Religion and the Role of Women Peacemakers

International Women’s Day (March 8) is observed each year to recognize the economic, political and social achievements of women. The celebratory day was founded in 1908 in New York City by women demanding better pay, shorter work hours and voting rights. Since then, International Women’s Day has spread globally and is commemorated with a different theme each year. Past themes have included Women and HIV/AIDS, Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals, and Women and Men United to End Violence against Women. The 2011 theme is Equal Access to Education, Training and Science and Technology.

In light of this celebration, it is important to acknowledge the important contributions women have made to the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. From Liberia and Rwanda to Israel and Palestine, women have played an instrumental role in bringing violent conflict to an end. Despite this, women are often formally excluded from the peace process and must rely on grassroots efforts to build peace in their communities.
In peace agreements, less than 2% of signatories are women. The exclusion of women from the peace process can have detrimental effects on post-conflict reconstruction as women are not only excluded from participating in the political process, but women’s issues are often excluded from decision-making efforts. During times of conflict, women are often and take on roles as primary breadwinners and caretakers in their families when their husbands and fathers are in combat. Since women typically outnumber men in their communities in the aftermath of a conflict, women are obligated to remain in these positions even after the conflict has ended. Thus the exclusion of women from post-conflict decision-making prevents women from gaining equal rights despite their increased roles in society.
The peace process is even more exclusive for women working to build peace from a religious standpoint. Since leadership roles in most religious traditions are held by males, there are few opportunities for women to be recognized as active participants in religious peacebuilding. Female religious peacebuilders often face discrimination in their work because they are unable to hold any type of leadership position in their respective religious sects.
Despite this, women continue to use religion to build peace and bring important issues to the forefront of their faiths. The Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Action exemplify this continued effort by women, as is evident in their work on the ground.
Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Jamila Afghani, works in Afghanistan to conduct gender-sensitive training programs for imams in Kabul. These programs have been successful in getting imams to discuss issues such as women’s rights and domestic violence at the Friday khutbas. With the success of these programs, Jamila has also paved the way for the establishment of women’s corners inside mosques. Previously, women were not permitted inside mosques in Afghanistan at all, so these new sections will allow them to actively participate in their faith communities.
Also in the Middle East, Syrian Peacemaker Hind Kabawat brings together messages from Islam, Judaism and Christianity to offer a multi-faceted approach to Middle Eastern peace initiatives. As an attorney, Hind uses her role as a public figure to encourage interfaith tolerance in peacebuilding efforts.
Grassroots peacebuilding efforts driven by women have also been successful in the Israel/Palestine conflict, where Najeeba Sirham continues the work she started in 2000 with Osnat Aram-Daphna to promote dialogue through education. Working in schools, Osnat and Najeeba organized communication between students from an Arab community and a Jewish community. Students learn about one another’s religious traditions and participate in joint activities which help build peace through their communities.
In Afghanistan, Sakena Yacoobi also utilizes the tool of education in her peacebuilding efforts. She emphasizes the principles of peace, justice, and equality as part of Islam in the face of the oppressive Taliban. Educated at a Christian university in the United States, Sakena realized faith’s power to bring people together. With this in mind, she returned to Afghanistan and founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which has worked continuously to improve health and education for Afghan women.
Tanenbaum Peacemaker Betty Bigombe has worked toward peace from a more top-down approach. As Minister of State for Pacification in Northern Uganda, Betty was the driving force behind negotiations between the LRA and Ugandan government officials. By including religious and other community leaders in the negotiations, Betty ensured that all sides were represented. Betty also successfully lobbied to get an amnesty law ratified. Since 2004, Betty has continued her work as a peacemaker in Uganda, and was recently elected Women Member of Parliament for her district, where she will continue to build peaceful resolution of the conflict in Uganda.
Another example of state-led peacebuilding comes from Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge (pictured above) who, as Deputy Defense Minister of South Africa, employed the pacifist mentality that stems from her Quaker faith. Nozizwe mediated conflict and advocated for equal rights for women, and was a driving force for the inclusion of women in peace efforts.

On International Women’s Day, it is important to recognize our Peacemakers and the unique contributions they have made to their societies by employing faith as a tool for peace. These contributions have helped women who are working to end violent conflict to have their voices heard.