THE VOICE OF A WOMAN Wed, 03 Sep 2014 22:11:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Anjelina Jolie’s Campaign to End Sexual Violence Against Women and Children Mon, 31 Mar 2014 16:45:06 +0000 JOLIE






In Sarajevo at a conference on sexual violence in war, actress Angelina Jolie urged the international community to stop the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Jolie, whose 2011 directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey dealt with violence against women during Bosnia's war, urged peace missions around the world to make combating sex crimes a priority.

"The use of rape as a weapon of war is one of the most harrowing and savage of these crimes against civilians," Jolie told the conference in Bosnia's capital.  "This is rape so brutal, with such extreme violence, that it is even hard to talk about it," said the 38-year-old actress, who is a goodwill ambassador for the UN's refugee agency.

Around 20,000 women, mostly Muslim, were raped during Bosnia's inter-ethnic war in the 1990s, according to local estimates. So far only 33 people have been convicted for the crimes.  Jolie left later on Friday for Srebrenica to pay respect to the victims of genocide committed in the eastern town near the end of the 1992-1995 war.

After capturing Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, Serb forces executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II.  More than 6,000 massacred victims, whose remains were found in mass graves, were laid to rest at a memorial cemetery in the town.  Bosnia's war between its Croats, Muslims and Serbs claimed some 100,000 lives.

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20,000 CHILDREN BORN OF RAPE IN RWANDA Sun, 30 Mar 2014 10:22:10 +0000 Photograph above from the photographic series "Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born Of Rape" (Aperture, 2009)

On 25th November 2011, THE VOICE OF A WOMAN partnered with the US based organisation FOUNDATION RWANDA to feature their powerful series titled Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.

An estimated 20,000 children were born from rapes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Due to the stigma associated with rape, the children and their mothers have been severely marginalized by their families and communities.  In 2007, Foundation Rwanda was established by Jules Shell and Jonathan Torgovnik to improve the lives of these children and to raise awareness about the consequences of genocide and sexual violence through photography and new media.

In February 2006 when photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik traveled to East Africa on behalf of Newsweek magazine to develop a story, he met Margaret, a Rwandan survivor who was brutally raped during the genocide.  Margaret subsequently became pregnant, and contracted HIV.  This horrific story led Torgovnik to embark on a photography project to document and tell the stories of 30 women like Margaret. He learned that an estimated 20,000 children were born of rapes committed during the genocide, and that their mothers were deeply challenged in adequately providing for their children's needs.

In an effort to support women in Rwanda and to bring their stories to the international community Foundation Rwanda began to develop projects using new media, photography, and video to document the testimonies of women who survived the atrocities committed during the 1994 genocide. Foundation Rwanda's work has been effective, giving female survivors a place for their voices to be heard and furthers the organization’s mission to promote awareness of the consequences of genocide and gender-based violence. The Telegraph (UK), El-Pais (Spain), Flair (Italy), Stern (Germany) and Newsweek International have published articles using the photographs and first-hand testimonies of female survivors. In 2008, London’s National Portrait Gallery recognized one of the photographs from the series, awarding it first prize in its prestigious annual portrait competition.  The work of Foundation Rwanda includes:

  • A Photography Book: Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape (Aperture, 2009)
  • A Traveling University Exhibition: Intended Consequences (Aperture & The Open Society Institute)
  • Intended Consequences Multi-Media Video Series (
  • Intended Consequences Education Curriculum Guide (Amnesty International)
  • Global Reading of the Testimonies Campaign, April 7th (
  • Grassroots Public Art Campaign on college campuses
  • Public Service Announcement Campaign (print, radio, television & internet)

For more info, please go to

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WOMEN AS AGENTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE Wed, 01 May 2013 08:00:42 +0000 Kavita Shukla was born in Germany to Indian parents who moved to the United States when she was a young child. At the age of 13, she created a lab safety device for bottles containing hazardous materials. She patented the device, dubbing it the "Smart Lid."

