Stories of Courage, Stories of Change: Women peacebuilders as frontline workers

Jane Thirikwa is the Global Partnerships Coordinator at KAIROS. She has extensive expertise and experience in social justice work including gender equality and women’s empowerment, women’s human rights, advocacy and fundraising for grassroots organizations.

Rachel Warden is Partnerships Manager at KAIROS. She has been working with and learning from global partners, including local women’s organizations, women peacebuilders and human rights defenders, for 25 years and together with partners helped developed the KAIROS Women of Courage program.

Many women suffer from violence in Colombia, and it is worse now with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, through the WPS program with the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), we are receiving legal and psychological/psychosocial accompaniment and counselling and supporting each other through the Circles of Protection initiative.

Participant in OFP program at KAIROS South-South gathering, Nov 2020

As Canadians learn just who our essential workers are domestically, we must also look to the under-recognized and under-appreciated work of frontline workers around the world.  These essential workers include human rights defenders and women peacebuilders, who are effectively and creatively responding to the pandemic against considerable odds. 

Women peacebuilders have been working with communities to lay the groundwork for a just and sustainable peace for a long time.  In the case of protracted conflicts, this stretches for decades. Women peacebuilders are uniquely positioned to respond because they are part of the fabric of their communities, holding civil society together through a variety of programs that include psychosocial support and trauma healing, legal aid, human rights training, and advocacy to end violence and impunity.  

KAIROS’ Women of Courage: Women, Peace and Security (WPS) partners in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the West Bank, are already working with some of the most vulnerable communities, including women victims and survivors of conflict and gender-based violence.  COVID-19 has magnified and increased the vulnerability of these communities.  

Women peacebuilders are trusted actors in their communities

For better or for worse, women peacebuilders are accustomed to responding to crisis and uncertainty.  Furthermore, because of their long-term presence in communities, they have gained their trust and are often best able to reach people, particularly the most marginalized, in times of crisis.   

For example, KAIROS’ WPS partner in Colombia, Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), has been working for 49 years with marginalized women in the Magdalena Medio region, a focal point of the conflict and of human rights violations. Throughout the decades-long war and now during the post-     peace process violence, they have been advocating for peace at a local, national and international level while building conditions for sustainable peace on the ground. The OFP survived as a women-led, human rights and peace organization during the war, and in fact, was a glue that held many human rights and peace networks together. While the OFP’s strategies and processes have changed in response to the conflict, they continued to be play an integral role in human rights and peace work.  This role continues today, during the pandemic, in the context of escalating violence and attacks against human rights defenders and peace activists in a post peace accord in Colombia.

The South Sudan Council of Churches, another partner in the KAIROS WPS program, is present throughout South Sudan in communities of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Because of the non-partisan and long-term presence of the women’s program, through the Women’s Link network, they have developed trust and credibility in these communities.  A participant in the program describes how this program has become part of the fabric of these communities:  

We have established executive bodies of Women’s Link in each one of the 10 States in South Sudan. We recently went to Malakal and Bor in the State of Bahr el Ghazal which has  the largest number of Internally Displaced People (IDP) in camps. The women in the camps decried the divisive ethnic propaganda that had created tension between the IDPs and the local communities, making the IDPs fearful of venturing out of the camps. But with our intervention as women, the community is gradually welcoming interactions in the community, joining in weekly prayer days, participating jointly in humanitarian efforts and denouncing a war that is not theirs to fight.

Now, when the Women’s Link reaches out to these same communities with COVID-19 awareness campaigns, they are trusted and listened to.  At the same time, they are able to reach out to women who are experiencing gender-based violence with their experience and expertise.  

KAIROS Women of Courage online South-South gathering

KAIROS held its second South-South Gathering of the Women of Courage: Women, Peace and Security partners on November 24-26, 2020, online. The gathering brought together the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP) (Colombia), Héritiers de la Justice (Democratic Republic of Congo), the South Sudan Council of Churches – National Women’s Programme (SSCC-NWP), and Wi’am: Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre (West Bank) to share experiences, learn and strategize together about their work as women peacebuilders during the pandemic. The following examples are based on some testimonies, reports and analyses shared by partners during this South-South gathering.

Trends in Context

Although it was clear that partners were responding to very different contexts, there were striking trends in how COVID-19 is impacting already very fragile situations, with particular impacts on women.  

  • Partners identified a deep digital divide impacting marginalized communities, particularly women. The OFP in Colombia noted two digital divides, “access to the internet/data      equipment and services (first digital divide) and in the use and understanding of technologies and apps (second digital divide).” 
  • All partners reported a significant increase in gender-based violence and domestic abuse.  Youth are, particularly, at risk.  Overall, there was an increasing need for psychosocial support for women and youth.
  • There is a backlash against women’s rights and equality.  Women’s participation in the human rights peace processes is threatened. 
  • Women have been particularly affected by militarized responses to the pandemic that have increased repression and human rights abuses, including against women. 
  • Women are particularly affected by restrictions on the informal economy caused by social distancing and mobility restrictions. 
  • Peace processes have been stalled and undermined by governments who lack political will, and opponents to those peace processes.  
  • The impact of COVID-19 compounded with environmental disasters, displacement and food insecurity are resulting in a growing humanitarian crisis. Women have been disproportionately affected by increased food insecurity and hunger.

Women Peacebuilders Respond

Partners also identified common strategies in their work as grassroots women’s peacebuilding organizations, even within these different contexts. The following are some examples shared at the South-South gathering.

