Four activists, hailing from different parts of the world and diverse backgrounds, have one thing in common – their experiences as women of war.
Enduring conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina, these women decided to take control of their lives and share their common plight, each in her own way, with the rest of the world. They have channeled their pain and suffering into healing themselves, their communities and societies.
They are the women of war of our generation, having long surpassed the days of conventional warfare. They have turned the brutal impact of war on their lives into a dedication to deal with the issues that face their communities. They have faced displacement, hunger, sexual violence and suffering. Their experiences and how they’ve dealt with them prove the importance of including women’s voices in the decision-making process.
Kawkab Al Thaibani has kind eyes, a gentleness that envelopes the strength and power that she has displayed throughout her years while campaigning in Yemen, and now in Istanbul. She comes into the office and sits down. During the first interaction with TRT World, passion overtakes her voice as she begins to explain that “women’s inclusion in the peace process in Yemen is essential.”
She is the Co-founder of the Women 4 Yemen network, which focuses on building peace in the war-torn nation.
Women’s roles often tend to go unnoticed, even when they are the ones leading protests and peace efforts. The Yemeni uprising that began eight years ago, at the same time the wave Arab Spring protests swept the Middle East, was one of the movements that defined the region’s approach to dissent. Al Thaibani highlights the fact that women were the majority of protesters in Yemen. And she reminds the world that Nobel Peace Prize Winner Tawakkol Karman, who was recognised in 2011 for her work, was part of a strong feminist movement that was long established in Yemen, but that has gone unrecognised by the West.
“Yemeni women are very powerful. The year 2011 was not patriarchal. It was community driven. It was led by women and shared by everyone. Women showed their potential, they seized the moment and have been working hard, even in the decades prior. It wasn’t a sudden movement,” says Al Thaibani.
Her organization is representative of just one of hundreds of women’s organizations working to create lasting peace in Yemen. Statistics show that when women are engaged in peace talks, there is a higher likelihood for the talks to succeed. A study by the International Interactions journal shows that from a total of 82 peace agreements from 42 armed conflicts between 1989 and 2011, peace agreements with female signatories have been associated with durable peace. A study by UN Women and the Council on Foreign Relations also shows that between 1990 and 2017, women constituted only two percent of mediators, eight percent of negotiators, and five percent of witnesses and signatories in all major peace processes.
The Yemeni case is no exception.
“The reason is that powerful parties in conflicts or wars tend to look at power gains, and they look for some of their interests, but they do not look at community-driven gains, and also the grievances that could jeopardise any post-conflict period,” says Al Thaibani. She reminds the world that working at grassroots levels allows an opportunity to give a voice to the people, including the women who are affected by wars.
Agatha Ada Levi works for The Rainbow Initiative, which started out as a key recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the civil war in Sierra Leone broke out in March 1991 and ended in January 2002. It led to many tragic circumstances facing women in the country, as rape became one of the major tools of oppression against women. Even rebels targeted women, reducing them to mere household labourers doing domestic chores.
Levi has chosen to use her voice as a survivor of rape to support other women with similar experiences. Reports show that between 1991 and 2002, more than 60,000 women endured conflict-related sexual violence in Sierra Leone. Government-backed militias attacked houses, gang-raping and killing women in front of their families.
“After my incident, I lost so much hope, so much trust in so many systems. However, after my degree, I decided to use my communications skills to speak up and raise awareness about issues involving sexual and domestic assault,” says Levi. “I think the idea of me working and meeting survivors and telling my story has been a success.”
Levi tells us of the women’s journeys as they come to seek support. They think it’s the end of their lives. Finding someone who empathises with them “takes survivors a step forward in the healing process. [It helps to see] someone who has gone back to living a normal life, who will not condemn or question them, but instead provide support,” she says. “This is essential for them to be able to forgive their perpetrators, and reintegrate back into society as best as they can.”
“I say to myself, I didn’t survive because it was a lucky chance, I survived so I could use my story, use my voice, to help other people fit back into their communities,” Levi says with clarity and passion.