Around that time she also became interested in the potential uses of an Indian herb called fenugreek in preserving food and fighting bacterial growth. While visiting her grandparents during a trip to India at age 12, Shukla accidentally drank contaminated water. Her grandmother whipped up a home-made concoction containing ground fenugreek seeds and gave it to her to consume, saying, "Take this and you'll be fine." Shukla was skeptical, but she took the powder and did not become ill.

When she returned home to the United States, Shukla began conducting her own experiments with fenugreek, exploring its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Through her research, she found that fenugreek could not only remove toxic substances from aqueous solutions but could also inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. She wondered if this discovery could be applied to food preservation, and had an idea to develop a packaging paper using fenugreek that might better preserve and protect items from bacteria and fungi.

Shukla was onto something: she observed that food wrapped in fenugreek-treated paper lasts four to six weeks longer than food protected by traditional wrapping. It is also natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and easily produced in large quantities, making it ideal for developing countries and developed nations alike. She obtained a patent for her fenugreek-treated paper in the spring of 2002.

Also in 2002, Shukla was the winner of the Lemelson-MIT Invention Apprenticeship . She worked with her Invention Mentor David Payton, Principal Research Scientist in the Information Sciences Lab at HRL Laboratories, for two weeks. Their project was related to the development of software for controlling hundreds of tiny robots with the goal of making them work collectively. The robots could then accomplish tasks such as search and rescue.

Kavita is a born inventor. ‘I’ve always wanted to invent things that could solve everyday problems and have an impact on society.’ Fenugreen is a simple invention that she believes will do just that, by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Fenugreen paper created by Kavita can be used to coat existing food packaging, as packaging inserts, or simply placed in the refrigerator at home to keep raw foods fresh.  It's flexibility and low cost makes it a particularly viable solution for organic and local farmers. ‘Organic fruits and vegetables can’t be treated with mainstream preservatives,’ Kavita explains. ‘Scientific tests have shown that Fenugreen can increase shelf life by up to two to four times. Fresher and cheaper organic produce could change the way we eat!’

It is this potential societal impact that has inspired Kavita to become an entrepreneur. ‘Even the best invention is useless if it just sits on a lab bench,’ she says. ‘The only way for an invention to have real impact is to bring it to market. By licensing the Fenugreen technology through my own company I can achieve that, while also adhering to my vision and values.’

Changing and saving lives

Kavita is constantly exploring broader applications for Fenugreen. The technology could be adapted to serve developing countries, where mortality related to food spoilage is a harsh reality. According to estimates established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a massive 25% of world food supply is lost due to microorganisms every year. In places with little or no refrigeration, low-cost food preservation could save lives. ‘Since Fenugreen doesn’t require extensive production infrastructure, we can make it in any environment at a very low cost.’ Kavita explains.

Fenugreen may prove to have some unexpected environmental benefits as well. ‘Some time ago in the lab I accidentally spilled some Fenugreen solution on some other oil-based experiments and noticed that it was exceptional in binding oil in solution,’ Kavita recalls. ‘I remembered this when I read about the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico and thought: “what if it could be an environmentally friendly way of cleaning up the spill?”’ After the positive results of preliminary experiments, Kavita filed a patent for this application and the company is planning to conduct larger-scale testing.

Shukla has received a number of national and international awards for her inventions. Her honors include the Grand Award in Environmental Sciences at the International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest international science competition, and induction into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors. She was one of 50 students selected nationwide for a Coca-Cola National Scholarship and was one of 20 students chosen from over 1,600 nominees to USA Today's Academic First Team. At Harvard, she plans to major in biology and economics and pursue a career in research or medicine.


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GIRLS AS AGENTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE Mon, 29 Apr 2013 10:00:18 +0000 In 2012 VOICE OF A WOMAN launched its GIRLS AS AGENTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE MENTORING PROGRAMME.  The programme has senior professional women coach girls in their final years of secondary school in the creation and development of projects aimed at making a difference in their communities or in communities of greatest need in the world.

