NIGERIA: Making Peace Can Be a Real Battle

Tuesday, October 11, 2011
The New York Times
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

If an American television network were going to be in cahoots with the Nobel committee, it makes sense that it would be PBS. How else to explain the premiere of the mini-series “Women, War & Peace” on Tuesday, just days after one of its major figures, the Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011?

Ms. Gbowee, one of the many inspiring women in this five-week series of hourlong documentaries, appears in the second film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” next Tuesday. She and other members of the Women for Peace movement in Liberia describe the efforts that ended years of civil war and its attendant miseries. “We campaigned till we forgot that we could even be raped,” one says.

The series begins on Tuesday night with its strongest chapter, “I Came to Testify,” about the small group of Bosnian women whose willingness to testify about systematic rape by Serbian soldiers helped to rewrite international laws about wartime sexual abuse. Perhaps the reluctance of the victims to appear on camera even now pushed the episode's writer and producer, Pamela Hogan, to greater lengths in gathering material and to more allusive, indirect storytelling; as a piece of filmmaking, “I Came to Testify” stands out.

Those first two documentaries are the most moving and emotionally satisfying in the series, partly because both look back to events a decade or so ago — fully formed narratives with reasonably uplifting endings. The third and fourth films, about women in movements for peace and social justice in Afghanistan and Colombia, are more like news reports, dealing with contemporary, open-ended situations. The concluding chapter, “War Redefined,” on Nov. 8, uses material related to the first four films in an examination of how women and children have become the primary victims of armed conflict.

While “War” is prominent in the series title, it's noteworthy that the women shown and the stories told have almost entirely to do with peace: women as nonviolent protesters, organizers, testifiers, educators. There's an unspoken assumption throughout that men make war while women are victimized by it. The only instance we see of women in uniform comes in the Afghanistan film, in a segment on female American soldiers charged with reaching out to local women and girls.

Each episode of “Women, War & Peace” has its heroes, from Ms. Gbowee to Francia Márquez, an extraordinary young woman battling for the rights of Afro-Colombian miners against the vestiges of Colombia's paramilitary death squads. One figure appears repeatedly throughout the series, however, as actor, advocate and symbol all over the world: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her ubiquity indicates both what is possible for women in the 21st century and how long the road still is for women in most parts of the world.

Produced by Thirteen and Fork Films in association with WNET and ITVS. Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker, executive producers; Nina Chaudry, senior producer; Stephen Segaller, executive in charge for WNET; Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Geena Davis and Alfre Woodard, narrators.