Category Archives: Women PeaceMakers

Woman PeaceMaker Reflects on the Historic Trial on Sexual Slavery in Guatemala

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu

Mendez, on left, with Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu at the trial in February

On February 26, 2016, two former military officials in Guatemala were convicted of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery during the armed conflict in Guatemala. The case was brought by 15 Mayan Q’eqchi’ women from the region of Sepur Zarco. This is an historic judgment — the first time the state of Guatemala has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the war.

Woman PeaceMaker Luz Mendez and her organization Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas   (UNAMG) have been involved for more than a decade to achieve justice in this case.

Mendez spoke by Skype with IPJ Interns Ariel Leuthard and Sophia Shetterly on Monday, March 7, to discuss the case.

Q: How long has this fight for justice for the survivors of Sepur Zarco been going on?

A: Well, this road to justice began in 2003. When some women from women’s and feminist and human rights organizations — I was part of that small group — decided to act against the silence surrounding sexual violence against women during the war. The truth commission reported that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in a generalized and massive way against mainly indigenous women. A deep silence came after that. The truth commission reported atrocities committed against women, but the same report recognized that sexual violence against women was underreported.

We decided to do something in order to bring those horrible crimes to the public, first of all, to render a type of recognition to the women survivors but also as a way to avoid those crimes being committed in current times. So that was the beginning of a long process of women organizing in groups made by women only, groups made by survivors of sexual violence in the war. That was the beginning for them to break the silence.

It was also a space in which they could receive support from social organizations, in terms of psychosocial support and gender equality training. This training gave them the opportunity to think about rape and sexual violence in general terms, not as something that happened for any reason to them, but as a huge human rights violation that was very much rooted in the patriarchal system, in the Guatemalan military’s counterinsurgent policy and also in racism against indigenous women.

The women began to ask for formal justice and the organizations that accompanied them were hesitant in the very beginning because we couldn’t find the political conditions to achieve that justice so we had to wait for some time. But finally, we were all able to begin the formal demand of penal justice. This is just in general terms how the road was. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said, but this is just to give you an idea that the road to the sentence we got a few days ago wasn’t easy.

Q: What does the Sepur Zarco case mean for other cases of this nature in Guatemala and even in other countries, especially in Latin America?

A: The sentence we got in this case was meaningful. First of all, through this legal process, not only did the Sepur Zarco women achieve justice, but also it meant that we were able to break the total impunity for sexual violence during the war. This is the first one in the country’s history. And, as far as we know, it is the first one in Latin America as well. So it will give hope to other women in Guatemala and Latin America that it could be possible to achieve justice in other cases.

This is important because the Sepur Zarco case is only a small sample of what happened in the whole country during the war in Guatemala. There are some cases that have been presented in Guatemalan court, not as advanced as the case of Sepur Zarco. So, there is a sense of hope for many, many women in the country, in Latin America, and, as far as we know, also in many other countries, especially those countries affected by wars right now.

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Mendez demonstrating with UNAMG on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 2006

Q: You and your organization, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG), were heavily involved in this case. Could you elaborate on the role UNAMG played?

A: Yes, the UNAMG has been part of the alliances that have been built to support the Sepur Zarco women. And, not just these women but also all women that have been victims of sexual violence in war time in other Guatemalan regions. We are part of the alliance called Women Breaking Silence and Impunity, made up of three organizations: UNAMG, which I am a part of, has been working in gender equality training and supporting women to create alliances; Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, which is made up of lawyers and they have been leading the legal strategy; and the third organization called Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Accion Psicosocial has been providing the psychosocial support to these women.

UNAMG as well as Mujeres Transformando el Mundo have been plaintiffs in this case. Another plaintiff is an organization created by the victims themselves called Jalok U, it’s a Q’eqchi’ name. So there are three plaintiffs to this legal case.

Q: The testimony of the survivors was so important in this case, especially due to a lack of much physical evidence. What did these women do to prepare to give their testimony in a court where they don’t speak the language?

A: They were very much prepared for their testimony, because the legal part of this whole process is the last part. They have gone through a lot of activities, and they have been giving their testimonies for a long time. For example, they gave their testimonies in 2010 in a Tribunal of Conscience, as a symbolic justice mechanism. That paved the way for them to be able to speak in a formal tribunal. So they were very much prepared.

I would also like to mention that, in 2012, we asked the court to listen to the women’s testimonies in advance — the formal trial had not begun yet. As the women are elderly and many of them are very sick, the judge accepted to hear the testimonies in a preliminary way. So this year, when the formal trial took place, the women were not obliged to testify again. The videos of the testimonies were presented in court. That was very important for them, because one of the victims died three years ago, and the ones that were there in court knew they did not have to repeat the same story. So that was really important.