Over the course of 7 months students have been immersed in training, attending the VOW TALKS SERIES to be inspired by featured speakers.  Among the speakers who have participated in the VOW TALKS SERIES have been: Dr. Scilla Elworthy - three time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee; Lisa Gormley - Legal Advisor to Amnesty International on Women's Rights; Germaine Greer - author; Jane Martinson - Women's Editor of the Guardian; Gillian Joseph - SKY News Presenter; Natasha Pearlman - Managing Editor of Elle Magazine; Karen Blackett - CEO of MediaCom; Simone Forster - Senior Partner of JWT London, Inga Beale - CEO of Canopius Group and others.

Mentors have taken students on an exploration of women's leadership to discover extraordinary women in the world and understand the journeys that have led to their achievements.  Through this process students have come to understand the characteristics of strong leadership, while honing in on their own unique self-expression and vision, as well as developing the skills to confidently communicate their own unique visions.  What has emerged has been extraordinary.

We are so very proud of the graduates of this programme.  One young woman's project aims to work with the victims of Acid Attacks, another to build a campaign to build awareness of Female Genital Mutilation among girls in her culture; another to work with youths in her community to bring peace to waring gangs - these are just a few of the projects that have emerged from the programme.

It has been a priviledge for all of us, to see these girls grow, become empowered and find their own unique 'voices.'  It is for this reason that VOICE OF A WOMAN and Youth Leadership & Social Responsibility was created, to inspire and empower the next generation to create a better future.  This all begins with one courageous individual with the imagination to create the vision and the voice to communicate that vision. It is critical for the journey ahead that we take the time now to plant the seeds of leadership and social responsibility and that we inspire and empower our youth to give voice to their vision - our future depends on it.
YLSR - Int. Youth Leadership & Social Responsibility



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MISS REPRESENTATION FILM SCREENING Thu, 14 Mar 2013 10:00:46 +0000

Miss Representation Film Screening & Panel Discussion

Monday 17th June

Drinks served at 7:30pm

Film starts 8:15pm

Miss Representation is a thought provoking documentary written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.  The documentary premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.

After the film, we will have the pleasure of welcoming the following panelists:

  • Emma Woolf, Writer and columnist for The Times, author of “The Ministry of Thin” and “An Apple a Day”
  • Deborah Joseph, Editor of Easy Living magazine at Condé Nast Publications
  • Jill Walker, Deputy Head at Glendower Preparatory School
  • Holli Rubin, Psychotherapist specialised in body image and the impact of physical change on self-esteem

To book tickets please go to:


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WOMEN & THEIR CHILDREN IN SYRIA’S CONFLICT Thu, 31 Jan 2013 08:02:02 +0000 Across Syria tens of thousands of women have lost their children, husbands, homes and lives. Thousands more live in tents amid the mud and misery of border camps.

The death toll approaches 90,000 by some counts and the refugee crisis soars past a million. Already entering its third year, the conflict is affecting every Syrian.

Many women have been forced to flee their homes because of fighting or heavy shelling in their villages, while many have lost their homes and all their possessions in airstrikes. One woman miscarried her second child, a victim of the constant fear and harsh conditions. She’s still struggling to overcome her loss. Physically, too, she remains weak and suffers from untreated complications.

Two toddlers stare at a television screen showing the death and destruction playing out across their homeland.  “My children’s favorite activity is to follow the free fighters around collecting bullet casings,” Basham says.

“They were always fighting to watch cartoons before,” she adds. “Now none of them watch cartoons anymore, all they want to see is the news channels with videos of the fighting.”

Many women in the villages of Idlib Province say life before the conflict, which revolved around children and meal preparation, was a happy time. They reminisce about mornings getting the children ready for school, afternoons of tea with neighbors and evenings spent with their husbands. Now, "I sleep in the kitchen with my three daughters because that is the only safe room,” share Rehib.

