Distinguished Lecture Series: Monica McWilliams on “From Peace Talks to Gender Justice”

Women make up less than 3 percent of signatories to peace agreements, so to be in the presence of both Monica McWilliams and Luz Mendez — two women who signed peace agreements in their respective countries — is remarkable. Never mind the addition of over 175 delegates representing 45 countries, all of whom  are experts, scholars and practitioners in women, peace and security. This was the scenario at the Peace & Justice Theatre at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (IPJ) last night.

The Joan B. Kroc Distinguished Lecture Series was pleased to welcome Monica McWilliams to open the 2010 Women PeaceMakers Conference with a talk entitled, From Peace Talks to Gender Justice.”


In 1996, in the midst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Monica McWilliams brought an unlikely combination of women together across religious, class, sector and regional divides to form the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition party. Together these women were elected to a seat at the Multi-Party Peace Negotiations, which led to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in 1998.

After a jovial introduction by 2010 Joan B. Kroc Peace Scholar Paul Arthur, in which he noted the “frontiered misogyny” that McWilliams and the Women’s Coalition faced and honored their work humanizing the peace process, McWilliams took the stage. She began her talk by inviting the audience to walk with her through the last 40 years — through pictures.

As we all know, pictures say 1,000 words and McWilliams pictures were no exception. She shared images from as early as 1970 — a newspaper clipping showing the “army of women [who] broke barricade to bring aid” — and included snapshots of her alongside dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton and Nelson Mandela, an early Women’s Coalition brochure encouraging voters to “wave goodbye to dinosaurs,” and a more recent political cartoon depicting McWilliams, as human rights commissioner, admonishing her fellow commissioners that “This isn’t pick ‘n mix.”

As McWilliams traced her journey from “accidental activist” to “human rights activist” (with peace activist, feminist activist and party political activist along the way), one of her key messages was that peace is a process. In articulating this, she likened peace to domestic violence. Many people assume that a woman is safe as soon as she leaves an abusive relationship, when in fact that time is the most dangerous for a domestic violence survivor. Leaving the violence is an event but ensuring a woman’s safety is a process. Likewise, signing a peace agreement is an event but building peace is a process.

According to McWilliams, 12 years after signing the peace agreement Northern Ireland is in the process of building peace — the country is currently in the reconstruction phase, not yet having reached transformation.

From the early days of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement through to today, women have been both central and front and center to the process. However, they have been largely written out of history. McWilliams used a photograph from a 1970s civil rights march — depicting eight women, arms linked, at the frontlines of the march — to illustrate this. These women are largely nameless faces in the struggle, whereas the men standing immediately behind them are widely recognized and often referred to as heroes. McWilliams stressed the importance of documenting women’s stories so their efforts are recognized and so that future generations understand the important role women have played and continue to play.

McWilliams argues that women are not new to the process, nor were they new when they formed the Women’s Coalition in 1996. She explained, “We’ve always been there – just politically homeless.”

There is no doubt that McWilliams, together with the Women’s Coalition, was instrumental in the lead up to peace talks and the eventual existence of an agreement. She explained to the audience that had women not been at the table, critical issues such as victim issues, trauma healing, integrated education, housing and health care would have been entirely absent from the agreement. These are the very same issues that women, with the support of some men, are struggling to address as they build peace.

During a meeting earlier in the day, McWilliams noted that she didn’t want other women to have to do go through what she and other women in the Women’s Coalition did — staying up all night for days on end struggling to find insights from other women who had participated in peace talks. Her lecture offered an excellent compilation of lessons learned, insights and best practices from every stage of conflict and post-conflict that will be ideally benefit women around the world and in the future.

At the end of McWilliams talk she was joined on stage by one of the few women she had been able to turn to for informed knowledge about participating in peace talks — Luz Mendez. Mendez, a 2004 IPJ Woman PeaceMaker, took part in the Guatemalan peace negotiations in 1996 and was the sole woman signatory to Guatemala’s agreement.

Despite coming from very different cultures and conflicts, McWilliams and Mendez shared remarkably similar challenges — among others, having to repeatedly confront the question, “What does peace have to do with gender?” They also both recognized the global women’s movement as having an instrumental impact. They went on to share comparable recommendations for how to ensure peace agreements include women’s aspirations.

An evening with McWilliams and Mendez set the tone for two days of exciting, inspiring discussions with remarkable women. McWilliams ended her talk by saying: “When women awake, mountains will move.”

Be sure to watch live webcasts of the public sessions here: http://sandiego.na4.acrobat.com/peace/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *