Archive | November, 2012

Cool, unexpected things

25 Nov

I wrote my previous post just before going to War Resisters’ International‘s annual council, which this year was in Bilbao. It was a great experience: I met inspiring and friendly anti-militarist activists from four continents, who gave me some good ideas for my work.

The trip was the first of several very cool unexpected things that I have done so far as a Quaker peaceworker – things that weren’t mentioned in the joint peaceworker bid that WRI and Forces Watch (my other placement organisation) wrote; the bid which led me to chose to spend my year working for them. It seems that some of the most exciting things just can’t be foreseen.

At first I was disappointed to learn that Italian – my second language – isn’t one that WRI use in their international network. But actually this prompted me to enrol on a Spanish evening course, which has been good fun and I’ve improved noticeably. I’ve also been in touch with WRI’s Italian affiliates, and it looks like at least one of them will be more actively involved in the network in future, so I’ve been able to use my Italian too.

The other cool, unexpected thing happening at WRI is that we’ve bought a wormery! I was keen to avoid our food waste (we eat lunch together most days) going to landfill, and a wormery seemed ideal for our roof, where we’ll be able to use the compost and nutrient-rich liquid it produces for our plant pots.

And these novelties aren’t limited to my two-and-a-half days a week at WRI. For Forces Watch I’ve: written two blog articles. The first was on two plays I saw (for work) in the West End, both portraying the armed forces pretty critically. The second, which will be posted this coming week, is on the BBC series Our War, which shows Afghanistan from the perspective of young British soldiers and officers.

I’ve also got really into looking into the links between the military and UK universities, which wasn’t one of the projects mentioned in my original brief. There are several concerning ways in which the military exerts influence over universities and university students, and Forces Watch will be publishing something on this in the next few months. I’ve been in touch with students through Campaign Against the Arms Trade‘s universities network, and I attended their yearly gathering yesterday, in Sheffield, which was very useful in terms of hearing what these students think are the most objectionable aspects of the military-universities nexus, and what they would be interested in taking action on.

I’m sure the other peaceworkers are having cool, unexpected experiences of their own, and I hope it continues.



Women Human Rights Defenders: Empowering and Protecting the Change Makers

16 Nov

On the 24th October, women human rights defenders from Colombia to Nepal gathered in London for a conference at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, hosted by Peace Brigades International. GAPS and our member organisations Amnesty International and Womankind Worldwide supported the event, and I spent two days learning from the shared experiences of some remarkable women.

Women human rights defenders are women who work to defend and promote internationally recognised human rights. They are defined by their actions rather than their profession, and they are journalists, lawyers, activists, students and community leaders. They are mothers, daughters, partners, wives, granddaughters and aunts. For example, Samira Hamidi, as the former Director of the Afghan Women’s Network, works with civil society groups, governments and the UN to advocate for women’s participation in the re-building of Afghanistan. Judith Maldonado Mohica works as a human rights lawyer in Colombia, providing support, legal assistance and accompaniment to farmers, trade unionists and displaced populations. Betty Makoni, a survivor of rape at age 6 and an orphan at age 9 founded the Girl Child Network. Working as a girl child rights activist in Zimbabwe, Betty challenged policies, attitudes and laws that allow child rape to continue with impunity, and supports survivors of child rape to transform their lives from victims into leaders;

‘I am not a victim. I am victory. I stand up. I speak out.’ (Betty Makoni giving the key note speech at the conference).

These are just a handful of the women who spoke at the event, and each of their stories deserves telling. All over the world, these women and their colleagues face considerable personal risk simply because they stand up against powerful interests for what they see to be wrong – the violation of human rights – and because they represent a challenge and an alternative.

The aim of the conference was to bring these women together to share and explore practical actions that the UK can take to support women human rights defenders as part of wider efforts to work on women, peace and security – encouraging peace and stability in fragile and conflict-affected states. I watched as women activists from Colombia, Mexico, Nepal and Kenya lobbied the UK government for change. The discussions at the conference were later taken to a roundtable event at Parliament, where the women activists, their translators, and members of the Associate Parliamentary Group (APG) on Women, Peace and Security, gathered to discuss the issues raised at the conference. Nicola Blackwood MP, chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security, led the meeting.