“Tomorrow will be very dangerous for us all,” Rehib says.

Sure enough, the bombardment starts just after midnight, as the women prepare to huddle together for the night. Ground-to-ground missiles begin exploding around the village.

The women rush their babies into a small, dark back room, the only one built into the mountainside that offers the best protection from the missiles. Some of the older children, sleeping peacefully through the sound, have to be woken to be moved.

After an hour, the missiles stop and the women finally settle in for the night in the uneasy knowledge that although this battle has ended, the war for Syria is far from over.

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PHOTOJOURNALIST – TARA TODRAS WHITEHALL Sun, 01 Jan 2012 09:11:25 +0000 Running Women Protesters We shall overcome Tank Woman Tutankhamun Mask Tears Eyes Mideast Libya Car Mourning Mideast Israel Palestians Mideast Egypt In Black]]> 0 VOW TALKS: LEYMAH GBOWEE – LIBERIA Sun, 01 Jan 2012 09:09:50 +0000 VOW TALKS: LEYMAH GBOWEE - LIBERIA
VOW TALKS Article 25th November, 2011

Leymah Gbowee was born in central Liberia in 1972 and at age 17 was living with her parents and two of her three sisters in Monrovia, when the first Liberian Civil War erupted in 1989, throwing the country into bloody chaos until 1996.

"As the war subsided.... I learned about a program run by UNICEF,... training people to be social workers who would then counsel those traumatized by war," wrote Gbowee in her 2011 memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers.

She did a three-month training, which led her to be aware of her own abuse at the hands of the father of her two young children, son Joshua "Nuku" and daughter Amber. Searching for peace and sustenance for her family, Gbowee followed her partner, called Daniel in her memoir, to Ghana where she and her growing family (her second son, Arthur, was born) lived as virtually homeless refugees and almost starved. She fled with her three children, riding a bus on credit for over a week "because I didn't have a cent," back to the chaos of Liberia, where her parents and other family members still lived.

In 1998, in an effort to gain admission to an associate of arts degree program in social work at Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, Gbowee became a volunteer within a program operating out of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, where her mother was a women's leader and Gbowee had passed her teenage years. It was called the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP), and it marked the beginning of Gbowee's journey toward being a peace activist:

The THRP's offices were new, but the program had a history. Liberia's churches had been active in peace efforts ever since the civil war started, and in 1991, Lutheran pastors, lay leaders, teachers and health workers joined with the Christian Health Association of Liberia to try to repair the psychic and social damage left by the war.

As she studied and worked her way toward her associate of art degree, which she received in 2001, she applied her training in trauma healing and reconciliation to trying to rehabilitate some of the ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army. Surrounded by the images of war, she realized that "if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers". Gbowee gave birth to a second daughter Nicole "Pudu", making her the mother of four, as she engaged in the next chapter of her life's journey – rallying the women of Liberia to stop the violence that was destroying their children.

In the spring of 1999, after Gbowee had been at the Trauma Healing project for a year, her supervisor, Reverend Bartholomew Bioh "BB" Colley, introduced her to Sam Gbaydee Doe (no relation to the former Liberian president by the same first and last name), a "passionate and intelligent" Liberian who had just earned a master's degree from a Christian university in the US that specialized in peace-building studies. Doe was the executive director of Africa's first regional peace organization, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), which he had co-founded in 1998 in Ghana.  Encouraged by the Lutheran reverend she calls "BB", Gbowee began reading widely in the field of peacebuilding, notably The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and works by Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa.

At a conference in October 2000, Gbowee met Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria, a lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution." Ekiyor told Gbowee of her idea to start a women's organization. "Thelma was a thinker, a visionary, like BB and Sam. But she was a woman, like me," said Gbowee.

