” but reached toward tomorrow with “women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Adding to the excitement in Norway, there are celebrations being staged on every continent, as women peace-builders Rise With the Prize!
Then next week in D.C. on Dec. 14 and 15, the International Engagement Conference for South Sudan will bring together governments to outline the development priorities for the newest nation on the planet. For the first time at such an event, a delegation of South Sudanese women outside government—business owners, teachers, human-rights lawyers—will be recognized as official participants. They’ll be formally contributing their ideas and energy to building the future of a country emerging from decades of armed conflict.
From Afghanistan to Sudan—and the United States, too—the shift is happening. Headlines can now move away from presenting women as vulnerable, weak victims and instead show them as the leaders and strong survivors they (we!) are, and the essential work of women in preventing and stopping war, and rebuilding after a conflict.
Think of the possibilities when women are making sure that fields are tilled and crops distributed without corruption. When they’re organizing inoculations and education, even if in one-room clinics and schools. When they’re running for parliament and taking influential positions in governments. When they’re filling the ranks of the army, police, and intelligence services.
With women sharing power and positions with men, we’ll have a safer, saner world. Side by side. Side by side.
Leymah and Ellen teach us that when women are at the table, the dialogue changes. In Liberia, Leymah stopped the 14-year war; Ellen went on to stabilize the country. Both remind us what the ultimate prize is: a world built piece by piece—peace by peace—with none other than our own hands and hearts.