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The Women of “Women, War and Peace”


By Michele Kort

The remarkable five-part PBS series Women, War and Peace concludes on tonight (Tuesday, November 8th) with War Redefined, the capstone piece that brings together the issues brought up in the previous films about conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, Liberia and Bosnia. Narrated by Geena Davis, the film touches on, among other things, how the proliferation of small arms has changed the nature of international conflicts; how women have too-often in recent years become the targets and casualties of war; and how women are emerging as peacemakers. We hear testimony from no less than three former and current U.S. Secretaries of State—all women!—along with others such as Liberian 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, Clark University scholar Cynthia Enloe and Major General Patrick Cammaert, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo.

The Ms. Blog spoke with the producers of the series—Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan—about how the series came to be and what they hope viewers will learn from it.

Ms. Blog: What was your purpose in creating this series?

Pamela Hogan: As we were talking about [a possible film], I happened to go with my family to Paris and we spent the entire day at the war museum there. At the end of the day I turned to my son and said, “Do your realize that we haven’t seen a single image of a woman?” One of the things we’re trying to represent in the film is a shift not only to look at women’s experiences [in war] but to recognize them as strategically important.

Abigail Disney: There’s a long history of stories of war, which have changed very little and have included women very little—and that’s always been to women’s detriment. Women have been ignored even though they have had a role in war. Not just as victims, but as fighters sometimes, and certainly as sexual rewards, pieces of property to be traded or [conquered] on the behalf of men on each side.

So we’ve always kind of underestimated women’s importance [in war], but there was a shift at the end of the Cold War. Part of it involved the proliferation of small arms in black markets. Part of it involved the way that the stasis that had been enforced by the Cold War had been lifted, and so a lot of smaller, smoldering, difficult-to-solve conflicts between ethnic groups and political entities started to break out. Also, globalization made it a lot easier to trade the resources that were the heart of some of these wars.

All of that fed not just more war, but a style of war which included people who had not been trained, who were not well-versed in the Geneva Convention, who very often were under 18, under 16, even under 12 or 13. This has led to an environment that has been explosive and much more difficult for women than ever on record. And then add to it that you have climate change creating yet greater pressure on land than we’ve ever had, and so many of these wars are about just taking populations and moving them to other parts of land. So you have massive population dislocation, and sometimes 75 or or 90 percent of these displaced populations are women and children. Again, an extraordinarily heavy level of the burden is placed on a woman’s shoulders.

The important thing [in making the film] was to stop telling the story as though women were just objects being acted upon. Shift the frame of reference and make sure that we spoke about them as subjects. How do they figure in the way these wars are fought, and how do they figure in politically viable, sustainable ways to get out of conflict?

And that’s where you get into issues like impunity. Does it matter if a person has been raped in wartime? Was that rape inevitable? Is someone accountable for that rape? And if those rapes are never prosecuted and there’s never any kind of justice for them, is it possible to rebuild a sustainable peace in a culture? I suspect that it’s not. So a woman’s involvement in post-conflict [resolution] starts to seem incredibly important as you build out of these incredibly ferocious  conflicts that go on for, sometimes, generations.

Gini Reticker: In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, one of the most remarkable things that the women in Liberia did was actually maintain the peace. The mothers knew which of their sons were fighting in the war and where the guns were. They got a copy of the peace agreement and made sure every day that whatever was supposed to happen, did happen.

PH: The UN has now recognized that what happens to women in war is actually a security issue, not a humanitarian issue. It’s a small but very important shift.

How will that shift change policy?

AD: For instance, if you’re with the UN and you walk into a refugee camp, [you can] set up your job with an understanding that women have already probably gone about the business of answering the questions of, “Where is the water? Where is the firewood? What shall we do with the children?” There’s already a government in exile in almost every refugee camp in the world, made up of women. If the international community were to understand women as subjects, not objects, it would come in and work with that government in exile and perhaps be more effective and less prone to waste. That’s just one way of thinking about how things shift when you put women in the foreground.

GR: Patrick Cammeaert, who was with UN Special Forces in Bosnia and then again in Congo, says that so often the standard approach to conflict resolution is to try to lure men off the battlefield with promises of money—they turn in their guns, they get money. But then the men who [were in battle] are being rewarded, while the rest of the community is getting nothing. Instead, if you took that same amount of money and gave it to the women (granted, you may have to pay off the male elders  because that’s just the way the world works) to decide what that community needed to rebuild and how that money would be best spent, they would take care of the ex-combatants and also be sure that everyone who had been wronged in that community  would be taken care of. That would be a tremendous policy shift. There’s not one single war that’s going on today where there are two standing armies of different nations fighting each other; we’re really talking about a different kind of warfare. So who do you negotiate with at the barganining table? A lot of times thugs with guns get to set the terms of the peace. I think that policy will change in many ways if you include the voices of half the population.

If women had more power in their governments, would there be less war?

GR: Let’s give it a try! If women had 50 percent of the power, it’s hard to say what would happen, but it’s not something we’ve tried before. There are women in conflict zones all over the world who have perpetrated killing and genocide. But all of the research shows that when there are diverse decision makers, better decisions are made

AD: Wherever I go out with Pray the Devil Back to Hell, I’d always get the same type of pushback:“Are you trying to imply that women are peaceful, men are warlike?” No, that’s not the point. I can go through the Margaret Thatchers and Benazir Bhuttos and the Golda Meirs, but you can always count on people to name the same five, six or seven women. But look, hasn’t history given us a few hundred thousand men to name as opposed to these six women? While there are exceptions, there’s never been a human activity more gendered than war and aggression. To point at the handful of exceptions only proves the rule. While I’d never argue that women are better than men or more capable, inherently, than men, let’s not pretend that there isn’t this enormous millennia of history to show us the difference.

The other thing is, I don’t know a single woman peacemaker who is pushing to have a bargaining table made up strictly of women; they’re asking for their place. All different kinds of men aren’t at that table any more than women are. The bargaining table is made up of a very narrow strip of men who tend to use masculinity to reinforce their position. If we could push women in critical mass to these bargaining tables, what might they also make possible for men to be? What might they change in the way masculinity comes to be expressed around war and aggressing? It’s not that anybody is  pushing for women to run the world; they’re pushing for women to run the world side by side with all different kinds of men.

And how did you get three Secretaries of State—Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright—to be involved in the film?

PH: We told each of them that the other had said yes. [laughter]

The final segment of the Women, War and Peace series, War Redefined, airs Tuesday, November 8. Check your local PBS listings.

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This post originally appeared on the Ms. Blog.

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