Within a year, Ekiyor had secured funding and had organized the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Accra, Ghana, attended by Gbowee:

How to describe the excitement of that first meeting...? There were women from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo – almost all the sixteen West African nations. In her quietly brilliant way, Thelma had handwritten an organizer's training manual with exercises that would draw women out, engage them, teach them about conflict and conflict resolution, and even help them understand why they should be involved in addressing these issues at all.

In the sympathetic setting of other women hungry for peace, Gbowee told the painful parts of her life story for the first time, including sleeping on the floor of a hospital corridor with a newborn baby for a week because she had no money to pay the bill and nobody to help her. "No one else in Africa was doing this: focusing only on women and only on building peace." Ekiyor became Gbowee's trainer and friend. She also was the one who announced the launch of WIPNET in Liberia and named Gbowee as coordinator of Liberian Women's Initiative. Gbowee's "peace-church" philosophical orientation likely can be traced to this era – Thelma Ekiyor, Rev. "BB" Colley, Sam Gbaydee Doe, and Hizkias Assefa are all connected to Eastern Mennonite University in the United States, either as former students or (in Assefa's case) as an ongoing professor.

Leading mass women's movement

In the spring of 2002, Gbowee was spending her days employed in trauma-healing work and her evenings as the unpaid leader of WIPNET in Liberia. Her children, now including an adopted daughter named Lucia "Malou" (bringing the number of children to five), were living in Ghana under her sister's care. Falling asleep in the WIPNET office one night, she awoke from a dream where God had told her, "Gather the women and pray for peace!" I and two Lutheran women workers, including a respected evangelist named Sister Esther, of her dream. They helped her to understand that the dream was not meant for others, as Gbowee thought; it was a necessary for Gbowee herself to act upon it.

Gbowee and her allies, including a Mandingo-Muslim woman called Asatu, began by "going to the mosques on Friday at noon after prayers, to the markets on Saturday morning, to two churches every Sunday." Their flyers read: "We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!" They also handed out simple drawings explaining their purpose to the many women who couldn't read.

By the summer of 2002, Gbowee was recognized as the spokeswoman and inspirational leader of a peace movement that started with local women praying and singing in a fish market. Working across religious and ethnic lines, Gbowee led thousands of Christian and Muslim women to gather in Monrovia for months. They prayed for peace, using Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually held daily non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from tyrannical President Charles Taylor.

They staged protests that included the threat of a sex strike: "The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention." In a highly risky move, the women finally occupied a field that had been used for soccer; it was beside Tubman Boulevard, the route Charles Taylor traveled twice a day, to and from Capitol Hill. To make themselves more recognizable as a group, all of the women wore T-shirts that were white, signifying peace, with the WIPNET logo and white hair ties. Taylor finally granted a hearing for the women on April 23, 2003. With more than 2,000 women massed outside his executive mansion, Gbowee was the person designated to make their case to him. Gbowee positioned her face to be seen by Taylor but directed her words to Grace Minor, the president of the senate and the only female government official present:

We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?"

In her book, Gbowee reveals that Grace Minor quietly "gave a great deal of her own money... at enormous personal risk" to the women's protest movement. The protesting women extracted a promise from President Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana.

In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. At first the women sat in a daily demonstration outside the posh hotels where the negotiators met, pressuring for progress in the talks. When the talks dragged from early June through late July, with no progress made and violence continuing in Liberia, Gbowee led dozens of women, eventually swelling to a couple of hundred, inside the hotel. They then "dropped down, in front of the glass door that was the main entrance to the meeting room." They held signs that said: "Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people -- STOP!"

Gbowee passed a message to the lead mediator, General Abubakar (a former president of Nigeria), that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates "hostage" until a peace agreement was reached. Abubakar, who proved to be sympathetic to the women, announced with some amusement: "The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops." When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off: "In Africa, it's a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself." With Abubakar's support, the women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, ensuring that the "atmosphere at the peace talks changed from circuslike to somber."

The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. "But what we [women] did marked the beginning of the end."