Q: There were more perpetrators than just the two men in this case, Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdéz Asig. Will others be charged as well in relation to the events at Sepur Zarco?

A: Well, you are right. Many other people were involved as responsible in this case. And the names came forward in the trial — names of soldiers, names of officers, names of owners of the farms and people who helped the army perpetrate those crimes. However, as this particular trial is over, now it is the responsibility of the federal prosecutor’s office to continue investigating.

Q: What is next for you and these survivors?

A: We will continue supporting them because we are very aware that the political atmosphere is very insecure for them. These women live in very remote communities that are very hard to get to. They are beautiful places, full of lakes and rivers and mountains, but without the proper infrastructure to get there. To get to these communities, we have to pass through rivers without bridges. The car has to go through the river — actually it’s really dangerous and risky to do that.

In addition, several of the perpetrators live in the same communities [as these women]. So, we will continue to accompany them after the trial. There are many things to do. For example, some of the consequences of the sexual violence, especially the consequences of the sexual slavery of those women, were that the women were stigmatized and ostracized in their own communities. So we, as an alliance, are working to explain to the populations of these communities that these women are not guilty, that they were victims. And now we have the sentence issued by the tribunal in our hands to show them.

So, we, together with the women, have to continue working to educate the communities, and especially the younger generations, the grandchildren of these women and many other women who have survived sexual violence need to be educated. We have a lot to do concerning this group and concerning many other communities in Guatemala.

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Mendez with her fellow Women PeaceMakers from 2004, Christiana Thorpe, Shreen Saroor and Zarina Salamat

Q: For these women, justice meant telling their stories publicly and ensuring that something like this could never happen again. Do you think that justice has been achieved in this case and that crimes like these will be prevented from happening again?

A: Justice was achieved, of course, as two of the perpetrators were sentenced to more than 200 years of jail. But, to really advance toward avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future, a lot of work must be done — especially from state institutions.

The verdict has a legal part but also a reparations part, in general terms. Part of the reparations was the obligation of some state institutions to build a monument in memory of the women of Sepur Zarco, to build a school, to build a health center. It is also part of the sentence that they disseminate the verdict in the indigenous languages of Guatemala. This is part of the state’s obligation. But, we know very well that in Guatemala in order for the state to comply with its obligations, a lot of social pressure is needed. So, in order to achieve the goal of avoiding repetition of these crimes in the future all this work has to be done.

Q: How important are larger coalitions in transitional justice and lasting peace? What role have coalitions played in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence?

A: Well, in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence, first of all I have to value the bravery and perseverance of the victims. Then, in the Guatemalan context, we have to analyze some aspects that contributed to achieving this verdict. In the peace accords, the prohibition of granting amnesty for people responsible for crimes against humanity was included. Of course, the accords included amnesty for political crimes to those parties involved in the conflict, but it was made very clear that crimes against humanity and war crimes could not get any type of amnesty. This is very important.

There has been a human rights movement that has been working for transitional justice. This larger coalition has been able to achieve some justice in cases. Though it is necessary to say that for many years, human rights organizations didn’t include sexual violence as a specific crime to be addressed in transitional justice. It was only when feminists and women’s rights organizations asked for it to be addressed in transitional justice we began this whole process.

Efforts have begun to transform the judicial system. The system in Guatemala has for a long time been very much controlled by the military and by illegal groups. However, there are brave and honest people in the judiciary, including judges and prosecutors who have played a very important role. In order to value all the factors needed to achieve justice in this particular case, many people in the civil society and the judicial system were involved.

Q: The priority theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is on women’s empowerment and sustainable development, and the review theme is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls (from the 57th CSW). In your experience with Sepur Zarco, have you found these to be interconnected and, if so, in what ways? Now that these women have gotten justice, do you think they have been empowered?

A: There is a strong link between women’s empowerment and access to justice for violence against them. In this particular case of Sepur Zarco, this whole process of organizing and creating awareness of their rights as well as getting justice, has empowered the women a lot. Not only the end — the verdict — but the whole process has empowered them.

I must say that the verdict is not enough. Those women live in socioeconomic conditions of extreme poverty. So, it is necessary to address those root economic causes of violence against women together with the political causes, meaning that in speaking about a comprehensive process of women’s empowerment justice is not enough. It is necessary to promote changes in the economy. In that sense, we very much hope that one of the measures included in the reparations sentence could be accomplished — meaning that the perpetrators should provide some amount of money to the women, and if they are not able to do so, the state should do that. To speak about women’s empowerment, we need to ask about changes in Guatemalan society and the whole world.

