Ambassador Johnson on Engaging and Empowering Women in the Peace-building Process

Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding - Washington, D.C.

It’s a pleasure to be with you today. As the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom with the Department of State, I feel privileged to have this opportunity to advance the cause of religious freedom for people of all faiths and beliefs around the world. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Congress took a momentous step in support of religious freedom when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act, creating the Office of International Religious Freedom. With this act, the U.S. government made a bold statement on behalf of those oppressed because of their faith.

With 82% of the world’s population claiming in a Gallup poll that religion plays a decisive role in their lives, the pursuit of peace cannot be disconnected from the religious beliefs of the people. We believe that religious freedom is critical to global stability and prosperity.

The President, the Secretary of State, and I regularly speak out against religious violence and discrimination. As Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I know people who are persecuted because of their faith in places as diverse as Nigeria, China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan. I have spoken with foreign officials, some of whom have become partners in our efforts to advance religious freedom globally. I urge officials to honor international human rights commitments.

Secretary Kerry recently reaffirmed our commitment to religious freedom issues when he said, “The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama, and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State. I am making certain, and will continue to, that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.” As part of this commitment, both the President and Secretary have called for the release of an Iranian American pastor, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs, as well as others unjustly imprisoned in Iran for their beliefs and conscience. President Obama has urged an end to anti-Muslim violence in Burma and expressed his readiness to work with the government, civil society, and the international community to ensure the rights of all Burma’s people, including the right to worship freely, are protected.

Government action alone is not enough to stop religious intolerance. It takes government and civil society working together—frequently at the local level—to make a substantive change. In April 2013, Secretary Kerry renewed the mandate for the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. As part of this initiative, I co-chair the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, which brings together Department of State officials and civil society leaders to promote international religious freedom.

Ideally a force for good, religion too often becomes a catalyst for violence. If religion is a source of conflict, then it must be part of the solution. It therefore only makes sense to include religious leaders in conflict resolution.

Brokering sustainable peace across competing political, ethnic and religious interests is no easy task. Sadly, the way the international community tries to build peace and security today just isn’t getting the job done. As the President said in Jerusalem in March, “peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.” In spite of earnest efforts, active conflicts continue unabated around the world, undermining regional and global stability, and ravaging entire populations. More than half of all peace agreements fail within five years.

There is a segment of society whose presence is often notably lacking in peace building. Women have proven themselves as powerful catalysts for change, yet they are typically excluded from both the negotiations that make peace and the institutions that maintain it. While it is true that some women engage in conflict activities, many more are victims. Nevertheless, too few are empowered to be instruments of peace and security. Over the past 25 years, hundreds of peace treaties have been signed, but only a handful of the negotiators have been women. Nevertheless, women have been working behind the scenes, across religious divides, to speak on behalf of marginalized groups. Such consensus building and sensitivity to the needs of half the population could go far towards achieving just and sustainable peace.

We need to bring women to the table, to be seen, to be heard, to be empowered.
In many countries, women are marginalized not only in civic and political life, but also in formal religious spaces, lacking official roles. But this very marginalization frees them from bureaucratic constraints. Unlike their male counterparts, women may be perceived as non-threatening, without a political agenda, and able to understand and articulate the needs of other women. Working behind the scenes, they are free to network with other women.

Despite this invisibility, women of faith have put themselves on the front lines of
peace-building. Here are a few examples:
There is a young Syrian-born Islamic scholar who is passionately devoted to empowering and training women and youth. For security reasons, I am purposely not mentioning her by name. For the past two years, this woman has been developing work opportunities and job skill training for Syrian women in refugee camps. With minimal donor investments, she provided food baskets to 4,100 families; found employment for 700 women—each of whom supports a family—in cafeterias; and developed a craft industry, where women receive the income from the goods they produce. She has helped provide job opportunities and training for refugee families in need, regardless of faith background.
Jamila Afghani heads a local Afghan women’s NGO. She said, “I have often heard that Afghan women are not political. That peace and security is man’s work. I am here to challenge that illusion.” And challenge it she does. Her NGO has developed peace education, human rights and gender training from an Islamic perspective.

Let me tell you about the extraordinarily courageous women of Liberia. If you have never seen the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, I strongly encourage you to watch it. It chronicles how thousands of women came together to pray for peace and then staged a nonviolent protest outside of the Presidential Palace in Liberia in 2003. Armed with nothing more than courage and prayer, ordinary mothers, grandmothers, and daughters—both Christians and Muslims—stood together between opposing forces. Their faith and actions were a critical element in bringing about an agreement between the Liberian government and rebel forces during stalled peace talks.

There are scores of examples like these, of women of faith taking on peace-building initiatives around the world. These women take huge security risks—for reasons beyond financial gain, fame, or political traction.

Where do these women find their courage?
While disproportionately affected by conflict, women have been the emotional and spiritual backbone of war-affected communities. Women have mobilized their communities for peace, mediated disputes, and found ways to help the community step away from violence. These actions challenge our notions of what peace-building work is. In too many places, religion is cited as a reason to persecute those who follow a different faith or are perceived as different–because of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Women of faith, often sidelined themselves, have also built peace by advocating for the dignity and respect of marginalized individuals, including other women, children, persons with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, and LGBT persons.

In Israel, female faith leaders and civil society activists are leading the charge to build a country that truly embraces gender equality. Anat Hoffman, Chair of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, continues to lead the fight to desegregate the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site. Every month for almost 25 years Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall have prayed at the Western Wall– and every month for almost 25 years they have been arrested for violating the Orthodox rules regarding female prayer. But with Anat’s leadership, things are changing. In fact, this past month Anat and Women of the Wall were not arrested when they prayed at the Western Wall. Moreover, the police protected them and safeguarded them while they fulfilled their religious obligations. Step by step they are, literally, changing the face of gender equality and religious freedom in Israel.

By launching the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in 2011, the United States recognized the need for greater participation of women on peace negotiation teams and in other decision-making institutions. Women could do even more if they were recognized, empowered, and involved in the decision-making process.

To truly be effective, both men and women need to partner together, each with their talents brought to the table, and collaborate in a respectful, inclusive way. As my civil society colleague Chris Seiple has stated, “We miss action and traction when we engage only the male leaders.”

Surely, religion can be a source of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Surely, faith can motivate people to courageously take action for peace. Women are assuredly undertaking such work, at great cost, at great personal risk, and speaking up and speaking out.

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