Today, on the International Day of Peace, we share the stories of three inspiring peace activists and Cordaid colleagues: Flora, Nasima and Chol. They rise above difference and promote dialogue in Central Africa, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
(Flora, Nasima and Chol in front of the Peace Palace in The Hague. © Cordaid)
Nasima Omari (31) defends the rights of Afghan women in New York, in Europe and in Kabul. But the real center of her struggle are the Afghan villages. “In rural parts, women can do almost nothing. A male dominated culture keeps them voiceless. It robs them of everything: their dignity, their income, their safety”, she says.
“Women’s rights are non-negotiable”
“In some ways, the position of Afghan women has improved. We have government ministers who are women. More girls go to school. But then you talk about the big cities. In villages little has changed. As soon as tensions rise and violence increases – which happens all the time – girls are the first to drop out from school and women retreat into their homes. For them, war means darkness and anonymity. ”
As long as women are treated that way, peace is impossible. “It’s simple,” according to Nasima. “Without peace there is no development. And without respect for women’s rights, there is no peace and no security.” That’s why she argues that women’s rights are non-negotiable, in whatever circumstance. “Not even in peace talks with armed groups. However hard this may make the negotiations,” she explains.
In different parts of Afghanistan, Nasima and other women’s rights defenders train groups of women and men. “This is how we empower civil society. In turn, local civil society groups support women in their neighbourhoods. They provide skills trainings, allowing women to earn an income and strengthen their position. By discussing and addressing domestic violence they break taboos. They support girls to go to school. Or they assist women in their quest for an ID card. Without an ID card you’re nobody.”
“I always stay polite. But I will never be silenced.”
As a young student Nasima started speaking out for justice and equality. She never stopped. “And of course, every now and again, some Afghan men are outraged. They tell me, in public, it’s a disgrace that I openly talk to women and, especially, men. I always contain myself, weigh my words and stay polite. But I will not let myself be silenced. Never.”
‘This work demands patience’
These days, Flora Kwizera (42) from Burundi works for Cordaid’s Security & Justice program in the Central African Republic. But before that, she had a military career in the Burundian army. Where she caused quite a stir.
“We didn’t even have separate toilets or sleeping quarters.”
“The uniforms, the military academy… I liked that! And there were very few women in the army. So, definitely, this is where I wanted to make a career.” She passed the exams and entered the military. Then, reality dawned upon her. “That macho culture, the physical and verbal violence against women … I couldn’t believe my eyes. We, female soldiers, did not have our own toilets, no separate sleeping quarters. No privacy at all. This had to change.”
Flora worked her way up. As project manager within the Security Sector Reform program of the Ministry of Defense, she co-authored the first gender integration policy in the army. It payed off. “Today, women in the army have their own sleeping quarters”, Flora explains. “They have maternity leave. They even have female uniforms. All that didn’t exist before. And if women have a complaint, they can go to the Gender Office. That didn’t exist either. I am proud to have contributed to this.”
In 2015 Flora joined the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic. A year later she started working for Cordaid in the same country. She continues to stand up for the basic rights of women and men. Only this time not as a soldier, but as a civilian.
‘I can help them unite and make sure they are represented’
“So many Central African women, men and children have lost everything because of the war. And they are barely listened to. Often they live in the same villages as the perpetrators who have assaulted them or murdered their loved ones. With Cordaid I can help them unite. We make sure they are represented in talks with the government. We can make them aware of the rights they have and how to stand up for them.”
“What I do now is not much different from what I did in the army: empowering women.”
“This work demands patience”, Flora observes. “Especially in a country where the armed conflict drags on. But every step is a victory. Take for example the committee for truth, reconciliation and justice that is now in the making. After many discussions with the government, we ensured that a large number of civil society organizations are involved. They speak on behalf of the survivors of violence and injustice. And in the capital Bangui we have managed to open 2 reception centers for women who are victims of sexual violence. Aid professionals listen to their stories and point the way to medical or legal assistance.”
Once Flora dreamed of becoming a general in the army. “Not anymore”, she says. “This work is more fulfilling. Besides, it’s not much different from what I did in the army: empowering women!”
‘I want my children to taste the fruits of peace.’
Chol Kuir from South Sudan doesn’t know his exact age. “They don’t register babies in times of war”, he explains. He guesses that he must be around 40. “In 1983 the SPLA rebels started their war. I must have been about 5 years old then. I remember gunshots. Time and again. And running for shelter.”
Chol and his family flee from place to place. In vain. Chol’s mother, sister and two brothers are killed in the war. Chol himself ended up in the clutches of a rebel group. “I was about 12 years old. I had to train and fight.”
“You have to train the commanders and call them to account.”
Today, decades later, South Sudan has gained independence from Sudan. But war continues, and with it the gruesome violence. War killed Chol’s 2 year old daughter in 2014. Chol himself managed to escape the armed struggle. Today, he counters violence with everything he has.
“Together with women’s organizations, we train police and army units to combat and prosecute violence against women. Both in their own ranks and beyond”, he explains.
‘The GBV police desk is really something new in my country’
Those trainings bear fruit. They led the South Sudanese police to recently open a Gender-Based Violence Desk. “Officers from this desk are trained to respectfully and professionally handle GBV cases. Victims are referred to hospitals for medical assistance,” says Chol. “And to agencies that provide legal assistance. This police service is really something new in our country.”
“Myself, I have only known war throughout my life.”
The army too receives this kind of training. “But monitoring soldiers is very difficult”, Chol continues, “as they are constantly on the move. That’s why you have to train the commanders and call them to account. If their own troops commit sexual or other punishable violence, they are the ones who have to make sure that perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Chol Kuir has only one goal in life: to make his country a safer place. “I want my children to taste the fruit of peace”, he says. “That’s why I do this work. Myself, I have only known war throughout my life.”
Dialogue & Dissent
Chol, Nasima and Flora work for Cordaid’s Security and Justice program. More specifically, in their countries they implement Cordaid’s five-year strategic partnership (2016-2020) with the Dutch government, ‘Dialogue&Dissent’. This partnership promotes dialogue between citizens and their government on sensitive issues, such as security, women’s rights and access to justice. Cordaid focuses on conflict-affected countries where there is limited space for dialogue.
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