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Commentary , World

5 Ways Women Made a Difference in 2023

by Xanthe Scharff December 28, 2023

Co-published with Foreign Policy

In our turbulent and divided world, there is one unifying constant: Women and girls bear the brunt of conflict. Across most of the globe, they are excluded from war and peace–level decisions. And yet, they suffer disproportionately when things fall apart. They are at home with small children and elderly relatives when bombs start to fall. Their bodies are instrumentalized as weapons of terror. They scramble for food, water, and fuel when male relatives are called up for fighting. And they pick up the pieces when their communities become collateral damage.

It is in part because of these experiences that women are often among those most committed to dialogue and bringing an end to violence. This year showcased women’s vulnerabilities—and their unique peacemaking powers. Here are five ways women made a difference in 2023.

1. Women on the Front Lines in Ukraine

The women of Ukraine have remained steadfast since Russia invaded their country nearly two years ago. More than 60,000 women serve in the military, while millions more ensure social cohesion and spearhead the humanitarian response on the home front.

Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund pivoted from an organization dedicated to preventing gender discrimination and promoting equal opportunities for women into a wartime relief agency. The fund issued rapid response grants and mobilized its vast network of Ukrainian women’s organizations to provide emergency assistance to families fleeing the war. Between March and November of 2022, the fund’s grants to coalitions, partnerships, and civil society organizations totaled almost $750,000, according to its website. These female-led organizations arranged transit to evacuate families from areas of hostility, created shelters for displaced people, distributed humanitarian aid, and organized medical and psychological support for people traumatized by the horrors of war.

The Ukrainian Women’s Fund is currently engaging women’s rights organizations in discussions and planning for Ukraine’s recovery strategy. “Women who are protecting the country from inside, they know how to be crisis managers now,” Natalia Karbowska, the fund’s director of strategic development, said in an interview with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. That skill will be needed for the country when it starts its recovery, she said.

The Ukrainian National Action Plan to implement the U.N. Security Council’s “Women, Peace and Security” resolution, first adopted in 2016  and updated in 2022 to focus on amplifying women’s leadership in post-conflict recovery and transitional justice initiatives, received a boost from the Biden administration in October with $2 million in supplemental funding.

2. Sudanese Women Fighting for Survival

Despite being sidelined by the gender constraints of Islamic law, in which women are legally required to obey their husbands, women have actively helped keep other women alive amid the conflict in Sudan.

After fighting broke out in April between forces loyal to two rival generals, women were targeted for sexual assault and rape. Their homes were occupied. They struggled to find places to safely give birth as the country’s health care system collapsed. And they—and their children—surged to the nation’s borders, eager to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

Even before the most recent civil strife, Sudanese women had been embattled. Women’s groups had consistently been excluded from power—despite the fact that they played a key role in the grassroots movement that toppled the country’s former military dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. Back then, female protestors reported that they were beaten; had their heads shaved; and were forced to undress, photographed, and blackmailed. But although the groups of protestors hoped to have a say in reconstructing Sudanese civil society, al-Bashir’s oppressive regime gave way to renewed gender oppression by military commanders.

This year, more than 49 female-led organizations and initiatives formed the Peace for Sudan Platform to support humanitarian aid as well as female-led collective advocacy for an end to the conflict. Women became key providers of support services and emergency relief, operating in the shadows and expanding the margin of possibility through the smart use of technology. Women’s groups in this network organized on the ground through WhatsApp. They launched campaigns to provide health care to displaced pregnant women and distributed hygiene kits.

From abroad, female Sudanese doctors used WhatsApp to provide telehealth services in online clinics. Other women helped high-profile Sudanese activists escape their home country, setting them up with papers and support overseas. “Sudan’s women’s movement has morphed from fighting for rights to fighting for lives,” Neha Wadeker wrote in Foreign Policy.

3. A Pen and a Prize for Peace

On Oct. 6, in the midst of a massive crackdown on female activists by Tehran’s rulers, Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Recognizing her “fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all,” the Nobel committee lauded Mohammadi’s more than 30 years of activism, despite “tremendous personal costs,” which have included 13 arrests, five convictions, and a total of 31 years of prison sentences and 154 lashes. At the time of the Nobel announcement, Mohammadi was serving a 10-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison, where she continued to document and share stories of state-sponsored sexual assault and battery of female activists and prisoners. In August and October the criminal court found Mohammadi guilty in new trials, adding over two years to her sentence. She reported that new charges were once again brought against her in November.

