Building Connections and Inspiring Hope: Women PeaceMakers in Cambodia

In early December 2011, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia for the third Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network summit. The seven-day gathering, organized by IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot, provided opportunities to meet with youth, women farmers, Buddhist and Islamic community groups, as well as NGOs and women in political posts locally and nationally. The gathering was supported with funds from UN Women.


“We’re here to connect with each other’s efforts, so let’s get started!” This was the invitation from one of the IPJ Women PeaceMakers (WPMs) as we introduced ourselves during our very first roundtable dinner with a group of women activist leaders in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.


As we went around the table listening to the experiences and key challenges facing Cambodian civil society, one that continued to come up both during dinner and in the days that followed was a lack of connectedness, especially among women in civil society. As one young activist put it, “We are still so far away from an us in civil society. We’re very fragmented, there is no collective we.”


WPM meeting with Cambodian women farmers

The next morning as the sun spilled out across the sky, our team of Asian Women PeaceMakers gathered with 30 women farmers representing three districts around Phnom Penh. Along with fresh coconut juice, the women shared openly and passionately the challenges they are facing: lack of education, ongoing situations of abuse and resistance to their attempts to strengthen their voices and those of other women in the political sphere. The number of women who are active in local or national government positions is very small, and the particular trials women face are for the most part overlooked. Again the question echoed: How can we better connect with one another and encourage women’s active participation in peacebuilding in our communities?


WPM Thavory Huot discussing justice challenges in Cambodia

WPM Mary Ann Arnado of the Philippines, speaking with compassion and humility, told of her experience bringing together more than 10,000 internally displaced persons to demand a ceasefire in Mindanao. As she spoke of their success, images of the thousands of people lining the roadway with their signs demanding the ceasefire appeared in the background. Then Cambodian WPM Thavory Huot shared her personal, painful efforts in the enormous task of disarmament in Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge. She too had witnessed success because of her struggles, and she urged the women gathered not to give up.


This exchange of stories and strategies filled the room with hope, and began to plant the seeds of connection between the women from different districts who were present. This continued throughout the seven-day summit. The WPMs shared their stories and exchanged ideas and strategies with civil society leaders, women’s groups, political leaders, local NGO staff and a group of young Buddhist women who are students and tailors, as well as a Muslim women’s cooperative in Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia.


Throughout our meetings with local organizations and groups, the topic of the challenges and action needed to ensure implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 in Asia surfaced. In both formal and informal conversations, the WPMs discovered a common necessity and desire to monitor and work together to operationalize Resolution 1325 throughout Asia.


Understanding that Resolution 1325 requires parties in conflict to respect women’s rights, the women wanted to learn how to call on it to support women’s participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. The women felt they could play a significant role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and saw their participation as vital in the process of maintaining peace and security. However, despite the resolution’s passing more than 10 years ago, Cambodia and many other countries in Asia and around the world have yet to develop national action plans as a first step in its implementation. The United States only recently – in December 2011 – began exploring how it will launch its own.


Asian Women PeaceMakers (l-r) Manjula Pradeep, Thavory Huot, Bae Liza Saway, Mary Ann Arnado, Shobha Shrestha and Zarina Salamat

Sitting together on the last day of the summit, the Women PeaceMakers explored options and made plans for their Asia Regional Network’s development and growth in 2012. Ideas for approaches, activities and strategies around their common 1325 goal emerged, and a newfound sense of motivation planted itself in the group. With strengthened relations and partnerships, new insights and tools to use in their own work, and an agenda for collective action for the new year, the final strategy session came to a close.


“I feel rejuvenated and confident that I can continue to do this work, and that I am not, ever, alone,” reflected one PeaceMaker, capturing the essence of the summit. All of us left Cambodia looking forward to the next Asia Regional Network summit to be held in 2012 – and ready for the work ahead.


Click here for the first post about the summit, describing the current situation in Cambodia.