Three years ago, when one woman from the group of survivors passed away, we went to her house to accompany her family. And it was so shocking. Of course we had been there with them several times, but it was so shocking to see the extreme poverty and conditions in which the whole family lived. It was a tiny house made of pieces of mud, and there was no coffin. The family and the neighbors were building a coffin at that moment. So, I have in my mind the memory of being there, surrounding the body of this brave woman and watching her family and friends cut and build the coffin on the patio. (Just to give you an example of the poor conditions they live in.) We need to advance toward deeper socioeconomic changes in order to really achieve women’s empowerment.

Q: Are the women or yourself experiencing any backlash after the case or have you been receiving a lot of popular support? Is everyone safe?

A: Well, during the whole process we have been receiving a lot of threats, but at the same time a lot of support. During the trial we received a lot of support from university students, from high school students, from the media, and even from conservative people we didn’t expect to get support from. Many people were shocked hearing the women’s stories.

Q: The women involved in the case were present in the courtroom, wearing their traditional shawls. What was the effect of their presence?

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

Mendez wearing a scarf similar to those of the Sepur Zarco women, at the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women

A: The shawls actually have been an issue. Some of the women don’t like to wear it while others in the group think they are safer if they wear it. Again, in their communities, they have to live with some of the perpetrators, so the majority of them believe it is not yet time for them to uncover their faces. Finally, after the sentence was issued, some of them uncovered their faces as they left the courtroom, so a picture of their faces circulated. They really want to stop wearing the shawl — they are very brave and committed to achieving justice. But much of the group decided that they should wait a little bit longer before uncovering their faces.

Q: It sounds like these women are incredibly connected to each other through their experiences, but also through their culture. Do you think this sense of community has helped them through this process? If they didn’t have each other, do you think they would have been more reluctant to share their stories?

A: It’s a good question. The sense of community played a very important role in the strengthening of this group and in keeping them together. It has to do with the fact that all of them experienced those horrible crimes and that they are part of various women’s groups. But, of course, it mostly has to do with the indigenous culture they are a part of, especially the Q’eqchi’ people, which they belong to.

For the Q’eqchi’ people, the community plays a very important role. The majority of their decisions are made collectively. So, for them, knowing that they are part of a collectivity and that they support each other was so important. They have supported each other in a very deep way. If a woman is sick, the rest of them are supporting that woman. If one women has a problem, the others help. And even if a woman behaves in a way that the rest of the group doesn’t like, they are so careful in speaking with that woman, in a very warm way. That sense of collectivity as an indigenous people has helped these women achieve justice.

For more information on the Sepur Zarco case, please see Clamor for Justice: Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and Violent Land Dispossessionco-authored by Luz. 

Meet the IPJ’s New Program Officer

In August, the IPJ welcomed Stephanie Chiu as program officer for Women PeaceMakers, the program in which she previously served as a peace writer for Alice Nderitu of Kenya. Chiu works with Senior Program Officer Jennifer Freeman and Senior Editor and Writer Emiko Noma in managing all aspects of the IPJ’s award-winning program.

Q: What brought you to the field of peacebuilding? What has been your trajectory to this work and the IPJ?

I’ve been drawn to the field of peace and justice for as long as I can remember. When I was a young girl growing up in Darwin, a small city in Northern Australia, I remember Mother Teresa visiting my school. I knew nothing of this woman, but her incredible compassion for people and passion for peace and justice planted a seed in my consciousness. Later, in high school, a woman who had been working in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border spoke to my class. I was totally inspired by her story and felt a strong sense that I needed to follow a similar direction.

As an adult I’ve accumulated 13 years of experience working in programs that support women’s agency and focus on peace, justice and conflict transformation. In these roles I’ve worked in Australia, Afghanistan, Fiji, Pakistan and Samoa. Returning to the Women PeaceMakers program at the IPJ has been an ambition ever since I left three years ago. I’m naturally drawn to that which is inventive and provocative, and this program has all of that in spades. I love that it honors women’s power and stories through creative and smart programming. I feel very fortunate to be involved in work that aligns so closely with my own goals, values and life path.

Chiu with Woman PeaceMaker Alice Nderitu in 2012

Chiu with Woman PeaceMaker Alice Nderitu in 2012

Q: You were a peace writer in 2012. Can you summarize your experience in the program in a few words?

Creative, expansive, joyful, challenging, humbling.

Q: Who do you consider your professional mentors?

I always look to those who have taken a stand for peace and justice and who have been great teachers for so many of us in how to channel compassion and passion in an authentic, effective and meaningful way. Some notables include Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Whitlam and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Then there are the women whose creativity and words have guided me down new pathways of wisdom and engagement, such as Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem and Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

Q: What has been the most important experience you’ve had working in the field? What experience taught you the most?

