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Three countries, four women and a cross-border solidarity

PeaceWomen Across the Globe brought together peace activists from Colombia, Nepal and the Philippines to share their experiences of armed conflict and of the subsequent peace efforts in their countries and to benefit from each other's expertise. As different as the political contexts are, the women found many similarities. The solidarity they felt at the meeting gives them the strength to continue their often arduous peace work.

She pulls the padded coat a little tighter around her shoulders, as if more than the cold of this winter's day were getting to her. "Peace work is a long and arduous process, but what alternative do you have? Where do you get the motivation and strength when you would rather stay in bed in the morning? At meetings like these you can see that you are not alone. The solidarity is there.“ 

Yasmin Busran-Lao is project advisor for the Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute in the Philippines. She was one of two women who participated in the peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Yasmin has just had three days of intensive discussions and conversations with peace activists from Colombia and Nepal. PeaceWomen Across the Globe brought the four women together because they all come from countries that have lived through long armed conflicts and are now in different stages of a peace process. The women all work for and with partner organisations with which PeaceWomen Across the Globe has already organised several Women's Peace Tables.  

The workshop in Bern gave the women the opportunity to learn from each other's experiences and to share their expertise. But they took home more than a suitcase of new insights: the strength to continue. "The other women do not know your context. You think maybe they don't care, but then you experience real cross-border sisterhood. This reinforces your faith in your work," says Yasmin. 

Salomé Gomez Corrales, Gender Coordinator of the Colombian Truth Commission, Carolina Cano Pajoy, Project Coordinator at Comunitar in Southern Colombia and Susan Risal, Director of Nagarik Aawaz, an NGO in Nepal, all underline how important the exchange of experience across borders is for them and their work. "It was inspiring to exchange experiences with women who have been fighting for peace for years. My heart is full of hope and energy," said Carolina at the end of the meeting. 

As different as the history and political contexts of the three countries are, the peace activists found many similarities in three core themes: the participation of women in peace processes and reconstruction, the importance of Women's Peace Tables in this process, and sexualised violence against women, which is widespread in all countries, even after the armed conflicts. 

How important is the participation of women in the peace process in your countries? 

The answer to this question varies from country to country. In Nepal, where the 10-year armed conflict between the government and the Maoist rebel group ended in 2006, the proportion of women in the Constituent Assembly was 5%. Nepalese women, mobilised by organisations like Nagarik Aawaz, protested for 45 days, says Susan. The pressure of the protests led to the inclusion of quotas for women's representation in the government: 33% at the national level and 40% at the local level. This is progress, Susan says, but most women have been elected locally as vice-mayors and are considered "chupa", i.e. silent and without power. The political participation of women has changed in Nepal, but in local governments it is not a priority to "invest in women". 

The 2014 Act establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappearances was sharply criticised internationally and by Nepalese civil society for several shortcomings. It is the government which appoints all the members of the Truth Commission, as well as the Commission to Review Human Rights Violations. The political will to thoroughly deal with the past is lacking, as is the will to let women participate in political decision-making processes, says Susan. 

In Colombia, women are represented on the National Truth Commission; PeaceWomen Across the Globe Board member, the feminist and professor Alejandra Miller Restrepo, is one of five women in the currently 10-strong commission. Colombian women fought hard for their participation. After 50 years of armed conflict, the government signed a peace agreement with the FARC rebel group in November 2016. But only men took part in the initial talks that took place in Cuba before the signing of the peace agreement. 

"Women had no voice," says Carolina from Comunitar, who coordinates the Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres national peace network in the Cauca region. The feminist and pacifist movement, along with other organisations, mobilised women and put pressure on the government. "The women's movement has insisted that women participate in peace negotiations. They must sit at the table." 

They were successful: women are equally represented, not only in the Truth Commission but also in three other commissions. The Gender Working Group, which Salomé chairs, is responsible for ensuring that women are included in all aspects of the Truth Commission's work. "Women are not only victims of the conflict, but also actively involved in the reconstruction of the country," says Salomé. 

In the Philippines, too, women mobilised to bring about and maintain peace after 50 years of war between the government and the MILF. The conflict in Muslim Mindanao was one of the oldest armed independence struggles in the world. A major reason for the conflict was the mass migration of Christian settlers to the ancestral territories of Muslims and non-Muslim indigenous peoples. 

Yasmin, whose family was directly affected by the conflict, recalls that women had been represented in all aspects of the peace process and had exerted pressure at all levels. "When the process came to a standstill in 2000, it was the women who were fighting for a ceasefire". 

PeaceWoman Miriam Coronel Ferrer was chief negotiator and the first woman in the world to co-sign a major peace agreement. She also convinced the men at the table to accept two more women into the negotiations, including Yasmin. "Women have realised that they must be involved in the political decision-making process. They did not want token participation; they wanted to help shape peace," says Yasmin.  

