This week we launch our new themes section on the Peace Direct website. For the past two months I’ve been researching and writing up these themes and I’ve learnt so much in the process.
One thing I’ve learnt is that the most vulnerable people in a conflict are often also the most powerful.
Women, children and young people are disproportionately affected by conflict. They are amongst the highest casualties and in the aftermath of war they are often socially and economically marginalised.
In addition, women are targeted sexually in war – it is estimated that close to half a million women have been raped or sexually attacked in conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sierra Leone in the past two decades, and an average of 40 women and girls are raped every day in South Kivu, DRC. Compounding these dire statistics, only 18 of the 300 peace agreements signed since the Cold War have addressed sexual violence in conflict situations.
Women are all too often excluded from high profile peacebuilding processes. They have served as less than 8% of negotiators in high profile peace talks. They make up fewer than 3 per cent of signatories to peace agreements.
But there are women who are not only active, but take a leading role in peacebuilding efforts on the ground. One step that we can all make to strengthen peacebuilding is to recognise the influential women – like Dishani Jayaweera or Gululai Ismail – who are already involved in peacebuilding, and have been for years.
Young people are highly vulnerable to the effects of conflict too. And they have been seen for a long time mainly in a negative light – as a wild element, a group that is potentially out of control and dangerous. They have historically been especially vulnerable to radicalisation or being recruited to fight.
But our work here at Peace Direct shows that they are just as often the drivers of efforts for change. They mobilise people of all ages to take charge of the future. Malala Yousafzai is only one example of a number of young people who have dedicated themselves to peace and justice. This work that they have made the centre of their lives is often something they do even while knowing that their lives may be the price they pay.
By taking a leading role in peacebuilding from a young age, they show us the enormous potential for courage and action that we are all capable of. The young Londoners of the Truce 20/20 project show by their example – by choosing to turn away from violence in their own lives – that there is so much that we personally can do to build peace in our homes and communities.
Another insight that writing the themes has suggested to me is how local peacebuilders can provide solutions. For all the challenges that international peacebuilding organisations face today, there are already existing potential solutions to be found in the work that local peacebuilders are doing now.
They provide effective early warning systems, because they are permanently working on the ground. By being immersed in the political, social and cultural environment and using networks of key players and influential people, they can often see the warning signs that international peacebuilders may see too late or even miss altogether.
And because they are part of the communities that are affected by conflict situations, they have built trust and respect, so that they are well placed to mediate in arising conflict situations. They understand the cultural and political customs of a community and know how to work with their existing strengths to resolve potentially violent tensions.
The most important thing I’ve learnt – or had reaffirmed – is that by breaking down the task at hand, peace is possible now. By focussing on these key themes – preventing conflict, building the strength of communities, supporting women peacebuilders and helping young people to guarantee a peaceful future – we will be able to make all the difference.