Marching for equality, rights and hope

Erik de Haan

The coming months ahead are going to test many of us who believe in building bridges rather than walls. Our message, that violence can be prevented and peace can be sustained if we support local efforts, is more urgent than ever before.

This weekend saw one of the most remarkable outpourings of solidarity and defiance in recent years. Across the world, protests were held in over 600 cities around the world to stand up for women’s rights, protest against the newly elected US President and remind the world that rights need to be protected and defended everywhere, particularly at a time when these appear to be under threat.

As seems to be the fashion with marches these days, many of the protesters used humour, not rage, to get their message across. ‘We shall overcomb’ (coupled with a drawing of Donald Trump’s hair) was my personal favourite.

Like the students across Serbia who used humour to undermine the authority of President Milosevic and went on to help bring down his dictatorship, the protesters across the world used their wit to protest views that should have no place in modern society.

Let’s be clear: the fact that women are still fighting for equality in the 21st century is a stain on our global conscience and something I struggle to explain to my two young daughters.

If women had equal representation in every peace process and at every peace talk in every government, company boardroom, branch of the legal profession, and in every place where power is concentrated, the world would look very different (and, I contend, much more peaceful) than it does now.

The right to protest is something that we in the west often take for granted. Yet for the majority of the world’s population this is a privilege not yet afforded to them. When told about the marches led and organised by women taking place across the world, a group of rural women living in the Central African Republic said, ‘Your women must be very powerful.’ As one aid worker commented, when we march, we are also marching for those who can’t.

The marches across the world were a powerful antidote to the shock and fear that many people felt with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Marching is one way for people to register their opposition, seek comfort in knowing that they are not alone and find energy to continue fighting for their values and beliefs.

Sceptics pour scorn on such marches as ineffective. Yet history teaches us that non-violent resistance, from the salt marches in India to the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, can make a huge difference.

As someone said recently: ‘On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.’ These words were spoken by, Queen Elizabeth, in her address to the nation at Christmas.

She’s right, of course, which is why we talk at Peace Direct about stopping wars one person at a time. The cumulative efforts of individual action can make all the difference. We’ve seen this everywhere we work – from the jungles of DR Congo, to the streets of London.

The coming months ahead are going to test many of us who believe in building bridges rather than walls. There are very real risks of a rise in intolerance, nationalism, and of conflict, not only in our own towns and cities but in many parts of the world. Our message, that violence can be prevented and peace can be sustained if we support local efforts, is more urgent than ever before.

Whatever you do, don’t lose hope. Hope is the most powerful tool we have.

As we return to our work, many will ask: what can I do next? Whatever you do, don’t lose hope. Hope is the most powerful tool we have.

Harness its power to help you pluck up the courage to email your friends and family to tell them to mobilise. Use it to organise a dinner to discuss what can be done to tackle the rise of intolerance and conflict in our own communities.

Build it into your working day, so that you find a time each morning or evening to learn about what others are doing to build a better, more peaceful world. And feed it to your kids, so that they become the next generation of activists. As one young protester wrote on her banner at the weekend: ‘You might build walls, our generation will tear them down!’

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