There have been so many meaningful experiences. In Fiji, I facilitated interethnic training and conflict transformation workshops for women; in Pakistan I worked with Afghan refugee women on education, health and livelihood programs; in Afghanistan I helped to establish a network of women-run, independent, community radio stations for women. In each of those experiences, among others, I was learning the value of how to work hard and stay humble. I count it as a life lesson and I draw from it continually.

Q: What aspects of your position as program officer are you most looking forward to?

Working with the IPJ team. It’s a great dynamic here — the people who work here have exceptional skills and experience, they’re passionate about their work, supportive of their colleagues and great company too. To say I’m thrilled to be working with the Peace Writers and Women PeaceMakers would be an understatement. What an amazing group of women! I’m looking forward to supporting each of them in their important work documenting stories of peacebuilding and human rights advocacy, which I know will inspire others.

Q: This is your second time living in Southern California. What will you miss about living overseas?

In the last five years I’ve lived in Sydney, Suva, San Diego and Stockholm. Each city is completely different with its own unique flavor of adventure and experience. What I miss most about any place I’ve left are our friends and family. I have to say, though, the people I’ve met and befriended here in San Diego are incredibly warm and friendly so I feel very welcomed.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or a favorite author or book? Do you have a motto that you live by?

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It was the quote I chose for my high school yearbook 24 years ago and it still resonates. Recently I came across the second part of this, “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” The motto I live by is Audentis Fortuna Iuvat. Fortune favors the bold!

M.A. Student Gains “Invaluable” Experience in Moldova

A reflection by Anna Taylor, M.A. (’13)

As part of my M.A. in peace and justice studies, I was afforded the opportunity to complete my summer internship with 2012 IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Ludmila Popovici, the founder and executive director of the Rehabilitation Center of Torture Victims (RCTV) Memoria. The center is located in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, and provides medical, psychological and legal services to torture victims among (1) former political prisoners, (2) refugees and asylum seekers, and (3) recent victims from Moldova, including the separatist region of Transnistria.


Josh and Anna Taylor, Woman PeaceMaker Ludmila Popovici, and the staff of RCTV Memoria

I was immediately impressed by Ludmila’s knowledge and dedication to advocacy, not only for the rights of her clients, but also to the greater systemic issues related to torture. She is an outspoken champion for the right of rehabilitation for torture survivors, as well as for the abolishment of torture altogether. Because RCTV Memoria is Moldova’s only rehabilitation center for victims of torture, Ludmila works constantly at both the local and national level to raise awareness and change policy. As Moldova’s native expert on the topic of rehabilitation for victims of torture, her expertise is frequently called upon by the media, national government and international organizations — which in turn gave me an invaluable practical experience as an intern at RCTV Memoria.

Ludmila was very dedicated to ensuring that I had a productive and rewarding internship. In the office I worked directly with Memoria’s project coordinator on external and internal documents and projects, and with Ludmila editing her new book, Broken Wings, which chronicles the testimonies of 10 young people who were victims of police violence and torture during Moldova’s April 2009 election protests.

Outside the office I had the opportunity to attend several events and meetings which brought to light the larger context of Memoria’s work. I participated in two closed meetings between Ludmila and a handful of United Nations experts in Moldova, including the U.N. Resident Coordinator. I was also invited to attend the “Forum of Non-governmental Organizations of the Republic of Moldova,” where members of Moldova’s civil society and government came together to discuss current challenges. I also traveled with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the separatist region of Transnistria, an area in eastern Moldova which has operated with de-facto independence since the War of Transnistria ended in 1992, and from which a portion of Memoria’s beneficiaries originate.

June 26 - Ludmila and MA student Anna Taylor

(l to r) Ludmila Popovici, RCTV Memoria Executive Director; Representative from the Austrian Embassy; Evghenii Golosceapov, UNDP Programme Analyst for Justice and Human Rights; Nicola Harrington-Buhay, U.N. Resident Coordinator in Moldova; Representative from the Romanian Embassy; Anna Taylor.

As a student at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, I am incredibly fortunate to have access to the opportunities provided by the school’s unique relationship with the Institute for Peace & Justice.  Thanks to the Women PeaceMakers Program, I was able to connect with Ms. Popovici, a powerful advocate for human rights and a generous and dedicated host.




IPJ Trains Women in Politics in Lead-up to Elections in Cambodia

From March 20 to April 2, 2013, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings for women in politics. The trip was a follow-up to last year’s trainings, and was again organized by Khmer Ahimsa, an NGO headed by Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot.


“I have, since I saw you last, been working to bring other women into politics — but women have many responsibilities and it’s hard to convince them that this is important. So I am here to get more tools to do so.”