In addition to bringing an end to 14 years of warfare in Liberia, this women's movement led to the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.

Consolidating the peace

Recognizable when wearing their white WIPNET T-shirts, Gbowee and the other Liberian women activists were treated as national heroines by Liberians in the streets for weeks following the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Yet Gbowee wrote of their unceasing nervousness about the fragility of the peace that they had helped birth:

"A war of fourteen years doesn't just go away. In the moments we were calm enough to look around, we had to confront the magnitude of what had happened in Liberia. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were dead, a quarter of them children. One in three were displaced, with 350,000 living in internally displaced persons camps and the rest anywhere they could find shelter. One million people, mostly women and children, were at risk of malnutrition, diarrhea, measles and cholera because of contamination in the wells. More than 75 percent of the country's physical infrastructure, our roads, hospitals and schools, had been destroyed."

Gbowee expressed particular concern for the "psychic damage" borne by Liberians:

A whole generation of young men had no idea who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed. Neighbors had turned against neighbors; young people had lost hope, and old people, everything they had painstakingly earned. To a person, we were traumatized."

Amid the destruction and unending needs, Gbowee was appalled by the arrogance, ignorance and overall cultural insensitivity of the United Nations agencies dispatched to help disarm the country, keep the peace, establish procedures for democratic governance, and initiate rebuilding efforts. "People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they're not stupid (Gbowee's emphasis). They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked." Gbowee advocated for involving Liberian civil society, especially women's organizations, in restoring the country. She grew frustrated with the way the "UN was spending many millions of dollars in Liberia, but most of it was on [their own] staffing resources.... If they had just given some of that money to the local people, it would have made a real difference."

Seeking master's degree in peacebuilding

In the late spring of 2004, about eight months after the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, Gbowee made a decision to take college-level courses in the field in which she had been working: "I'd heard about Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), an American college with a well-known program in peace-building and conflict resolution. It was a Christian school that emphasized community and service; it had a long-standing relationship with WANEP and a history of recruiting Africans to study there." Her first stint at EMU – four weeks at its annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute – were "a transformative time for me."

Gbowee studied with Hizkias Assefa, whose writings she had read five years earlier when she first began working for St. Peter's Lutheran Church on trauma healing. She also studied with Howard Zehr, "who taught me the concept of restorative justice," whereby healing occurred through the joint efforts of victims and offenders to repair the harms done.  She thought restorative justice was particularly applicable to Africa: "Restorative justice was...something we could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition. A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable. More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done.... When I left EMU, I knew there was more here for me. Somehow I would find a way to come back."

At graduate school, I could feel my mind expand, my comprehension deepen. I realized I now could put a formal name, "strategic peacebuilding," to what I'd done instinctively in Liberia.... Many of the other students at EMU had lived through conflict, and there was relief in being among them.... In Harrisonburg, a small old city in the Shenandoah Valley, far from Liberia and its sorrows and people who expected something from me, I didn't have to be strong. Every now and then – for instance, when I saw a mother with her children – I would burst into tears. No one at EMU thought that was strange. I met an old man who'd lost his entire family in the Rwandan genocide.

In September 2006, just as Gbowee was embarking on her first full semester of graduate school, she went to New York City to address the UN on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the passage of Resolution 1325, which dealt with protecting women from gender-based violence and involving them in UN-linked peace efforts. While in New York, she received a call from Abigail Disney a descendant of the founders of the Walt Disney Company, a feminist, and a philanthropist. Disney and a collaborator, Gini Reticker, wanted to talk with Gbowee about their desire to make a documentary about how the women of Liberia rallied themselves to force the men to stop battling.

