Nation & World

Women leaders talk about international security

5 min read

Query the inclusiveness of incoming administration’s security policy

A panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Wednesday (Jan. 14) addressed the question “Will President-elect Obama’s Security Policy Be Inclusive?” — that is, how can women’s global leadership help to shape the new administration’s security goals?

Taking part in the rather informal conversation were Josephine Akulang Abalang, deputy director of public relations in the office of the vice president of the government of Sudan; Orzala Ashraf, founder and former executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan; Rufa Cagoco-Guiam, a peace and conflict-impacts specialist from the Philippines; and Marini de Livera, national project coordinator for the Women’s Empowerment Project of the U.N.’s Development Programme in Sri Lanka. The moderator was Swanee Hunt, the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS and chair of Women Waging Peace, a global policy-oriented initiative integrating women in to peace processes.

The talk got off to a moving start when Abalang told of her attempted exodus — along with five other women and 500 men — from southern Sudan to neighboring Uganda during the 1983–2005 civil war in her country. While trying to walk to the border, the group was kidnapped by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and forced into military training. When a commander and his men came to Abalang’s quarters one night and started beating her, she said, she told him, “I don’t submit to the power of the gun. I know there will be a time in this country where the power of the pen prevails, so leave me alone.” The commander said to his men, “All right, leave her alone.” It was a turning point, she said, in her life as an activist.

Afghanistan’s Ashraf also began with a moving story, about a colleague of hers named Nadia, who, at 12, was severely injured in that country’s civil war and taken to the hospital. On his way to see her and donate blood, her brother, Assad, was killed. After she recovered, Nadia told her parents that rather than giving away her brother’s clothes, they should give them to her and say she was the one who died, so that, as a male, she could go out and work to help support her family.

When Ashraf asked Nadia her dream, she said, “I have a dream to live in peace and return back to who I was, return back to Nadia.” For Nadia, Ashraf continued, peace was “to feel safe when she walks on the streets.”

De Livera noted that in Sri Lanka’s civil war, “when you go off to work, you don’t know whether you’ll come back, because there are bombs going off all the time.” Women and children, she added, are affected the most, “but they don’t have a voice to say we’ve had enough, we want peace.”

Even though Sri Lanka and the Philippines — along with other countries not represented on the panel, such as Pakistan — have had women presidents or prime ministers, those women are still governing a patriarchal society. “It’s not enough that we put a woman in a political position,” said Cagoco-Guiam, “because it doesn’t necessarily follow that a woman brings with her the concerns of women. Often they are just following in the footsteps” of husbands or fathers in an attempt to “keep the dynasty going.”

There was a lively debate over whether, as moderator Hunt put it, “it would make a very big difference if women were represented in decision making.”

“Women bring a different definition of security,” said Ashraf, adding that they put a humanitarian, holistic face on the subject of security rather than seeing it only in military terms. Abalang also made the point that in a country like Sudan, where women make up 60 percent of the population, “if you exclude that 60 percent, then you have a real imbalance.”

The women were lauded by audience members during the question-and-answer session, being called “heroes” and “an inspiration.” When asked what motivated them, it became clear why the women received such kudos.

Cagoco-Guiam noted that though “the work of peace is long and tedious and we may not see the fruits of what we’re doing in our generation or even our children’s generation, we know we cannot give up.” De Livera mentioned a sense of duty inspired in her, in part, by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and in part because “when I see my sisters out there suffering,” she feels an obligation and desire to help.

“I suffered as a refugee,” said Ashraf. “I don’t consider myself a victim, but in a sense I was a victim.” Because of that, she added, when young women come to her today and ask what they can do to continue their education in this trying time, she could put herself in their place. “Always try to change the negatives into positives,” she said. “Always try to change the disappointments into hope.”