No excuses

The Women in Public Service Project brought together 51 women leaders from post-conflict countries during its annual institute in July, hosted this year by Bryn Mawr College. AFSC’s Triphonie Habonimana and Nthabiseng Nkomo participated as delegates. Amal Sabawi was also selected as a delegate. (A New York Times photographer captured Triphonie’s handshake with Hillary Clinton.)

The symposium’s delegates took part in a daylong workshop developed and led by AFSC’s Kerri Kennedy, Marianne Elias, Aarati Kasturirangan, Alissa Wilson, Camilla Campisi, and Jessica Chiu. Focusing on the gendered dynamics of the peace building processes and why women’s leadership is essential to successful peace building, the workshop used evidence-based examples to introduce linkages between development and peace building practices. The team filed this report.

The Hon. Meryl Frank, Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, former mayor of Highland Park, NJ, and a mother, started things off by asking the 44 women from post-conflict countries how many of them see themselves as leaders.

Even in this dynamic group, less than half the women raised their hands.

“Sometimes we [women] do not see ourselves as leaders because we have been told we are not qualified to be leaders,” she observed.

Ambassador Frank’s comment unlocked a robust conversation about what makes a good leader, what motivates an individual, and the attributes of a successful leader. The women in the room made it clear they embrace their role as agents of change in their communities, and would not accept any assumptions they were unqualified to do so. 

This was the start to an interactive training designed by AFSC’s Kerri Kennedy, Marianne Elias, Alissa Wilson, and Aarati Kasturirangan to explore the intersections between peace building and development and the importance of women’s participation in both.

The delegates included AFSC’s own Triphonie Habonimana from Burundi and Nthabiseng Nmoko from Zimbabwe, as well as the first and only woman mayor in Afghanistan, a police chief from Macedonia, and various parliamentarians, deputy ministers, and grassroots activists. 

During the afternoon panel discussion Jacqui O’Neill from the Institute for Inclusive Security asked the participants to complete an oft-repeated statement: "Women should not be included in peace building negotiations because…."

The delegates really enjoyed this exercise as they had a chance to share and reflect on the many arguments commonly heard against women’s leadership in peace building and development.  Unfortunately, this was an activity that could have gone on all day.  

Camilla Campisi, one of the panelists representing the Quaker United Nations Office, pointed out, “It was striking to see the enthusiasm of the participants when given the chance to share all of the excuses they have heard. They seemed to appreciate having the opportunity to vent. What they were saying clearly translated across all of the diverse cultures they were coming from.”  

The breakout sessions gave the delegates a chance to challenge the obstacles that hinder women’s leadership in public service. Using case study analysis, role play, and open discussions, the women then shifted their focus toward action. They discussed the implementation of  plans to empower women in their countries, international instruments like UN resolution 1325, the UN Millennium Development Goals, and grassroots advocacy campaigns.

Co-facilitator Jessica Chui noticed that the women were particularly inspiring and energized in small group discussions, where they shared their experiences. Delegates shared their own challenges in advocating for or implementing gender equity plans in government and brainstormed solutions.  

Triphonie and Nthabiseng noted in their report that, “It is amazing that the challenges faced by women in developed countries are similar to the challenges faced by women in Africa, the principle being “hurt one woman, hurt all women, support one woman, and support all women.” Through the global exchange we also learnt that any constituency is more powerful when it is united in vision and action. The learning was greatly inspiring and the atmosphere was so empowering to make one feel they can achieve anything.”

The delegates closed the two-week symposium by creating “50/50 Action Plans—long-term plans to empower women in their communities and the world and aspire to achieve 50 percent participation of women in public service by 2050. 

Based on our experience and witness, we know women peace-builders are needed at every level of engagement—in politics, peace building, and development, and that’s why AFSC supports the vision and mission of the delegates in the Women in Public Institute. With the amazing group of delegates at Bryn Mawr’s institute leading the charge, we are hopeful that we can achieve 50/50.