After just two months into my role here at GAPS, this event really gave me a sense of perspective. Having the opportunity to meet women who are constantly at personal risk for the work that they do really made me reflect on whether or not I would do this work if my life were at risk in the same way. I expect this is a common thought when an office worker meets someone who works on the ‘frontline’. But I realise all the work in the area of women’s rights, and explicitly women, peace and security, is vital, important and indispensible. Women human rights defenders embody the change that many of us want to see, and the importance of the network of international organisations that supports them and works with them became quickly apparent. In advocating the defence of women’s rights, promoting social norms and building capacity for responding to the rights of women and girls, we are stronger together. I’ll leave you with a quote from Naomi Barasa, working with Amnesty International Kenya;

‘Remember solidarity. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and we need each other so that the journey is not too tough.’

Here we are, outside Parliament – GAPS, Peace Brigades International, Amnesty UK, with Nicola Blackwood MP and some of the women human rights defenders from the conference

// Rhiannon, at GAPS, November 2012

1 Nov

On hearing that I had been offered a job as peaceworker in Burundi, my friends and family offered their congratulations followed by silence and then… where´s Burundi? To clear up any doubts, have a look at the map below.

The second question was why? Although the conflict between the two predominate ethnic tribes (the Hutus and Tutsis) ended in the Arusha Peace Accords in 2005 and were subsequently followed by cease-fire agreements with individual rebel factions, Burundi still remains a fragile state. With an influx of repatriates, internally displaced persons returning and demobilised combatants (RDExCs), both local and national authorities have struggled to reintegrate these individuals into an already overburdened infrastructure. It is within this context and through the belief that the peace agreements would not be able to adequately socioeconomically reintegrate RDExCs, CEDAC was created in 2005. CEDAC was founded by Eric Niragira, an ex-child soldier, who believed that to achieve sustainable peace, trust had to be rebuilt between neighbours and a new Burundian social fabric woven.

CEDAC currently has three projects to foster a positive environment for reconciliation. Firstly, an initiative in the northern Cibitoke province sees RDExCs and the wider community working side by side in short term local development contracts which have an end to improve the quality of life in the selected village. After completing their four month contracts, project participants receive a lump sum of their salary to serve as a start-up fund to form collectives generating sustainable economic opportunities. Secondly, in Muramvya a peer support programme addresses the psychosocial needs of survivors of armed violence but is also a source of outreach work providing individuals with logistical information about how to access essential services like health. Finally, CEDAC organises community work days that bring together RDExCs and other individuals to voluntarily contribute their time to an initiative benefiting the whole community; for instance building the foundation for a primary school. All of these projects stimulate interaction between ex combatants and survivors of armed violence, thus helping to overcome the common scenario of stigmatisation and ostracisation of RDExCs. Instead, a positive and engaging shared experience is created counterbalancing the powder keg of potential violence.

CEDAC, for me, is an organisation that follows the idea of positive peace. Peace is not just the mere absence of war, but is a state in which all individuals are able to satisfy their basic needs and have social, economic and judicial equality. Although this is sadly far from the reality in Burundi, CEDAC is striving to make this a reality from its community based approach.

I, as a QPSW peaceworker, have so far been working with CEDAC to expand their communication strategy through establishing a blog, facebook profile and soon re-launching its website. I really cannot do CEDAC´s innovative work credit in just a summarised paragraph; I can only provide you with a flavour of all the positive actions that they carry out. I´d really encourage you to check them out on facebook CEDAC Burundi or the blog.

In the year with CEDAC, I will be involved in a small arms survey monitoring the impact of armed violence on communities either side of the Democratic Republic of Congo´s border and evaluating how CEDAC can use its expertise to bring about peace. I look forward to being able to share this amazing experience with you through the PO BOX Peace blog entries.

Much of the above is about work, but I shouldn´t mislead you into thinking there is no relaxation time. My Sunday afternoon tradition has already been firmly established of sitting by Lake Tanganyika watching some amazing sunsets. On leaving, I´d like to share this moment of natural beauty in Burundi with you.

Amahoro (peace in Kirundi)


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