January 15, 2009
(This article is from the website of Haravard University's Kennedy School of Government. My Professor and mentor, Rufa Guiam, is one of the women peace advocates invited during the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum)
Women peace activists from Sudan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines spoke about the importance of including women’s perspectives in security decisions and shared their personal stories during a panel discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Wednesday (Jan. 14).
The four panelists were among 19 participants at the Harvard Kennedy School’s 10th annual Women and Security Program. Although the panelists come from widely differing backgrounds, they agreed that there is more to security than bombs or bullets.
“Women bring a different definition of security,” said Orzala Ashraf, founder and senior adviser of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. “For women it’s not about military solutions.”
Marini de Livera, a national project coordinator for the UN Development Programme in Sri Lanka, noted that although her country has seen female presidents, these women rulers are leading a patriarchal society.
“Ahimsa, nonviolence, is the theory, but violence is the practice,” she said.
De Livera’s point was echoed by Rufa Guiam, director of the Center for Peace & Development Studies at Mindanao State University in the Philippines.
“It’s not enough to have a woman [leader]; it doesn’t necessarily follow that she will reflect women’s concerns,” said Guiam.
In the Philippines, she explained, substitutions are allowed on ballots as long as the replacement candidate’s last name is the same. This means that women in positions of power are often replacing their husbands or fathers.
Ambassador Swanee Hunt, Eleanor Roosevelt lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, moderated the panel. She told of two female Swedish senators who found that when the number of women in the Swedish parliament increased, there were noticeable changes in the way they acted, spoke and dressed.
“There is a huge difference between being a woman at the top of a male hierarchy and being a woman who is part of a group that is 30 or 40 percent women,” said Hunt.
The panelists also had some advice for President-elect Obama. Josephine Abalang, deputy director of public relations in the Office of the Vice President of Southern Sudan, noted that President Bush is extremely popular in Sudan for the role he played ending the country’s civil war in 2005 and the incoming administration brings with it a degree of uncertainty. Abalang said she wonders whether the Obama administration will help with critically important issues such as the administration of elections.
Similarly, Ashraf worried that the new administration will spend much energy adjusting the level of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.
“Please, please, please listen to Afghans,” she said. “People hear Kandahar and think it is a dangerous city, but come meet Rangina [Hamidi, founder of an organization that provides economic opportunities for women], who works in Kandahar, who knows what women need, who knows what people need.”