Women Seek Louder Voice as World



Women Seek Louder Voice as World Peacemakers

New York Times- May 28, 2000




African women are everywhere, in the media, in politics, in business," said Ergibe Boyd, an Eritrean-born American diplomat who has given herself an unusual assignment in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. "But women are never at the peace table."


In a new age of localized warfare that kills mostly civilians, "women are running and children are the victims," said Ms. Boyd, whose own family has been caught in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Those who suffer most, she said in an interview in Kigali, must demand a role not only in peacemaking but also in rebuilding communities that have been shattered by the brutality of war and warlords.


In late June, Ms. Boyd plans to assemble women from all over Africa, as well as the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the Balkans, to build strategies for making their voices heard in national capitals, international organizations and the summit meeting of the world's seven leading industrial powers and Russia.


At the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, the executive director, Charlotte Bunch, said that the role of women in peacemaking "is one of the issues that's reached critical mass."


Ms. Boyd discovered this quickly in Africa. But the trend is worldwide, said Jessica Neuwirth of Equality Now, a New York organization that supports women and projects to foster peace in several African countries.


"Women suffer so much from war," she said in a telephone interview, "and they end up with so many of the daily responsibilities of life that become harder because of war." Women, even under fire, are expected to feed, shelter and look after their families.


In Sudan, women have held meetings on how to get into the efforts to produce peace. In Uganda, and elsewhere, women are beginning to assert authority over some of the youngest soldiers, often children, and are fighting the abduction of young people by guerrilla bands.


"In Somalia, the most amazing process has taken place," Ms. Neuwirth said. "A coalition of grass-roots organizations is representing women from warring clans where men really can't talk to each other. One woman in Marka, Starlin Arush, set up the most remarkable and effective demobilization program. In exchange for arms, she was taking young men and giving them food, shelter and education, which is really what they want and don't have any other way to get."


But, she added, women "have not been able to get in through the door to participate in the peace process."


In Kigali, Ms. Boyd did not have far to look for women eager to take part in her campaign to raise women's part in peacemaking. Rwanda, torn apart by genocide six years ago, has seen the emergence of some strong women's organizations committed to rebuilding a semblance of  normality for their families.


Mary Balikungeri, coordinator of the Rwanda Women's Network, has been active not only in resolving conflict but also in battling against AIDS, in part a legacy of war and the widening incidence of rape as an instrument of abuse by the men with guns. She has been working, she said, to remove the stigma of AIDS and to teach women that it is  necessary to be tested for the virus that causes it.


Ms. Balikungeri, who also runs a center for women who were victims of rape in the genocidal Hutu-led attacks against mostly Tutsi families in 1994, recently toured the United States as a guest of the American government, traveling with 15 women from all over Africa, including from countries at war with each other. As they traveled, they shared stories --and met some American women living in poverty and distress.


"You come to realize," Ms. Balikungeri said, "we need each other. All of us, regardless of where we were from, saw that everywhere women are the victims."