Receiving acclaim, yet struggling personally

By the time Gbowee finished her studies on April 30, 2007, and returned to her children in Liberia in May 2007 – where her parents had been caring for them – she realized that her nine months away "nearly broke all of us." In Virginia, she had lived with "a cold that never went away" and she "felt panic, sadness, and cold, swirling blackness" as she faced "being sued." Her impending graduate degree (conferred at the end of 2007), growing fame, and other changes in her life strained the relationship she had with a Liberian man named Tunde, an employee of international agencies who had functioned as a father figure for her children for a decade, from the early period of the Liberian women's peace movement through Gbowee's graduate studies (for which he had paid the tuition). They broke up and by early 2008 Gbowee was in another relationship. He is the father of her sixth child, a daughter named Jaydyn Thelma Abigail, born in New York City in June 2009.

Gbowee's exposure to the New York philanthropic social set, facilitated by Disney (who had become a close friend), appeared to open the door for a series of awards. The first, from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, came in early 2006, and then they began to arrive in accelerated fashion: recognition by Women's eNews, the Gruber Prize for Women's Rights, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award, the Living Legends Award for Service to Humanity, and several more. In July 2011, EMU announced that Gbowee had been named its "Alumna of the Year."

Today Leymah Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra Ghana, which builds relationships across the West African sub-region in support of women’s capacity to prevent, avert, and end conflicts. She is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). She also served as the commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Nobel Peace Prize presented in December 2011 was a victory for women across the world, shared between three female pioneers of peace: Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee and Yemenese activist Tawakkul Karman.

The three were recognised for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".

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Dr. Scilla Elworthy Remembers Dekha Ibrahim Abdi Wed, 23 Nov 2011 15:16:41 +0000 A Woman of Courage

What do I do differently as a result of knowing this great woman? I utterly believe in the power of one local person to transform a violent situation. I know that humiliation is the driver of most incidents of violence, and that respect is the best antidote to humiliation, and I try to apply that. On the weekend of the UK memorial service for Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, Scilla Elworthy remembers her friend.

From the first time I met Dekha Ibrahim Abdi in 1999, she began to shape my thinking about conflict transformation. I already knew, from the research we were then doing at Oxford Research Group for a book of stories about initiatives in peace building called War Prevention Works  (2001, now out of print) that local people clearly knew best what was needed in their area. I also suspected that women peace-builders were ahead of the curve. And Dekha proved to be the most eloquent and experienced role model that I had ever met.

From her origins in rural Kenya, she became a global peacemaker, helping transform violent conflict in many of the world's most divided countries. Her comprehensive methodology combined grassroots activism, a soft but uncompromising leadership, and a spiritual motivation drawing on the teachings of Islam.

She was born in 1964 in Wajir, near the border with Somalia, and received a good education thanks to her father’s support. At her secondary school pupils were divided along religious and ethnic lines, but Dekha and her friends created a space between these opposing camps by sticking together. This childhood experience informed her philosophy of inter-religious co-operation as essential to achieving durable peace. "The participation in a peace process is not about the mathematics of numbers and percentages in relation to who is in majority or minority. It is about plurality, diversity, participation and ownership of all affected by the conflict."

In Wajir a conflict between clans over water and livestock claimed 1500 lives in the early 1990s. Dekha, then head teacher of a school in Wajir, started a grassroots peace initiative with women from other clans. Despite opposition from traditional leaders, they began to organise mediation between the warring factions. Dekha’s method was first to listen carefully, without interrupting, to all involved in the conflict.  She knew that humiliation is one of the main drivers of violence, and she knew that the best antidote to humiliation is….respect. The process was a personal interaction with each individual or group, in order to “see the pain in each situation”.  Then, when everyone felt their point of view was understood, she would work together with all parties to “restore relations between victim and offender”. Although Dekha may not have known it at the time, this is exactly the method that Mandela used in South Africa and later to prevent the Rwandan conflict spreading to Burundi.  She explains this process in a short YouTube.

