Two decades into the 21st century, women remain mostly invisible in human storytelling about war and peace. Since a U.N. resolution in 2000, governments increasingly have recognized that the work of ending or preventing wars is weakened when women are excluded. Painstakingly, women are forcing aside historic obstacles to lead as mediators, peacekeepers and the like. Yet amid violence that has displaced record numbers of people, women remain scarcely visible in our stories of human conflict and reconciliation. These stories reflect what we value as a society. When women are missing, women are not counted.

Liberian women rally against their country’s civil war, a campaign documented by the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” (Pewee Flomoku)
Liberian women rally against their country’s civil war, a campaign documented by the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” (Pewee Flomoku)

This persistent invisibility of women in broad human culture matters. So we must use International Women’s Day, on March 8, to remind ourselves of the stories that make women visible.

As an anthropologist who works on women and war, I adhere to the precept by Ruth Benedict that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” A central part of anthropologists’ research is listening to the stories people tell about themselves. Benedict’s maxim naturally requires us to respect these stories, with their differences—the only way to really begin to understand the human condition.

Anthropology also understands that stories convey power. In any setting, a concentration of power lets its holder control the narrative of the story. A wider sharing of storytelling is the first step toward achieving a democracy of power.

The rise of digital social media, like that of the printing press 500 years ago, is broadening people’s ability to tell their stories. As before, this is eroding the exclusive control of the powerful. The #MeToo movement’s explosion across the globe shows what is possible—and also, how far we have to go—in letting unseen, unheard women speak to us.

The Power of Women—and Film

Film is another medium that increasingly helps us to see the realities of women facing war and violence as it also inspires people to make a difference. A powerful example is the 2008 documentary from the Liberian civil war, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Liberian women—Christians, Muslims, old, young, urban and rural—dressed in white and marched peacefully in the thousands to confront the country’s armed factions and its warlord president, Charles Taylor. The women demanded an end to civil war, the recruitment of child soldiers and other abuses. To pressure apathetic men to support their movement for peace, the women withheld sex from their partners. To force real peace negotiations, women surrounded the venues of the languishing peace talks and prevented negotiators from leaving until an agreement was reached.

The film, produced by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, includes the story of a then little-known Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, who helped lead the nonviolent movement and eventually shared in the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Moving documentaries by journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy reveal urgent struggles of Pakistanis against the violence committed by men to maintain utter control over women in their power. Her 2012 film “Saving Face” documents the horror of acid attacks, in which men go largely unpunished for throwing acid in the faces of their victims, disfiguring and often blinding them.

The mainly hidden violence of “honor killings” in violently patriarchal societies is illustrated in “A Girl in the River,” Obaid-Chinoy’s 2015 production. Both films won Oscars as their years’ best short documentaries. Speaking at USIP in 2016, Obaid-Chinoy explained, “A film cannot achieve social change by itself, but it can be used as a tool that prompts dialogue and consensus.” Obaid-Chinoy used “A Girl in the River” to energize that dialogue in her country, showing it to audiences nationwide and illuminating the human side of this violence. When justice is achieved, such as the case of the young women who survives, it gives courage and hope to others.

A non-documentary film that has brought social change is Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which peeled back the long-sealed secret about the sexual violence and rape inflicted on an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. Jolie’s film inspired then British Foreign Secretary William Hague to take this issue into the policy arena, and they co-hosted a global conference in 2014 on preventing rape as a tactic of war. Nearly 150 governments endorsed a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

These stories make visible the struggles and triumphs of women around the world, and ensure that they become the bedrock of social change. This is why we celebrate International Women’s Day.

Related Publications

How can Afghans make peace AND protect women? Meet Ayesha Aziz.

How can Afghans make peace AND protect women? Meet Ayesha Aziz.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

After nearly 40 years of war, Afghanistan and the international community are urgently seeking paths for a peace process. But amid the tentative efforts—a three-day ceasefire in June, the peace march across the country by hundreds of Afghans and talks by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad—a somber question hangs for women and human rights advocates. How can Afghanistan make peace with the Taliban while protecting democracy and women’s rights?

Gender; Religion; Peace Processes

The Elusive Peace: Ending Sexual Violence during and after Conflict

The Elusive Peace: Ending Sexual Violence during and after Conflict

Friday, December 7, 2018

By: Pearl Karuhanga Atuhaire; Nicole Gerring; Laura Huber; Mirgul Kuhns; Grace Ndirangu

Awarding the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to advocates for survivors of wartime sexual violence, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, indicates that the issue of sexual abuse has gained international recognition. This comes ten years after the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1820, which declared that conflict-related sexual violence constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity. This Special Report highlights the limited scope of the resolution, examines the connections between sexual violence and conflict, and urges key stakeholders to view sexual violence—both during conflict and after—as a threat to international peace and security.

Gender

For the Afghan Peace Process to Work, Women Must be Involved

For the Afghan Peace Process to Work, Women Must be Involved

Monday, October 29, 2018

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Marjan Nahavandi

The bottom line is Afghan women want peace and they want to have a say in how it is negotiated. Without women at the negotiation table, a long-term and inclusive peace is dramatically less likely. Indeed, studies show that the inclusion of women in peace negotiations, leads to peace agreements that are representative of the needs of the people they affect and, therefore, more sustainable.

Gender; Peace Processes

If we want to build peace, we can’t keep women out.

If we want to build peace, we can’t keep women out.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

By: Danielle Robertson; Tabatha Thompson

When nations affected by violent conflict try to make peace, the evidence is clear on what works. For a durable peace agreement, women must be included throughout the process. While the U.N. Security Council unanimously endorsed that goal in 2000, women still are excluded from peace processes. Among 504 peace accords signed by 2015, only 27 percent even mentioned women. A U.N. study of 14 peace processes from 2000 to 2010 found that women comprised only 8 percent of negotiators and 3 percent of signatories.

Gender; Peace Processes

View All Publications