At the beginning of 2019, the majority of the population in five provinces voted for the adoption of the newly created "Autonomous Region of Bangsamoro in Muslim Mindanao". The interim government has decreed, thanks to the commitment of activists, that each office must devote 5% of its budget to the advancement of women. It took some persuasion, says Yasmin, but the MILF has recognised that women need to be involved in shaping peace and in building the new government. 

What role do the Women's Peace Tables play? 

In the Philippines, says Yasmin, the Women's Peace Tables, one of PeaceWomen Across the Globe’s core projects, took place at the right time, strategically. On the one hand, they gave the participants the opportunity to shed new light on the armed conflict from different perspectives, including from the point of view of the women affected. On the other hand, it was about concrete demands. "Today, new laws are the focus of our struggle. At the Peace Tables we were able to formulate demands to ensure that the government keeps its promises to the women". 

A total of 300 people took part in four Peace Tables in 2019, including parliamentarians and transitional justice experts - but above all women from the conflict-affected region, including Christian settlers and indigenous people. A key objective was to build the capacity of women peace activists to deal with the issues of transitional justice and to become involved during this phase. "The participants became more aware that Bangsamoro peace is of national importance," says Yasmin. Solidarity among all women was established at the Peace Tables. 

In Colombia, too, it was a question of clarifying for the women at the seven Peace Tables that took place in 2018 and 2019 what was at stake in this period of transitional justice, what their rights were, and why it was important for women to be involved in post-conflict work. The Truth Commission is an important partner in the Peace Table project in Colombia. Local representatives of the Commission participated in all Peace Tables to explain the work and goals of the Commission and to give women the opportunity to record their memories and experiences anonymously and confidentially. 

The Truth Commission has set itself the goal of recording the testimonies of 16,000 people affected by the conflict in order to create as complete a picture of the civil war as possible. "The Peace Tables are the place where the whole truth comes to light. Without women, the truth is not the full truth," says Carolina. 

In Nepal, women affected by the war, including former Maoist fighters (40% of the Maoist troops were women), took part in the 19 Peace Tables organised by our partner organisation Nagarik Aawaz between 2015 and 2019 in every part of the country as well as in the capital Kathmandu.  

"The women were never asked what they had experienced, how they felt and what they wanted," says Susan. "The Women's Peace Tables were their only opportunity to tell their stories in a safe setting, including their experiences of violence. Because the government does not offer them this opportunity.” 

The "chupa", the "silent", vice-mayors took part too and listened. Many of them became aware for the first time of what had happened to women during the civil war and they promised to support them. "It helps the women to be able to talk about what they have experienced," says Susan. "It gives them dignity and strengthens their self-esteem.” 

Among their demands was a public apology from the government and the army. “They said it was as if they had two hearts inside them. One heart tells them that it was their fault that they were raped, the other says that it was not their fault. If they get a public apology, they can stop blaming themselves." 

Violence against women: a continuum? 

"We come from different societies and political contexts, but we have one thing in common: sexualised violence against women," Salomé said at the working meeting. Violence began before the conflict, continued during the conflict and continues today. In Colombia, as in other countries that have experienced civil wars, women were raped not only by members of the army, rebel groups or paramilitaries, but also by their husbands. 

Carolina explained that only after awareness-raising campaigns did women in Colombia begin to talk about their experience of violence in all its forms - kidnapping, torture, sexualised violence. As they shared their experiences and listened to other women who had experienced similar things, they became more aware that violence "had nothing to do with what clothes they wore, but with the fact that they had lived through an armed conflict and lived in a patriarchal society".  

This is also the case in Nepal. "In this patriarchal society, women are confronted with violence on a daily basis, even after the conflict," says Susan. "During the conflict, women's bodies were used as battlefields to spread fear." Many former female fighters were also traumatised among the Maoists. 

In the truth-finding phase, tens of thousands of statements were recorded, but hardly any from women who had experienced sexualised violence. Men led the peace commissions in the districts. Rooms where women could speak confidentially about their experiences were not made available.  So women would not have testified in any case, says Susan. 

About 9,000 women were widowed after the civil war. They were classified as victims and could thus demand reparation. However, women who were sexually abused were not classified as victims. In Nepal it is now known how many people were killed or tortured during the conflict, how many disappeared, but not how many women were sexually abused or raped in those 10 years. 

In Philippine society, the dignity of women is closely linked to the dignity of their families, says Yasmin, "Women do not think of themselves, but of their families. They are therefore concerned about the impact their statements may have on the dignity of their families. In the Philippine peace process, however, sexual violence is recognised as a human rights violation thanks to the work of activists. 

The almost daily confrontation with the tales of violence, abuse and grief does not leave the four women untouched. The strain is great and can lead to sleepless nights, tears and moments of hopelessness. Yoga, meditation, dancing and singing all help. Above all, however, the feeling of solidarity among the activists gives them strength, as does the awareness that their work is important – for the women whom they listen to over many years and for whom they stand up. This is another reason why PeaceWomen Across the Globe organises supraregional Peace Tables: so that the women can encourage each other and provide support to each other.  "Women have this enormous power and ability to endure pain," says Yasmin, "All these stories are our stories.