She demonstrates the progress that’s been made for women in Sierra Leone since the war on this particular issue. Previously, women didn’t speak up or have a place they could trust to turn to when they were assaulted. Investments in counselling and medical centres for women were started after the war, when the number of women who had faced sexual assault and rape became apparent.
“We have been able to shift the tradition to one where you are able to talk, you can make noise, you can go and access free medical healthcare,” Levi states confidently.
Selma Hadzihalilovic, however, reminds us of a reality where women do not receive adequate post-war support. Sexual violence was used intentionally by Serb militias during the Bosnian war with the intention to eliminate all pure Bosniak bloodlines. As a result, it effectively broke down kinship ties and broke up families because of the shame associated with rape.
“We are still talking about the consequences of war-related trauma affecting a third generation, along with behaviour problems and domestic violence,” says Hadzihalilovic. “All because psycho-social support was only provided for a short period of time,” she says in a frustrated tone.
Many women came through the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was the first-ever tribunal to prosecute rape as an independent crime against humanity. The national courts, however have allowed many perpetrators to walk free in the communities where the crimes were committed, and Bosniak women on the ground still face a lack of meaningful justice. According to Amnesty International, in 2009 there was a backlog of 160,000 unresolved criminal cases. It was only 15 years later when programmes began to be developed to protect survivors’ rights.
“You can see in our daily lives and the way we associate with each other that the trauma is still there. When I get together with my friends from school, who I’ve known for 30 years, our gatherings usually end with all of us crying. We cry. It’s still present. It’s still very present,” she says.
She also mentions the creation of the Women’s Court, where women from different countries come together to talk about what they’ve been through. This has successfully provided a place for survivors to give their testimonies, and a space for advice where legal proceedings haven’t been able to provide closure or justice.
“We define what justice ideally would mean for each one of us individually.”
One of the biggest lessons from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which still impacts the society three generations later, is the lack of inclusion of women at the peacemaking table.
Selma Hadzihalilovic has spent 25 years of working on human rights, women’s rights and social justice in a country that is still going through its post-war transition period. Hadzihalilovic expresses her frustration, “I live with a peace that was not negotiated by women. If you want real peace, you have to involve women in the peace negotiation process.”
Society shows that there were two parallel political scenes: “One scene that was completely male dominated and had the power of decision making. Then you had a scene of social engagement, that was almost 95 percent run by women – taking care of refugees, victims and survivors of war-related violence, who had no power.”
The lack of continuous psychosocial support has meant that gender-based violence is still an ongoing problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed in the country even up until today.
The disparity between the space given to women in society postwar and during wartime is still a significant issue. Providing space for women generally doesn’t exist during wartime, because women have no choice but to adopt multiple roles in the midst of conflict.
In Syria, women have had to make the shift from homemaker to breadwinner. As founder and president of the Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment (SHINE), Rania Kisar offers accelerated learning programmes for women, so they can transition into the workforce, start competing and be equipped with critical thinking skills to make their own decisions about the challenges they face in life. Kisar reminds us how war can change a woman’s life instantly.
The role of women in Syria has shifted substantially in terms of day-to-day tasks and contributions to the revolution. At the beginning of the revolution, women would scout the roads before the protests would begin. Many played media-related roles, transferring data in ways that often risked their lives and security.
They participated as “communicators, as scouts, they participated a lot on humanitarian and medical aid for the guys who got beat up. Then their role moved to becoming a caregiver.”
Women provided support for communities at large, when many men were forced into exile or killed. These roles have helped to keep the society together. Kisar says she has experienced this shift personally as a mother.
“The first three years of my activism work, I was giving out food baskets. I was playing the role of the mom who feeds her kids. Then I realized this role was not good enough. I realized my job as a mom is not to feed them, my job as a mom is to empower them, and that is what I have been working on. I am working on empowering my Syrian children.”
Reflective of the now-active leadership roles women are taking in Syria and in many countries facing war, women are becoming outspoken and clear about the changes they would like to see.
“If I were asked to describe Syrian women – they are the energy source of the revolution. They are the oxygen that keeps igniting the revolution. I know this revolution is going to win. Once women put something like this in their heads, you know women, they’re going to do it,” she says fiercely. “This is their problem. They are underestimating the power of women.”