Our return to Cambodia was met with many similar statements. Dee and I were inspired not only by the passion and self-determination of participants, but how through our few days together they gained confidence and built trust, particularly across party lines. Eager to get as much out of our and their time together they even requested we start at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8:30, one woman staying until just two hours before her wedding!


In Barsedth (west of Phnom Penh), where the sun beats down mercilessly on the dusty ground, we found ourselves in the presence of 28 women leaders in brightly colored sarongs. The women included commune councilors, village chiefs, district education and women’s affairs officials, and the deputy district governor for the impoverished and underdeveloped area.


Training participants brainstorm their notion of an ideal leader

As participants introduced themselves we discovered that this was, for some of them, their first encounter with women from other districts in the province. Shy but eager, they jumped into each exercise and discussion with increasing energy as their first day together passed. They were oriented to local solutions, not expecting NGOs or outsiders to be the source of resolving issues — issues that ranged from access to community water pumps to convincing rural couples to get birth certificates for their newborns.




Back in Phnom Penh, our training brought together participants from the capital with women from three other provinces, including a number of women who participated in our training last year. Many shared that they had utilized the tools and skills learned to bring one or two, and in some cases even three, new women on board — an amazing feat in a context in which women are not encouraged to move out of their traditional family roles, and where a clampdown on freedom of speech, assembly and movement in anticipation of elections later this year provides little motivation.


As we discussed challenges together, and shared a recent Al Jazeera report on gang rape in Cambodia, the necessity of working across party lines in order to affect change grew increasingly apparent. “Women hold the key to sustainable peace,” participants voiced one after another.


“We must be brave,” explained one woman, “so that women can play a role in decision making, and issues such as this can be addressed.”

Longing for Justice

Report from IPJ Editor Emiko Noma


When I first caught up with IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Luz Méndez at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, I gave her a hug and admired her scarf (we really like scarves around the always-chilly IPJ). It was purple, black and white, and matched beautifully with her outfit — she was distinguished as always. An hour later as I watched a film on the work she has been involved in lately, I realized her accessory was the same worn by one of the 15 indigenous women in Guatemala who made history in September of last year. More on that in a moment.


There is an urgency to this year’s CSW. Perhaps because of the theme: the elimination and prevention of violence against women — a topic which has finally received much more glare from the media as of late. As many as one in three women worldwide will be victims of violence in their lifetimes — an alarming statistic. The chair of the opening session we attended, hosted by UNDP and the Huariou Commission, called attention to the “unprecedented participation” in this year’s commission, including over 6,000 NGOs and their representatives in attendance. There is the urgent sense that this is the time to make change.


But the pressing need for change has been tempered in session after session by a longer view. All week, a quote made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. kept ringing in my mind: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


Take the recent timeline of Guatemala and the work of Luz, who spoke on numerous panels, including the IPJ’s, throughout the week:


1960: A brutal internal armed conflict begins, hastened by the CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government. Sexual violence is used as a tactic of war.


1996: Peace accords are signed.


1997: Luz leads the revival of the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG).


Luz protesting violence against women, along with members of UNAMG

1999: The Historical Clarification Commission documents that 89 percent of the rapes committed during the internal armed conflict were against Mayan women.


2004: Several women’s organizations, including UNAMG, begin to identify and work with women survivors of sexual violence during the war. Soon, the Alianza Rompiendo el Silencío y la Impunidad is formed by UNAMG in partnership with two other organizations.[1] The alliance seeks to strengthen women’s agency through gender awareness raising and psychosocial support, as well as developing litigation strategies and providing technical support in court.


2009: A three-year research project aimed at building historical memory results in the first book of its kind, Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado,[2] or “Weavings of the Soul: Memories of Maya Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict.”


2010: UNAMG and partner organizations hold the Court of Conscience for Women Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Armed Conflict, a strategy to offer its participants access to “symbolic justice.”


And finally, in 2012, the long arc of history for 15 indigenous women kept bending toward justice. The women testified in a pre-trial hearing before the national court in Guatemala, charging that the military held them at a base and kept them for their “recreation.” The women were sexual slaves for six years. These were the first testimonies of their kind to be heard in a national court — an historic moment for the women of Guatemala and an initial step to end impunity for these kinds of crimes, but one that was years in the making.


For those whose lives are now being destroyed by rampant sexual violence, however, the King quote offers little consolation. As one participant remarked in a session on grassroots communities accessing justice, “If you want to make a quick change, make a law.” There is no guarantee that law will be implemented. How can these women get justice now? Is the hope of justice in the long arc of the moral universe enough?


