“We Are Super Women!” twelve young women from Israel, Palestine, India, and Pakistan shouted in unison while waving their paddles in the air.
They were celebrating the arrival of the sixth, and final, canoe at the dock across the lake. Their words, jovial in nature, held a much deeper meaning. These brave young women traveled thousands of miles to spend three weeks at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine in order to meet their “enemies” face-to-face for the first time.
Seeds of Peace is based on the premise that while treaties are negotiated by governments, peace is made by people. Every summer, more than 300 youth from the Middle East and South Asia come together for leadership training, intensive dialogue, and trust building activities. The founder of the organization, John Wallach, hoped that one day these inspired youth would become the leaders of their nations, committed to a vision of peaceful coexistence.
When Seeds of Peace began in 1993, the Egyptian government and the Palestinian authorities refused to send young women to a co-ed camp in the United States. This decision was reversed the following year thanks to the insistence of Barbara Streisand, who, after seeing the first 45 male campers on television at the signing of the Declaration of Principles, resolved to find a way for women to be a part of this incredible leadership opportunity. Her financial support allowed Seeds of Peace to build the appropriate co-ed facilities so that the camp could invite an equal number of young men and women to develop the leadership skills necessary to advance reconciliation and coexistence in their societies.
The understanding that women play a critical role in creating and sustaining peace at the civil society level has led Seeds of Peace to develop programs focusing on empowering women and building self-confidence. As a counselor at Seeds of Peace, I led the “Superwoman: Endurance Training” elective, which provided an opportunity for the young women to build physical and mental strength through running and canoeing. Many of the young women at Seeds of Peace come from societies where women don't have the same opportunities as men to play sports, spending most of their time at home cooking and cleaning instead. The Israeli, Palestinian, Indian and Pakistani women participating in the “Superwoman” elective gained self-confidence by developing athletic skills and simultaneously grew to trust one another as they worked together to conquer physical challenges and later rejoiced together in their strengths and accomplishments.
The “Superwoman” elective also provided valuable opportunities for reflection: the young women discussed gender stereotypes in their societies, shared stories about their female role models, and dreamed about the types of leaders they wanted to be in the future. At Seeds of Peace these conversations happen intentionally in an open and supportive cross-cultural environment. The young women build relationships, based on their common dreams and values, which act as a foundation for future dialogue and efforts to resolve conflict.
The oldest Seeds of Peace graduates are now pioneers of peace. Asmaa, a Palestinian Bioengineer collaborates with Israeli doctors at Hadassah Medical Center. Noa, a former Seeds of Peace dialogue facilitator, now works as Department Director at the Peres Center for Peace. Raya works with the Palestinian Enterprise Development Project to facilitate collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian businesses, and Liav, former editor of the Knesset Television Channel, now produces international films. These women have the power to effect change in their communities by promoting coexistence, dialogue, and cooperation through their work.
Seeds of Peace views women as full economic participants at the center of efforts to transform regions of historic conflict into more stable and peaceful environments. In the fall of 2009, in partnership with the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) and with funding from Exxon Mobil's Educating Women & Girls Initiative, Seeds of Peace launched the “Women's Leadership Training Program for Greater Economic Participation.” Through this program, fifteen Seeds of Peace graduates gained professional skills in advocacy, community mobilization, project design and management. After studying models of successful women's empowerment projects, the graduates designed their own detailed action plans and spent the next seven months applying their skills to real issues facing women in their communities.
Amit, a former camper and counselor at Seeds of Peace, received a grant from CEPDA to facilitate a Women's Leadership and Gender Workshop for younger Seeds of Peace graduates. Other participants developed projects to train women in underdeveloped neighborhoods for workforce readiness or entrepreneurship. Through this program, Seeds of Peace not only furthered the cycle of women's empowerment within Seeds of Peace, but also initiated outreach projects aimed at empowering other women in the community. In line with John Wallach's vision, these young women have become true leaders in their society, prepared to think critically and develop creative solutions for a more just and peaceful world.