When an agreement was finally in place, the women didn’t rest. Knowing that 50% of peace agreements fail unless followed up, they set up Wajir Peace and Development to bring together all stakeholders - clans, government security officers, parliamentarians, civil servants, Muslim and Christian religious leaders - to ensure that the agreement was implemented. In the following years, Dekha and others in Wajir worked tirelessly to expand work amongst young people, ex-combatants and the nomadic population, as well as initiating peace festivals and school programmes, to try and ensure a lasting peace. “We used local level partnership to negotiate the return of stolen items transported across the border. We got better results by engaging with the community instead of sending in the armed forces.

What was striking about her approach was, firstly, her presence. When she walked into a room, a sense of calm and dignity entered with her. That meant that before a word was spoken, everyone felt a little safer. Tensions began to subside. This kind of presence cannot be invented or conjured up; it’s the result of years of self-examination, reflection, listening, and learning.

Second, her conviction that peace was possible. I remember her addressing a group of hard-headed journalists in London after the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. She held them spell-bound with her account of how the citizen-led strategy for violence reduction was put into action, minute by minute. “Violence doesn’t get put on hold while someone processes funding for peace building. Conflict can escalate very quickly so speed is everything in sharing information and acting quickly.”

Third, young people immediately warmed to her. From 2002 Dekha was patron of the London-based ngo Peace Direct. In this capacity, after the London bombings, she co-facilitated a project to provide a platform for young Muslims to explore the challenges around being a Muslim and being British.

Fourth, her modesty and generosity. She never took credit, even for the many awards she received. Back home she worked as an advisor to the Kenyan government on mediation, and in 1999 was awarded the Distinguished Medal for Service. In  2005 she was named Kenyan Peace Builder of the Year. She was nominated as one among 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. In 2007 she received the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. She gave her substantial prize money to help start a Peace University in Wajir, which is today an inspiring project.

Dekha's spiritual identity as a Muslim formed a strong foundation for her peace work. She explored the Qu'ran's teaching on understanding the soul in terms of bringing about   durable peace. Indeed, she encouraged individuals and communities in conflict to examine themselves using verses from the Qu'ran. Dekha defined a set of principles that summarise her experience of comprehensive peace building, linking peace theory and policy with pragmatic action¸ and private lobbying/advocacy with public mobilisation. Sometimes she expressed this through the acronym AFRICA: Analysis, Flexibility, Responsiveness, Innovation, Context- specific and awareness, and Action/learning-orientation.

When violence erupted all over Kenya after disputed elections in 2007, she was called to the Serena Hotel In Nairobi, where two retired generals, an ambassador and two other civil society leaders were already gathered.  They pointed to the empty chair and said ‘Dekha, please take the chair. We have to design a way to stop the killing.’

One of the methods they used was to ask the 60,000 members of a women’s organisation who had cell phones, to look out of their windows and report what they saw. The information started pouring in. They began to plot not only the ‘hot spots’ of the violence but also the ‘cold spots’, since it was important to know where people were running to, so they could be protected. They then began to develop strategies for each spot, with the help of trusted local leaders. In less than 3 weeks, with the help of community, youth, and church leaders, sports personalities, police and the media, these strategies brought the violence under control. When Kofi Annan arrived to mediate between Kibaki and Odinga, it was possible to secure a peace agreement based on a mix of ‘official’ plus ‘local’ methodologies – exactly the way advocated by Dekha and her colleagues.

Their methods were expanded into the brilliant Ushahidi  -  an open source project which allows users to crowd source crisis information to be sent via mobile. It has now saved lives in many political and humanitarian crises.

Dekha said “feast with your enemies”. So I do my best to prepare and offer food to those with whom I find myself in disagreement. She saw only too clearly the fragility of peace, saying that peace needs to be nurtured as carefully as an egg. Dekha found deep fulfillment in enabling others to develop their full potential as leaders for peace and justice, never seeking the limelight for herself.

Dekha died on 14 July 2011 as a result of a car crash in north-eastern Kenya.

About the author

Dr. Scilla Elworthy is the founder of Peace Direct to fund, promote and learn from peace-builders in conflict areas, and the Oxford Research Group to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics.


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