(l-r) Elisabeth Rehn of Finland, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker, Luz Méndez, and IPJ Program Officer Jennifer Freeman at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Throughout the week, our minds were also in Kenya, where ICC-indicted politicians were leading in the polls, where our colleague and our peacemaker from Sierra Leone monitored the election and count, and where three of our peacemakers were doing their part to keep the peace. For the victims of the 2007-8 electoral violence — and for those who experienced sexual abuse and rape as part of that period of violence — have they found any justice? When can they expect it? Can they assume they will get it if their next president and his running mate are wanted for crimes against humanity by the ICC?


And what does justice even mean for those survivors? “For many years sexual violence against women was the hidden dimension of the war in Guatemala,” Luz explained. “When we began to break the silence on those crimes, the group of 15 indigenous women courageously stressed, ‘We don’t want to die without getting justice.’” Justice for the indigenous women who testified was two-fold: that they could speak publicly about the crimes committed against them, and that the crimes would never happen again.
Justice means different things to different survivors, but just as long as the arc may be will be the longing for that justice. As Luz reiterates, “We all know that we still have a hard road to walk. However, it is the survivors’ tenacity, together with the alliance’s strong determination to achieve gender justice and gender equality, that is the source of our hope and strength” — which is why Luz wore the scarf of the indigenous women all week long.

[1] Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial (ECAP) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM).

[2] Fulchiron, A., et al (2009). Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memorias de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violencia sexual durante el conflicto armado. Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas. Guatemala: F&G Editores.

Breaking Peacebuilding Barriers

“Feminists have redefined peace through gender relations,” explained Jacqueline Pitanguy of CEPIA in Brazil. This shift brings into focus an imbalance of power, inequality between partners, and domestic and sexual violence; it calls attention to “the war inside the home.” These threats to peace, Pitanguy explained, must be avoided, managed and constrained. Extending from the private sphere, Lina Abou-Habib described how Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) promotes peacebuilding in the MENA region by “open[ing] the public sphere for women’s participation [through] demonstrations, sit-ins [and] policy dialogues.” WLP works to demystify concepts of leadership, participation and democracy, making women, their work and their voices more visible.


Mahnaz Afhami, founder of WLP, elaborated: “To keep the status quo is patriarchy.” The order and the structure of hierarchy posits men as the heads of families, communities and the religious domain, which is extended to the realm of political parties and power. Dismantling these entrenched structures may seem impossible, she acknowledged. But, quoting from Alice in Wonderland, she advised us to “see” the impossible, because “we can only change [it] once we believe in it.”


Alice Nderitu, 2012 Woman PeaceMaker and a commissioner on Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission, described her work to build peace following the election violence in her country, painting a full picture of the “complexities of women and war.” Women were not only innocent victims, but also took up arms that had flooded the northern part of the country from the neighboring countries of South Sudan and Somalia. Women also took charge, organized meetings, took men off the street and created sanctuaries for those who had been affected by gender-based violence. Nderitu concluded, sharing the words of Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a Somali activist and peacemaker; “an egg, like peace, is delicate and fragile, but given the right conditions it gives life.”


The peacebuilding panelists illuminated the hidden structures of oppression and the “burden of peace;” yet their words also created a sense of hope and optimism that is necessary to be the change we wish to see in the world.


Stay tuned in the coming months for the full report from the international conference “Breaking Barriers: What it will take to achieve security, justice and peace.”

Breaking Justice Barriers

Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the U.S. State Department, opened the second day of the conference with a video message. Recounting a conversation with an Afghan woman who said, “Don’t look at us as victims, but look at us as the leaders that we are,” Verveer affirmed women’s agency and power. She highlighted the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security advanced by the Obama administration in December 2011. The plan is a roadmap to accelerate and institutionalize to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace. It represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. approaches diplomacy, military interventions, development and humanitarian assistance. While “our journey is far from over,” Verveer concluded, “you are the change makers, we owe you a debt of gratitude. … For blessed indeed are the peacemakers.”


The morning panel brought together four unique voices with distinct contributions of how to ensure post-conflict justice is responsive to and respectful of women’s rights. Gender justice, they affirmed, must be central in the planning and implementation of international tribunals, formal trials, national truth commissions, traditional approaches and personal interactions between perpetrators and survivors.


A gender-sensitive lens exposes limitations in evidentiary and compensation procedures: having to provide a medical certificate or checks that cite the violations of rape as the reason for reparation are not acceptable, argued Nahla Valji of UN Women. “The demand for justice grows louder and more urgent,” shared Brigid Inder, of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice and gender adviser to International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. The ICC has an explicit mandate and positive obligation to prosecute gender-based crimes, which it is currently investigating in all but one of its cases. For local women to trust international laws and institutions, the resolutions and decisions must be implemented, continued Asma Khader, founder of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute/Jordan. Bringing the international to the regional and national level, she highlighted the realities of women the Middle East, including Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, where women who fight against traditions and conservative values are punished more severely than before.