The pandemic has put women in situations of isolation and increased risk, but partners have adapted some of their work, continuing to reach these women with essential services. They are using available technology and communication methods, not only to train women about their rights but also to ensure they have access to accompaniment, circles of protection and prevention of femicide.  Partners have responded by providing digital tools in community counselling centers, taking into account the digital divides suffered by women. 

The OFP in Colombia has taken steps including installing internet and a new computer in each of the Casas de la Mujer (Women’s Centres) in the seven municipalities that the organization serves. The program participants use these computers for their individual psychosocial sessions. By outfitting each of the Casas de Mujer with a computer and internet, the OFP is also offering participants a safe space where they can speak freely without being overheard by other family members.    Héritiers de la Justice in DRC has also adapted to working remotely and using easily accessible communication methods such as teleworking and WhatsApp messaging and increasing its communications capacity, including acquiring portable internet routers.

Partners are using digital platforms for workshops and training.  They are providing much needed psychological counselling and legal advice by teleconsultation, and accompaniment through video calls, complying with cybersecurity and public health

In the West Bank, Wi’am has established a helpline for domestic violence reporting, psychosocial support and humanitarian needs. Partners are also working more closely with other civil society organizations and networks, offering training of trainers to help respond to the increases in psychosocial support and services such internet in the communities.

Partners have increased the reach and effectiveness of their programs by working through local women’s groups and leadership, building local capacity to enable communities and municipalities to respond.  The South Sudan Council of Churches reported that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in South Sudan, the Women’s Link came to the forefront, participating in door-to-door education and advocacy on prevention measures. They were also helping to address challenges that have been magnified as a result of the pandemic, such as increased gender-based violence and atrocities against children and women who are confined at home, including kidnappings, sexual abuse and killings. In some areas, women have set up childcare spaces to help protect the children when mothers need to go look for work and food for their families.

Partners in South Sudan and DRC are using radio to convey messages and to raise awareness about human rights, gender-based violence and peace processes that would normally be discussed at larger gatherings, as well as raising awareness about COVID-19 and health directives. When necessary and possible, partners have requested special permits from authorities to travel to municipalities and rural communities. 

Women peacebuilders are working closely with civil society networks and local governments in responding to COVID-19, including the growing humanitarian crisis. To assist difficult-to-reach communities, partners have focused on “training the trainers” to lead and implement some of their programs and workshops in these areas. One participant in the Wi’am program remarked, “Wi’am has helped us create a women’s association in the village and supported us on how we can advocate for our rights.” She went on to say, “We have also had meetings on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 “We are also networking between our beneficiaries and different stakeholders in society that can help meet some of the needs that we are unable to because of limited capacity,” says the director of programs at Wi’am. Wi’am has broadened its partnerships to ensure that food, as well as the internet, are delivered to households.  

Finally, partners mentioned that they are working closely with male allies in responding to increases in violence against women and the backlash against women’s rights, including through national campaigns and radio programs promoting women’s rights and dignity and denouncing violence against women. The OFP is running a campaign “In Defense of a Dignified Life” that seeks, among other things, to strengthen the dignity and safety of women.  

These are just some of the examples of how women peacebuilders are at the frontlines of a COVID-19 response at the same time as they are building conditions and advocating for peace.

Women peacebuilders offer a way forward for just and inclusive transformation and recovery

We have learned from women peacebuilders that when women victims and survivors of violence are provided with services and care that are needed to heal, restore dignity and claim their rights, including psychosocial and legal support and human rights training, these women themselves can become active peacebuilders and human rights defenders. In fact, their voices are critical to building sustainable peace. This is essentially the theory of change of the KAIROS Women of Courage program.   

Canadians could learn from this approach in our response to COVID-19 and our work towards a just recovery and transformation.  Just as women who have been impacted by war must be part of peace processes, those most impacted by COVID-19 must be provided with support and funding as well as political space to participate in recovery and transformation.

With coronavirus variants picking up pace around the world, vaccine inequity is being further exposed.   Many of the world’s poorest countries have not received any vaccines, while wealthy nations, already vaccinating, have pre-purchased access to supplies that in some cases can cover their populations several times over. Due to the differentiated impact of COVID-19 and its effects on women, women’s organizations need to be included in the planning, decision making, and implementation of pandemic response, including vaccination campaigns, and recovery measures. Furthermore, Canada can and must do more to ensure equity and justice in the access, distribution and administration of vaccines around the world.

Canada recognizes the importance of grassroots women peacebuilders in its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) and its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.  FIAP identifies gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as the best way to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful, inclusive and equitable world. It also identifies women, peace and security as a core action area.

And yet, FIAP has been underfunded since its inception, because Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) funding remains well below the international standard of 0.7 percent of Gross National Income.  ODA must increase, but it is not just about increasing the budget. It is about ensuring that these funds reach local women-led grassroots organizations, including support for their recovery and transformation efforts in response to the pandemic.  For funding to reach these organizations, it must be accessible, flexible, predictable and long-term. 

We have learned, from women peacebuilders, that we are as strong as the most vulnerable.  A peace process is as durable and sustainable as the most marginalized who participate in it.  We need to apply this lesson in our response to this pandemic and the definition of a just recovery and transformation. 

Women peacebuilders and other essential workers provide us with a glimmer of hope, a way forward based on well-being, health, safety and peace for all. 

Right now, they need Canada’s financial and political support.  

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