This spring, the Women, Peace and Security Program hosted a series of virtual convenings of women peacebuilders from across 13 countries, all of whom are members of the Peace and Social Change Fellowship network from the program’s last two years. Their knowledge exchange, centered on themes ranging from challenging mainstream policy to building solidarity and coalitions, will be featured on a forthcoming episode of the Conversations from the Leading Edge podcast and will inform the creation of a co-authored toolkit for the feminist future.
“For us, this has been two years of learning and relearning. For me, I take this as a challenge to us as women leaders, who base our activism on our feminist principles,” said Ruth Ochieng, a facilitator for the program and women’s rights activist based in Uganda, highlighting the sense of solidarity and collaboration that has developed among the collective’s members. “We have learned so much from one another and done so much for each other. Up to now, you can see the connection we have.”
Over the last several months, members of the collective exchanged stories about their work, shared their expertise as grassroots women’s organizations and activists in the context of COVID-19, and envisioned possibilities together for a more just and equitable post-pandemic future.
“For me, in this future, all genders live in harmony, regardless of how you align yourself,” said Lineo Matlakala, founder of the Barali Foundation in Lesotho, offering a glimpse of what that future looks like. For Matlakala, whose work is focused on gender-based violence and access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, the pandemic has underscored how peace and security cannot be measured by the absence of violence alone—women’s health and safety in their own homes and communities must be prioritized.
“Often when we say the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gender inequality gap, women and children bear the brunt of the crisis more, but I don’t think we stress enough how the rural areas in particular are affected,” said Mamello Makhele, midwife and reproductive health advocate with the Barali Foundation, of the organization’s recent outreach programs in rural Lesotho. “Women in this area have to walk over two hours to the nearest health facility to access modern contraceptives—often just to find out that institution may not offer contraceptives due to religious affiliations.”
Throughout the last year, grassroots women’s activists have leveraged their expertise and experience in building peace in their communities to find innovative ways to sustain their work in the face of inequities exacerbated by the pandemic—such as lack of internet access to engage in virtual programs that have often replaced in-person events and outreach.
For example, Constance Mushayi, who works with the Institute for Young Women’s Development in Zimbabwe, runs a virtual initiative called Pachitubu Chevas Kana (“Fountain of Women and Girls”), where she organizes weekly WhatsApp dialogues with up to 250 young women in different communities around the Mashonaland Central Province. Realizing many young women in this area with limited digital access would not be able to participate, she now asks each participant in the WhatsApp chats to engage with other girls without cell phones in their communities on the topic of the week, in order to bring in voices that might otherwise be excluded.
However, these activists expressed that the impact the pandemic has had on the work of grassroots women’s organizations may be lasting. Like Mushayi, many in this collective have highlighted the challenges that the pandemic has exposed, not only due to infrastructural inequities like digital access, but also constraints on funding, limitations on movement and resources, tolls on their mental health, and a mounting threat to their physical safety as activists. At the same time, however, they also face an unprecedented urgency in their work to address surging rates of sexual and gender-based violence and other structural inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“For me, one of the things that really stood out from this exchange is the theme of activist response in times of crisis — how women changemakers perceive crisis, in addition to how they respond to crisis,” said Mariana Pradini-Assis, one of the WPS program’s facilitators and human rights lawyer based in Brazil. “There is so much unforeseen rupture, but also exposure of structural challenges that were always there. Their narratives really challenge us to rethink what constitutes a crisis.”
To close the virtual exchange during a final Zoom workshop in March, Leymah Gbowee, executive director of the Women, Peace and Security Program, offered remarks in celebration of the fellows’ work over the last two years, and in particular throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Let’s keep doing the work that we do, because our communities depend on us—but most importantly, for our collective humanity,” said Gbowee, offering words of encouragement to this group of women peacebuilders, who have each been on the frontlines of the pandemic response in their own communities. “How do we want our world to be? It is only by doing that we are able to shape and transform the world.”
Gbowee’s message to the collective also focused on the power of mentorship and the need, particularly in this moment of global uncertainty and flux, to nurture the next generation of feminist leaders. “In order for us to move forward, we all have to make a commitment to mentor the younger people,” Gbowee said, referencing the International Women’s Day celebration that took place the day prior at her office in Liberia, where she honored her own longtime mentor, Etweda ‘Sugars’ Cooper. “How many of us are prepared to step back, and say, ‘It’s time for my sister to shine’?”
For many of this collective’s members, this message is a salient one, as some of the core pillars of their work to advance justice and peace include elevating youth leadership and building intergenerational solidarity for policy change, as the WPS Program recently discussed in a new article in Agenda. Samuela Rinyu, a youth activist with Hope for the Needy Association in Cameroon, affirmed that this is key to how she imagines a feminist future: “This future is a world where young girls are free to think beyond what their society has imposed on them and are allowed to think far and wide, have big dreams, and pursue and achieve them.”
Before signing off the last Zoom call in March, another special moment took place: Accompanied by the rhythm of a popular Afrobeat song, all the Zoom participants rose to dance together in their own spaces. While the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the group from convening in-person for a workshop in Nairobi, holding a space for movement and laughter remains an important part of these gatherings—even virtually—and a joyful reminder of the power of sisterhood.
“Every time we meet, we dance,” said Riya Yuyada, founder of Crown the Woman in South Sudan, at the end of the workshop. “With COVID, many of us are traumatized, many of us are handling so many heavy things, and today’s dance was everything. I’m carrying that energy back to my team.”