The panel concluded with a personal story of healing and reconciliation. Zandile Nhlengetwa, 2008 Woman PeaceMaker and founder of the Harambe Women’s Forum, brought the audience into her experiences during apartheid in South Africa and her own journey of suppressed pain and loss, the drive for justice, deep anger and hatred, followed by confronting fear and risk to begin a process of forgiveness. “I was deepening the process that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had begun. … That process changed my life,” she concluded. To read more about Zandile’s life and work, read her narrative.


Breaking Security Barriers

Voices of women confirm the need for a human security approach over traditional security strategies. Through personal stories and media tools, the opening panel of the 2012 Women PeaceMakers Conference, “Breaking Barriers,” called for us to question our definitions and assumptions as the first step in overcoming insecurity and building quality peace.


The panelists wove together a balance of optimism and the grim realities of promoting a gender-sensitive, human security framework. Sarah Taylor of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, noted the progress of documenting the numbers of women involved in peace negotiations. Rather than a black box around the formation of peace agreements, Taylor noted that these indicators track what types of gender expertise are at the table and how that affects final documents. However, Nadine Puechguirbal, of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, reminded the audience of the gaps in the availability of sex and age disaggregated data in conflict settings. “If we don’t have these data, how can we define security? Who is tracking it?”


Since 2006, U.N. member states have been working toward an arms treaty. Despite the delay in signing the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in July 2012, Rebecca Gerome of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) recounted the successful advocacy to integrate language on gender-based violence into the preamble and core articles of the agreement.


By organizing a side event that brought together CEDAW advocates and ATT negotiators, IANSA and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) were able to bridge silos in the U.N. system. When a former French minister from the CEDAW committee heard France was skeptical about the need to address gender-based violence, she went over and spoke with the ATT ambassador. Five minutes later, France issued a statement: Gender-based violence is a priority concern for France and it must be included in the treaty. Identifying and channeling the power of interlocutors that can persuade counterparts was an effective strategy employed in the ATT negotiations. Yet, continued advocacy is needed to maintain these advancements prior to the next round of negotiations in the coming year.


The benefit of strategic and persistent partnerships was echoed by Petra Totterman Andorff, representing WILPF. Andorff linked security concerns addressed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 to women’s increased political participation: “Women’s empowerment is a direct threat to militarism.” In Colombia, women’s groups have sent a letter to the president to be included in the November negotiations between the government and FARC, demanding a seat at the table and greater attention to women’s rights in the process.


Promoting women in leadership positions in security and peace processes is also important from the perspective of the armed forces. Lt. Col. Jesus Ignacio Gil Ruiz described recent NATO efforts to include women in uniform in their missions to improve outreach to local Afghan women, for example. Yet, he acknowledged the limits of implementing resolution 1325 into operations, which was only adopted by NATO in 2007. He explained that the E.U. and NATO have thick policy manuals, but the documentation of implementation is much thinner.


Throughout the presentations and discussion with the audience, the panelists identified four successful strategies to dismantle persistent obstacles to gender-sensitive security institutions: (1) examine language through a feminist lens to critique assumptions about security; (2) collect sex disaggregated data in all aspects of peace support operations and post-conflict reconstruction; (3) enhance advocacy through strategic partners in positions of power; and (4) increase women’s leadership in political sectors that determine security policies. These techniques call for attention to language, ensuring gender inclusion is not merely a pragmatic framing tool but results in real, tangible change; they point to the need to balance numbers and data with true agency and power; and they recognize the deep history of international norms regarding women’s participation that preceded 1325, including the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW.


Summarizing the impact of these collective efforts to build and implement human security mechanisms, Gerome said: “This [progress] would not have been possible without all of your efforts and efforts of millions of women around the world. We use your research, we use the legal framework of UNSC 1325, and we benefit from the work the women’s movement is doing to make gender-based violence more visible. So, thank you! We will continue to build on each other’s efforts to really prevent violence” and promote “women’s agency, empowerment, to prevent, resolve, and rebuild from conflict.”




Welcome to the “Breaking Barriers” Conference

The following is an excerpt from opening remarks given by IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012.


Gathered with steadfast partners and 10 generations of IPJ Women PeaceMakers from 30 countries, we join together to confront the scope and magnitude of gender-based violence, discrimination and exploitation. We connect across disciplines, sectors and nationalities to build stronger platforms for action. Here, we can collaborate to form strong responses to the global scourge, to work for our collective human bond on this small green world.


Together, we have seen the costs of conflict, the physical and moral costs of ignorance. We convened this conference to dismantle the barriers by articulating a perception of the world that is secure and just. The words of Rio and Beijing are with us still. The challenge of human trafficking, impunity, arms trade and patriarchy are boulders impinging on our collective path to peace. We must articulate strategies to chip away at these blockages, with clarity, precision and concrete plans that span different sectors.


