For three days and nights 28-year-old Comfort Wilson rode in the back of a pickup truck from her rural village in Liberia to the capital, Monrovia. She came with 30 women from her village sleeping in the truck bed, eating food they prepared at home.
They came, along with women from Mozambique, Guatemala, Kosovo and 25 other countries, as a global show of support for the idea that more women must be involved in building and maintaining peace.
"We are the ones. The women of Liberia are the ones who brought peace," said Wilson, referring to a group of female protesters credited with helping to end the country's 14-year civil war through aggressive sit-in style demonstrations, including at the country's peace talks, held in Ghana. They threatened to lock in negotiators until a peace accord was signed and the warlords capitulated. "This meeting is the most important thing in my life."
The women attended the International Colloquium for Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security hosted March 7-10 by Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female president.
Nearly a thousand women and many U.N. and government officials, including the presidents of Senegal and Rwanda, the prime minister of Mozambique and the vice presidents of Spain and the Gambia, gathered in a stadium outside Monrovia that at one point was used to shelter families from the war. They were there to discuss methods for women's inclusion in peacemaking.
At the conclusion of the colloquium participants hailed President Johnson Sirleaf's national action plan for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 as a model for countries working to include women in peace processes.
The plan called for the bolstering of local women's peace groups, establishing a certificate program for gender-sensitive conflict resolution training and for an early warning training for women to detect outbreaks of violence, and the creation of a national roster of competent female peace negotiators.
Liberia Women Demanding Peace
Mary Robinson, the former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the former president of Ireland, attended the colloquium and lauded Liberia's efforts.
"What happens in the peace discussions all too often is it's the baddies, those who've been fighting, those who've been raping and marauding through villages, they are the ones that get the bright lights and newspaper and media coverage," said Robinson. "This is where things are changing. The women here are not saying 'I would like,' they are saying 'I demand.'"
"Women continue to be at the margins of the formal peace processes," said Ines Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, at a workshop. "The U.N. has never appointed a woman to moderate a major peace process."
While women in war zones are rarely parties to the conflict, their experience during war positions them uniquely to wage peace.
"We are the ones who are raped, we lose our children, our homes, our food. We are the ones who care for the wounded," said Wilson, who escaped Liberia's war on foot to neighboring Ivory Coast and now sells peanuts and fruit at her local market. "We are the ones who know war and we are never the ones who want to fight it."
As disproportionate victims of fighting, with little to no stake in political concessions or appointments, some participants said women bring a relatively objective yet passionate voice for peace to the negotiating table.
Maintaining Peaceful State
As one of the poorest countries in the world with 85 percent unemployment, Liberia remains at high risk for a resurgence of conflict. But many spoke of optimism for stability here because of the role women continue to play in maintaining the country's peace, from holding positions in government to developing poverty mitigation programs, and as formal and informal conflict negotiators.
So vested is Liberia in promoting women to positions of power in peace-building that Johnson Sirleaf sent back the first U.N. special representative of the secretary-general assigned to her and demanded that a woman be appointed to the position in his place.
Eventually, Ellen Margrethe Loj, a Danish diplomat, was appointed to the position in 2007.
"She was a president who could say that, but that's what's needed, political will," said Robinson.
Robinson urged other U.N. member states to follow the Liberia's aggressive lead in demanding women's involvement in peacekeeping processes.
"It's quite shocking at this stage that there are so few," she said. "And it's not because there aren't qualified women around. It's that there has not been the political will to make sure that they get the position."
Official Call for Female Involvement
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, calls for the increased participation of women at all decision-making levels in the resolution of conflict. It grew out of a UNIFEM study on the impact of war on women conducted by Johnson Sirleaf and Finnish Minister of Defense Elisabeth Rhen.
UNIFEM director Alberdi said the resolution would just be words on paper unless countries worked aggressively for its implementation.
Participants shared grassroots strategies for engaging women in peace processes.
"In Uganda, the men would show up for the peacekeeping meeting and the women would look after the children," said Ugandan Global Peace Ambassador Betty Bigombe in a workshop. "And then one day a woman came up to me and said, 'This is never going to work.'" Bigombe began going door to door training women in northern Uganda in conflict resolution techniques to act as peace mediators.
Others spoke of female conflict mediation trainings in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Israel and elsewhere.
As Comfort Wilson prepared for her long journey home to Maryland County, Liberia, she said she was prepared to do what she could in her village to help maintain Liberia's fragile peace.
"We have hope that there will be no more fighting. The U.N. peacekeepers are still here, we know there could still be danger, still be war. But Ellen (Johnson Sirleaf) helps us believe in the women of Liberia and the women want peace."