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Women join hands in efforts to eliminate war

Some 10,000 women gathered at the UN last week to discuss advances andsetbacks since Beijing.

In times of war, television cameras inevitably capture images of mothers crying over their losses. But if Mary Okumu has her way, pictures of women as peacebrokers will become just as common.

Undaunted by statistics on rape, violence, and inequality, she insists that women in Sudan can do what men have failed to do by bringing an end to a half-century of civil war. And Ms. Okumu is not alone. From Colombia to Russia, virtually every conflict zone has a growing movement of mothers fighting against war.

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At a discussion on women's peace initiatives last week, people packed into seats and crammed onto the steps at the United Nations' auditorium. It was a welcomed respite during a week-long session where some 10,000 women gathered at the world body's headquarters and listened to grim statistics on the setbacks and modest advances since the ground-breaking conference in Beijing five years earlier.

"There's no mistaking that women approach conflicts differently," says Jane Holl Lute, a retired Army officer who directs Role of American Military Power. "They are engaging in different dimensions and they are having an effect. When you have a bunch of mothers and children lying across a convoy route, the convoys stop."

"[Women] have a flexibility in peacebuilding because they are not part of the power equation that caused the conflict in the first place," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Program.

In Sudan, Okumu gathers women from various religious and ethnic groups to try to bridge their differences. As the mothers and wives of combatants, they could become a convincing force for peace.

Okumu may find reasons for optimism in similar efforts around the world. During last year's Kosovo conflict, thousands of Serbian women pounded the streets, calling on their husbands and sons to desert the Army. Activists proudly point out that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic gave up the fight days later.

In the Middle East, mothers played a key role in Israel's pull-out from Lebanon this month by lobbying parliamentarians behind the scene, says Simona Sharoni, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "Women initially mobilized because they had sons serving in Lebanon and took it upon themselves to go and meet with every parliament member in Israel," she says.

Women banding together to lobby for peace is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, for instance, Women Strike for Peace played a vocal role in bringing about the nuclear test-ban treaty.

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These days, however, initiatives have taken on a global dimension. In their fight to stop war and violence, some women have armed themselves with computers and Internet connections. They use cyberspace not only to inform the public about their campaigns, but also to learn about other efforts around the world.

"Women are using the internet to connect to each other so there's more ability to have a global network rather than being so isolated," says Swanee Hunt, director of the Women Waging Peace Initiative at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

According to the UN, women and girls account for at least 60 percent of the world's 30 million refugees and internally displaced people. In the camps or at home, they increasingly become the targets of combatants in this age of civil and ethnic conflicts. Yet women rarely can be seen at the negotiating table, activists complain.

"If you are going to have a peace agenda and a shaping of that agenda, all perspectives need to represented," says Noeleen Heyzer, the head of the UN Development Fund for Women.

The lack of women at high-level peace talks reflects the underrepresentation of women in government. According to UNIFEM, just 7 percent of the ministers in governments worldwide are female.

In recent years, women have wedged their way into the high-level talks. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition won a seat at the peace talks in 1996 and has received much international praise for keeping the talks alive. And this year, former South African President Nelson Mandela invited UNIFEM to the peace negotiations on Burundi.

Ironically, women's marginalization on the political landscape may be their best asset in facilitating peace.

"There are only eight countries in the world where women's share of seats in parliament is more than 30 percent. In country after country, they are a clear minority in political power," says Mr. Malloch Brown. "In conflict situations, women's lack of status gives them a flexibility to move between sides."

Women bring a clear message to the peace talks and, since they are not viewed as power-hungry, they do not threaten men, says Mu Sochua, Minister for Women's and Veterans' Affairs in Cambodia. "With women, there's no hidden agenda. All that we want is peace for our family," she says. "With men, they believe that there is one [hidden agenda]."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society