The sense of urgency is palpable. It is not sufficient merely to expose the multiple forms these gendered barriers. We have the opportunity to construct building blocks to overcome these obstacles. We must be negotiators, advisors, advocates and peacebuilders. Through policy recommendations and active contributions, we have the power to protect communities and promote women’s participation in the governing of new democracies. At the end of these three days, we will have a report and strong statements that we can disseminate around the world. We can cooperate to communicate our needs, in real time, to inform and influence what is truly safe and just for us all.

More information on the 10th anniversary of the Women PeaceMakers Program and the international conference “Breaking Barriers: What it will take to achieve security, justice and peace.”  

Building Bridges in Cambodia

From March 25-30, 2012, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings requested from women in politics, NGOs and youth organizations during the Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network meetings in December.


Women in the Political Sphere: Enhancing Participation and Strengthening Influence
By IPJ Program Officer Zahra Ismail
March 26-27

As we entered the training room on the first day, 30 women turned to greet us, pressing their palms together at the chest and lowering their eyes with a slight bow. We were early, but the women from three different districts around Phnom Penh were ready to begin the morning workshop on enhancing their participation and influence in local and national politics. Dee opened the day by sharing experiences of women involved in decision-making worldwide, highlighting the importance of women’s participation if good governance is to be fostered anywhere.


Over the course of two days, Dee and I provided participants with skills and tools to communicate with confidence, within their own party and across party lines, as well as with their constituents and the larger community. While the energy and engagement was at times confrontational early on, it remained stimulating and enlightening throughout.


Commune representatives (local administration) sharing visions for change in their communities

After meeting in groups with women from different parties to clarify the concerns they had in their communities, a young woman from the main opposition party was quick to come to the floor. Vibrantly direct, she was supported by everyone in the room when she said that domestic violence and poverty were concerns that she and others from the ruling party agreed they needed to work on together. Both shyness and confrontation fell by the wayside as the women shared concerns ranging from maternal health and poverty to gang and domestic violence and the paucity of women in leadership.


Aware that Cambodian women are not often encouraged to take leadership positions in their parties or even talk across party lines, we watched the women transition from quiet curiosity to active engagement and then, on the second day, to an essential realization: that they had more in common than they had ever been allowed to discover.


Seeing timidity and confrontation transform into intense, exploratory discussions, we ended the program with a sense that spaces had opened for the women to work together on the roadblocks to peace — a peace that is just and inclusive.


Youth and NGO Encounters: The Beginnings of Trust
By IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker
March 28-29

Roundtable with peace and human rights NGO leaders in Phnom Penh

In a society where reaching out to those in power and encouraging local responses to problems is often seen as defiant, NGO leaders face great challenges when it comes to trust and human rights.  Zahra and I had the chance to see how NGOs in Cambodia are motivating their communities when we met with a roundtable of NGO leaders to discuss the keys to community collaboration and peacebuilding. The 26 participants identified some of their primary issues and looked for ways to garner greater attention from the community. But it was the next day that we saw even greater hope kindled in a group of youth leaders who Thavory Huot, an IPJ Woman PeaceMaker from Cambodia, had arranged for us to meet.


Before we began our leadership training with 30 youth leaders in Phnom Penh, Zahra and I had been reading an article in The Phnom Penh Post, “Beer girls fight for their rights,” and were expecting to meet a group of educated and/or unemployed youth seeking ways to have more influence in their communities. So we were surprised when our expected group was joined by some very unexpected young trade union leaders and activists. It was a first encounter for everyone, due to Cambodia’s political undertone of containment by those in power. And we had already heard, and seen, that any dissent or support of exchanges across political parties, religions or social classes was uncommon.


Dee Aker exploring communication tools to advance common goals with youth leaders in Phnom Penh

But the young people discovered they shared the same vision for leadership and many common issues of concern: unemployment and fair wages; increased drug use among disillusioned youth; domestic violence; and rising tension among religious and social groups. One young woman who works in a beer hall said, “It is as if society has abandoned not only us, but our families and communities too.” A young man who had been to college told us this was his first time looking at the challenges low wage workers and young women faced. And another young man from a youth organization felt it was important to now support the young women and men he had just met.


By the end of a warm day, the heat and the energy in the room had not diminished. The call for more techniques to identify and deal with their common problems was clear:

“As a youth, I want to spend my life meaningfully.”
“I want to meet these new friends again and work with them.”
“It was a new thing to learn how to organize and think and communicate in this way. And I will share these ideas with the union workers, too.”

After nearly 30 comments like these, Zahra and I left to pack our bags, quite content that it had been a very short week, but a very good one.