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Female peacebuilders protect civil rights and human dignity

September 20, 2023

Illustration by TM Design Inc.

Growing up in Cambodia in the 1990s, Visal always wondered why her family’s holiday celebrations included so few relatives. It wasn’t until right before her father, a former soldier, died that she pressed him to tell her what had happened to his nine brothers.

Each of them had been killed fighting on different sides during the Cambodian Civil War, he told her. “I didn’t understand how siblings from one family could wind up on opposite sides killing each other,” Visal says. “Some were identified as heroes, others as traitors. Who decides which was which? And what is my generation’s responsibility to fix this historical mistake?”

Those questions propelled Visal into working as a filmmaker and writer for a documentary about Cambodian post-war stories. The film aims to foster intergenerational dialogue and learning from historical experiences.

“Documenting the past helps us remember it, heal from it and reconcile with it,” she says. But the work can take a toll. “We deal with pain and tragedy, and sometimes being a peacebuilder feels lonely. It is important to have an alliance of people who have similar experiences and the same passion.”

Networks for Peace offers peacebuilders like Visal that solidarity. FHI 360 implements the program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The program promotes women’s engagement in peacebuilding in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. To achieve this, it supported the creation of a network of female peacebuilders in South and Southeast Asia. The network, which was created in partnership with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, serves as a learning and connection-building community.

The process of learning and sharing equips about two dozen female peacebuilders with strategies for building movements and sustaining inclusive peace. Through the program, the female peacebuilders have completed activities such as learning and exchange events, including a pivotal in-person retreat that focused on establishing lasting relationships.

At the weeklong retreat, the peacebuilders learned about feminist leadership, trauma healing and mental health care. Activities such as painting and learning self-defense helped bolster their well-being. They also used the safe space to share their experiences and found inspiration to continue their work despite the challenges.

Peacebuilding practitioners often work under difficult conditions, which can lead to increased stress, burnout and depression. In addition, many of the female peacebuilders come from communities where women face structural inequalities.

“Almost all of us are working with human beings in conflict-affected areas,” says Kaush, who facilitates interfaith dialogues in Sri Lanka. “To do [our work], we need to connect with ourselves and others with empathy. But our well-being is something that we neglect in our day-to-day lives.”

Visal, the documentary filmmaker in Cambodia, also speaks of experiencing burnout. “I love this job, but my battery keeps going down,” she says.

Sustaining women in peacebuilding is vital. A growing body of research shows that women’s involvement in peacebuilding improves outcomes for peace and stability around the world. Countries with women in positions of leadership and with greater gender equality experience lower rates of conflict, research from the World Bank shows.

When violence does erupt, female participation in conflict prevention and resolution dramatically improves the chances of a peace deal lasting beyond two years, the International Peace Institute found. Women at the table also ensure more democratic decision-making, improve representation and advocate for provisions on women’s rights in peace agreements.

Yet half of the world’s population has been largely excluded from peacemaking. Over the last three decades, about 70% of peace processes did not include a single female mediator or signatory, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Even in conflicts that seem intractable, women play an essential part in protecting human dignity and civil rights, underpinning an eventual peace. In south Thailand, an insurgency with roots dating to the mid-20th century has grown ever more complex and violent in recent decades.

Nurainee, a rights defender and paralegal, supports women whose husbands or sons are detained under Thailand’s emergency rule provisions. “Many women don’t have knowledge of the law, especially emergency law, or even what their basic rights are when dealing with military authorities,” she says.

Women who work with Nurainee to build their understanding of the Thai legal and justice systems can better navigate those systems in pursuit of justice and protection. Nurainee also trains other women for this type of role, and she wrote a manual for female volunteers.

At the Networks for Peace retreat, Nurainee expanded her connections with like-minded women, including LGBTQI+ advocates and human rights defenders from other countries.

“I can see that I am not alone, and meeting women who face similar situations has reaffirmed that I can do this,” she says. “The insights we gained from the retreat are like a watering can. A flower or a tree needs water, and we learn to see that the sustenance comes from our inner selves.”

FHI 360 implements the Networks for Peace project under the Strengthening Civil Society Globally (SCS Global) Leader with Associates Award from USAID. In addition to the retreat discussed in this story, the project’s activities include grants for selected peacebuilding activities, practitioner exchanges, exposure trips, peer-to-peer learning opportunities and participative research.

Over the past 20 years, FHI 360 has developed and implemented solutions to violent conflict and extremism in more than 35 countries. Learn more about our approach and commitment to adaptive peacebuilding.

Illustration by TM Design Inc.