Early this year, President Biden signed an executive order that elevated climate change to a foreign policy and national security priority. This decision reflects research and recommendations made by scientists, policymakers, activists, and domestic and international organizations over the past years. The executive order is also a clear signal of shifts about what constitutes a threat to security and wellbeing. Understanding security and peace only in terms of war and conflict no longer reflects the challenges of our time, and new frameworks are needed to adequately address the current realities.
The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program at Columbia University operates under this broad and inclusive approach to peace and security. Over the last three years, the program has run a pilot fellowship program working with a range of community stakeholders, movement leaders, policy makers and academics to probe new methods for listening to, and disseminating, lessons from women changemakers from around the world. The program grounds their work in an understanding of peace and security where “peace” refers not only to the absence of war, but rather also to the presence of freedom, rights and liberties, and security that includes physical, economic, social, ecological and political domains.
Despite the evident contributions that grassroots women peacebuilders have on their communities–particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when activists have mobilized to respond to new or exacerbated threats to safety- their work is often not always recognized or documented as national security work.
The WPS program recently started an interdisciplinary research project grounded in the knowledge from the duration of the fellowship program, highlighting everyday practices, knowledge and community exchanges used by women peacebuilders to forward and sustain peace. The project is part of a border conversation on shifting paradigms in environmental justice, and also participatory practices. Program Director Dr. Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland notes “this summer we dove into the collective learning and knowledge that our fellows are pushing forward everyday through their work and activism, and are capturing the learnings from that work in collective ways. For the last several years we have been co-creating a feminist digital archive of everyday peace practices that we call a ‘living archive,’ and it’s a weaving together of visual, audio, written and textual materials that the women share with each other to document their everyday practices, acts of resistance, and mutual care work.”
Producing, sharing and capturing knowledge
The stories, images and everyday strategies captured in the WPS program’s feminist digital archive are a testament to the way women peacebuilders challenge dominant frameworks of peace and security. In their everyday work, women peacebuilders demonstrate that lived experiences and collective spaces are important sources of knowledge to forward peace.
The Suubi Center Kibuku, based in Uganda, is a community-based organization that works on gender, education, and environmental justice on various fronts. For example, they offer free psychosocial services to women and abused children, educate and empower young mothers, and connect groups of women for cross-learning and exchange of knowledge. In one project, they focused on an advocacy campaign on land acquisition and land rights for women, and in doing so, expanded awareness of women’s rights and how very few women can freely access land, even when they have bought it with their own money. Through this particular agriculture project, and the wider anti-violence education programs they run, the Suubi Center Kibuku is ensuring that women acquire not only practical knowledge and tools to sustain themselves and their families, but also collective practices grounded in care and community.
The Barali Foundation, from Lesotho, works on sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence and environmental justice. Like the Suubi Center Kibuku, they also ground care and community in all that they do in order to make the program sustainable. For example, every year, the Barali Foundation organizes an event where the team of activists can release built-up emotions from working with women and girls with painful experiences. These are needed episodes of catharsis and hope for peacebuilders. Lineo Matlakala, founder of the Barali Foundation, notes that, beyond being a space to share music, ideas, dance and stories of resilience, these sessions allow activists “to celebrate being a woman, and being strong and surviving everything that the world has thrown at us.” Sharing the ways that such collective spaces are critical to the sustainability of peace and anti-violence movements has been important in giving activists hope that they are not alone in their activism.
The digital living archive among the WPS fellows has become a virtual space where the women share their stories, successes, frustrations and challenges in their everyday peace and security work. Spanning 10 countries, the relationships that have been fostered –with other women activists, their communities and other actors–provide important lessons and knowledge that help to forward and sustain their activism. Upon completing the fellowship and receiving the World Women Leadership Congress Award for her achievements in leadership and activism, Betty Sharon, from Collaboration of Women in Development (CWID) in Kenya, noted to the group: “It’s a collective win. The things we learn from each other when we put [our efforts] together add up to such gains.”
The WPS’s collective work with women peacebuilders and the creative and innovative ways they are collectively sharing and capturing this work across space and time speaks to core lessons about the need for more formats and avenues to capture current knowledge and collective practices leveraged to sustain and forward peace work, including in terms of environmental justice. In the face of new evidence about the severity of the climate crisis and of multiple efforts to address it across policy, research, and advocacy, it is worth highlighting how much there is to learn, both about the process and methods of generating collective knowledge, but also about the potential for harnessing this knowledge to transform our systems, our communities, and our planet.