Outside the walls of her captivity, Mohammadi’s work has been resonant. A brutal campaign of official repression put an end to the massive street protests that erupted in 2022 after a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of the country’s morality police. Yet resistance continues online and through acts of civil disobedience, with some women still refusing to wear a headscarf. The regime has responded to perceived threats with added police patrols, hardened warnings, a stricter headscarf law, and mass arrests.

On the day Mohammadi’s family received the Nobel Prize on her behalf, Mohammadi began a hunger strike in prison in solidarity with Iran’s Baha’i religious minority. In her Nobel Prize lecture, delivered by her children, Ali and Kiana Rahmani in Oslo on Dec. 10, Mohammadi wrote she was just one among “the millions of proud and resilient Iranian women who have risen up against oppression, repression, discrimination, and tyranny.”

4. Dialogue for an End to Bloodshed

One day after Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, terrorists affiliated with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, carried out a surprise attack within Israel, killing approximately 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages. Vivian Silver, the 74-year-old co-founder of Women Wage Peace, Israel’s largest grassroots peace movement that was founded in the embers of the 2014 Gaza war, was originally believed to be among the hostages. On Nov. 13, her family learned that she was among the dead.

Silver, a Canadian Israeli feminist, had dedicated decades of her life to Israel-Palestine peace. She opposed the Israeli blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007, and regularly traveled to the border to pick up sick Palestinians and drive them to Israeli hospitals for treatment. She brought Israeli and Palestinian artisans together to collaborate.

Just three days before the Oct. 7 attack, Silver gathered in Jerusalem with hundreds of other activists from Women Wage Peace and its Palestinian partner group, Women of the Sun. They marched to a rally at the Tolerance Museum, then traveled to the shore of the Dead Sea, where they pulled up seats to a symbolic negotiating table. Together, they called for a peaceful, political agreement to the region’s longstanding conflict—a “Mothers’ Call” for an end to “the vicious cycle of bloodshed.”

“We are not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” Yael Braudo-Bahat, the co-director of Women Wage Peace, said to Foreign Policy. “We are pro-peace.”

Women of the Sun, founded by Reem Hajajreh, sent aid to women in Gaza until the banks closed. Even while its own movement in the West Bank is increasingly restricted due to rising settler violence, the group works for an inclusive and sustainable peace.

Marwa Hammad, Women of the Sun’s fundraising coordinator and one of the cofounders, works actively with Women Wage Peace to train women to run in local elections, and she plans to restart her group’s trauma healing program after the war. Before Oct. 7, she held Zoom workshops with women from the West Bank and Gaza. The war interrupted those conversations, but not the organization’s dedication to building peace.

“I think that the presence of the woman should be [in negotiations],” Hammad told Foreign Policy. “I think no woman would choose the war. It would be the last that they would choose.”

Women of the Sun and Women Waging Peace were recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

5. Awakening Humanity Amid Rampant Brutality

For nearly two decades, the eastern provinces of the  Democratic Republic of Congo have been awash in violence as more than 130 non-state armed militias clash with the Congolese army in a fight over land and critical resources including cobalt and gold. The war has displaced 6.9 million people and increasing lawlessness has left women and girls vulnerable to sexual violence, leading to what the U.N.’s refugee agency called a shocking “epidemic” of gender-based violence.

Yet women have emerged as the country’s most promising agents of peace.  Activists such as Liberata Buratwa, who runs a network of female peace monitors, have demanded accountability and security from the Congolese army even as women are excluded from political life and official peacebuilding efforts.

“We want peace, and we’ll keep fighting for it,” said Buratwa in a recent interview. “We are continuing to contact the authorities so that peace can return and we can go home.”

Others, such as Pétronille Vaweka, senior mediator for Engaged Women for Peace in Africa (FEPA), have ventured into rebel-held areas to plead with leaders for dialogue. “I know what [the rebels] do, but we have no other choice than to approach them,” Vaweka told U.N. Peacekeeping this month. “I try to awaken humanity in every person.” FEPA has trained a network of 100 women in negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution.

These grassroots movements are driving real change. Women represented 40 percent of civil society and community representatives and 30 percent of facilitation teams at a round of  regional peace talks last year.

As 2024 dawns, Mohammadi’s words continue to ring true: “Women will not give up. We are fueled by a will to survive, whether we are inside prison or outside.”

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