A World, Mostly Dominated by Men, in Turmoil
By Azza Karam
A boy looks through a schoolbook as he sits in the rubble of a home destroyed during an Israeli air strike on the city of Khan Yunis. Credit: UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0894/El Baba
“We Would Not Choose War”
“Peace cannot exist without justice, justice cannot exist without fairness, fairness cannot exist without development, development cannot exist without democracy, democracy cannot exist without respect for the identity of worth of cultures and peoples.” — Rigoberta Menchú
This year – 2023 – started with a commemoration of one year of war in, and on Ukraine, which has dramatically impacted the price of basic needs for the world’s populations in every corner of the world. It is an ongoing calamity for a world already living its worst collective food, public health and conflict-based insecurities.
Despite the peace agreement allowing access to Tigray, the humanitarian crisis following the conflict in Ethiopia has not abated, nor has the civil conflict in the Sudan. As fighting raged on in Somalia, the country faced its worst drought in forty years, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
The UN warned in June, that 400,000 of the 6.6 million Somalis in need of aid are facing famine-like conditions, and 1.8 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition in 2023. To add to the disaster, the World Food Programme has been forced to drastically cut its services in the country, due to lack of funding.
While there are more conflicts brewing in Africa, we have to take note of the fact that Asia also has its painful shares thereof, with ongoing Turkish government attacks against Kurdish groups as we write this. While talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in April 2023 (mediated by China), raised hopes of a political settlement to end the conflict in Yemen, hostility between the two warring sides remains.
Further East, the civil conflict in Myanmar is resulting in more civil strife and untold misery also for minority communities. In Iran, a uniquely women-led uprising, continues to be brutally repressed, even as the country remains heavily vested in regional conflicts.
Another continent, Latin America, is host to serious political and economic instability – as in Venezuela – sometimes compounded by violence – as in Haiti – with significant humanitarian consequences. The continent also has its fair share of rising criminal gang violence, suspected to be closely aligned with certain political, arms and drugs’ interests, which are on the rise in several countries.
On October 7, 2023 the world witnessed atrocities committed by a religiously inspired (although by no means faith-justified) group, Hamas (self-designated as the Islamic resistance movement), on Israeli land, with ongoing mourning for the deaths, the trauma, and the fate of hundreds of hostages taken.
All of which appears to be used by some (largely western) governments to justify retaliatory actions which are resulting in millions of Palestinians (in Gaza) now living even without water, thousands already killed, many of whom are women and children, and over a million of them are being pushed, by a state actor, to become forcibly displaced.
In relatively (much) more peaceful countries, the rise of those advocating right-wing xenophobic actions and hate – some of whom are elected, by millions, to serve positions of senior most executive authority – is not unusual.
So, our world is not in a good place right now.
In each of these conflicts most of the key decision makers, are – perhaps coincidentally – male leaders. In all of these contexts, the ones paying the highest price in terms of loss of life, limb, deteriorating mental health, traumas, and denial of basic dignity – let alone access to basic needs – are women, children and those living with disabilities (which includes all genders, social classes, and age groups).
Yet in very few of any of those contexts, do we hear from the women leaders who are serving humanitarian needs, struggling to keep communities surviving, still speaking with one another and helping one another across the painful chasms and divides, and speaking out against the calls, and the murderous rationales, of war.
While there is data which implicates some women leaders in conflicts and violence – from suicide bombings to mainstream army and navy leaders and officers, members of right-wing extremist groups, non-state actors and gangs – these are not the norm. In fact, there is no comparative scope. As long as the majority of world’s senior-most political and military leaders are male, one cannot compare them to the legacies of the far fewer, and much more recent, women, in similar positions of power.
Women’s organisations tend to be among the most vocal and numerous, in their rejection of any and all forms of war and violence. The women who uphold this simple, and profoundly life changing and life affirming stances, of not choosing war, are often seasoned veterans of serving their communities and their nations. Many do not only speak from a place of aspiration, but from where they are rooted in taking collective actions for the common good.
Many women human rights defenders, and veterans of peacebuilding efforts in their communities and nations, tend to put into effect, the most pragmatic rationale of all: that my safety and welfare depends on yours. That you are part of me as I am of you. That in your annihilation, is mine own. That our collective resilience, is necessary, for this very precious planet, on which we are but (seriously disrespectful) guests, graciously hosted.
Yet these very same women, and their organisations, all of which are legacy builders, have to struggle to have their voices heard in the existing diversity and cacophony of media channels. Their absence from the seats of global decision making – because they are busy serving communities who have long lost their connection to today’s multilateral elitist spaces – affords them little to no opportunity to be part of the voices mainstream media prioritises.
Indeed, media sometimes makes, select leaders, who appear to speak to the angry masses – or make the masses angry – but rarely showcases the work of the women building peace.
“We would not choose war” is not a temporary motto of convenience. It is a state of mind, and a state of being, which is struggled for, often at high personal, and professional cost. Its minimal threshold is the art of compromise. Its maximal achievement is peaceful coexistence. Both of which are sorely needed. It is also what most women’s organisations, and women-led efforts in all corners of the world, would say, and mean.
Given the state of our world, we need to make sure the track record of women’s peaceful leadership is actively and systematically supported, specifically when and where such efforts revolve around partnerships, and build on grassroots multilateral engagements. Such women-led peace initiatives should be a strategic developmental priority, within nations and between them. At the same time, this support should diligently avoid the all too frequent trap of creating new, parallel , duplicative, and replicative efforts, and/or focusing on supporting the already privileged elites.
We (should) have learned after decades of international development, that effective partnerships – advocated for in the 17th Sustainable Development Goal – are not optional. Partnerships in conceptualising, addressing, planning, delivery, and all forms of service, are a sine qua non, of social inclusion, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Not because they are easy to effect.
Perhaps precisely because they are challenging. But the challenge of partnerships around social cohesion are far more tolerable than the destructions of war. Away from the spaces of media, pomp and ceremony, media frenzy around temporal events, and elitist noise, women-led grassroots and international efforts are already providing alternatives to the current madness.
Dr Azza Karam, Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, and President and CEO of the Women’s Learning Partnership, based in Washington, and working with women’s human rights organisations in the southern hemisphere. She has decades of experience serving women-led multi stakeholder coalitions for democracy, peace and security.
This post first appeared on IPS News.