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We are all in this together: reflections on a summer that calls for peace and justice

By Caitilin McMillan

“We are all in this together” is a phrase many of us will have heard this summer. In the midst of the COVID-19 global health pandemic, we have seen that it is possible to save lives with collective action and effective support systems. Yet on the flip side, when we are divided and lack a human-centered approach the opposite becomes true. The wide variation of responses and outcomes between and within countries across the world has brought this into clear focus. COVID-19 has also shown us how the biggest burden of health, social and economic challenges tend to fall disproportionately to the most disadvantaged in our societies, often along racial, class and gender lines.

These are truths I have long understood from working in the peacebuilding and social justice sector. One of the things we learn early on as Rotary Peace Fellows is that peace and justice are deeply intertwined. While at a basic level peace may be associated with simply the absence of overt violence, in fact, as we have seen this summer, achieving peace for all is really about being honest about where our inequalities in society lie and striving to create the conditions for each of us to thrive. In practice this means addressing the violence of poverty and discrimination. It means creating caring support systems and prioritizing stronger relationships from a local to global level. In many ways, this is the model Rotary Clubs already practice around the world!

NGO working group on Women, Peace, and Security (link to credit).

This summer I have been grappling with the calls for structural change and justice through my volunteer work as a Fellow with Oxfam International’s Women, Peace and Security team. In this role, I have had a front seat to the United Nation’s Security Council meetings (which are of course all happening online!) and in turn insights into the most powerful decision-making body on international peace issues. Interestingly, my volunteer role with Oxfam this year also coincides with the 20th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This Resolution was passed in recognition of the value of women’s voices and participation in all stages of peacebuilding from prevention to resolution. It requires governments to formally consider and include women in the peace agreement process. While it may seem obvious to most that peace is unsustainable if it does not take account of women and other marginalized peoples’ needs and perspectives, in fact until the passing of Resolution 1325 women were almost never invited or considered in high-level peacebuilding spaces.

Yet, while women have often been excluded from these formal peace processes and institutional settings, it’s widely recognized that a majority of peacebuilding work in local communities, or in other words creating the conditions for equity and justice on the ground, is sustained by women’s efforts. Understanding women’s value, over the past 20 years, the UN has made a concerted effort to work with civil society groups, like Oxfam, to amplify women’s voices and open doors for more women from conflict-affected countries to meaningfully participate in shaping peace processes and outcomes. This inclusion is critical from a human rights perspective, but it is also pragmatic. UN Women, for example, finds that when civil society and women’s groups are included in negotiations, peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. In other words, women and diverse groups’ perspectives are key to peace!

One way the UN Security Council ensures they hear from women is by including civil society briefings in their meetings.

UN Security Council meeting (link to credit).

This is where women from conflict-affected countries who are peace leaders in their local context attend Council meetings to update governments on the human face of the situation. This summer I have heard from women from South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan who put their lives on the line every day to share information on the realities of the conflict. As a Fellow with Oxfam, I have had the honor of interviewing a number of these women. Our conversations explore their experiences of briefing the Council and what impact or changes this has brought about. Many of them have shared with me the fear and intimidation they face for speaking truth to the injustices and atrocities they have witnessed. Many of them use their briefings to make clear calls for perpetrators to be held to account and to bring attention to the serious humanitarian consequences of war, including starvation, lack of education and deep traumas. Civil society groups, like Oxfam, are concerned that despite this, the Council and respective governments do not fully listen or absorb this information and sadly tend to continue with business as usual.

Link to credit.

Out of this context, my volunteer work for Oxfam will bring together a report on the learnings from my interviews with women alongside careful analysis of UN Security Council meeting transcripts in which I have looked at the relationship between the priorities women outline and the commitments governments make in response. We plan to share this report widely in October, which is the anniversary of Resolution 1325, and also workshop it with Council members in our hope to create real change around how civil society voices are listened to and acted upon at the highest level.

Earlier this week, on a conference call with the Oxfam team, one of my colleagues insightfully exclaimed, “Peacebuilding is an art not a science!” What this means to me is that there is not a template for achieving peace nor is there a shortcut for undoing unjust situations. Peacebuilding as an art is a recognition that what peace looks like and how it is created and sustained in different situations is complex and iterative. While this is true, this summer of working with women from conflict-affected countries around the world has also taught me that there can be no peace without justice, and that our pursuit of peace and justice requires the courage to imagine a different world.

My work this summer was only made possible with the support of the Rotary Peace Fellowship. Rotary has helped me on my path to imagine a different world. A world without war and structural violence. A world that values people’s lives and wellbeing, and promotes equality of access and opportunity. In this endeavor, I am sure I join thousands of Rotarians around the world who practice this work in their local areas. During these difficult times, I invite us all to continue to be creative and have the courage to bring these new ways of being into action!

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