Actresses of change, vectors of peace

For the environment, against wars, to dispense justice and educate the communities, all over the world, they are involved. Not only as representatives of half of humanity, but as inspired and inspiring, energetic, and resourceful actresses of change. They might even be models to follow for peace to thrive. Women.

By Lola Breton

Isabelle Balot, the humanitarian poetess

She was terrified but she did it anyway. This does not illustrate the times when Isabelle Balot was stationed in war-torn countries as a UN officer. Rather, she felt this way when a colleague challenged her to perform her poetry in a recital room of the UN headquarters. A Steinway piano playing in the background, her words and memories ricocheted against the walls. She had risen to the challenge: “writing poetry on eminently non-poetic topics”.

Awash in the sun of timeless Africa / The beast-king goes robed in light / A murderous heat stirs in his thighs / As he crouches in the brush or bed of a creek… […] Behold the child soldier, the murdered child / Sent in battalions into the sun-scorched light / For diamonds, for ivory, black gold or white! /Pencil in hand, he would sketch only death… […] When peace is promised and even celebrated /I see amidst glittering constellations / In spite of myself, a lion-god of diamonds / Whose fierce pagan eyes laugh from the dark.1

In the early 2000s, Isabelle Balot was part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Soon, she was sent on regular missions to Sudan: “We had to negotiate constantly with the government and the rebels to get access to the populations and to protect civilians. We even had to negotiate for our own conditions to help”, remembers the ex-Officer. The civil war had been devastating Sudan since 1983 when Isabelle Balot realized the Nuba Mountains were “a microcosm of what was happening all over the country. Sudan was a forgotten battlefield by then: the combatants were tired; the media did not know how to cover the situation anymore… It felt like the fight would never end.” In 2001, she devised an international military strategy to apply and monitor a cease fire in the Nuba. The plan creating the Joint Military Commission was successfully implemented by Sudan, Norway, and the US. “It’s one of the most important things I have done in life, smiles Isabelle Balot. It saved lives.” A more important thing than creating the UN Peacemaker website (http://peacemaker.un.org), a virtual database of all Peace Accords concluded globally, offering useful advice to peace negotiators – for which she received the UN Award.

After having alerted the international community about the ongoing genocide taking place in Darfur, Isabelle Balot left the UN. The humanitarian may have turned towards poetry to “give a voice to those who could not express themselves – because who reads UN reports, anyway?” – but she opposes those criticizing the international organization, out of loyalty to her colleagues who have been killed in service to the suffering people of the world, and because, “the UN has tried and is still trying so many innovative solutions to make things better!”. And the work is to be continued, especially when it comes to involving the communities at stake. “For development to take place after the conflicts and to thrive, the UN must keep on working with the native populations. Once they have the right tools in hand, they can start rebuilding as they wish.” As a UN officer, Isabelle Balot tried to involve women in peace processes: “Being a woman myself, they entrusted me with some very intimate details of their lives.”

Years later, the poetess keeps setting down her memories on paper and reciting them out loud, music playing in the background. “All tools are good for peace, arts and culture included, she believes, even if, of course, politics often prevails.”

Nada Majdalani: building environmental bridges between communities

“The environment knows no borders.” This slogan could be the one to define Nada Majdalani’s life mission. The Palestinian director of the organization Ecopeace Middle East started engaging in environmental programs when she was 14 years old, in school: “Thanks to a teacher, I went to several summer camps where both Palestinian and Israeli students discussed those issues.” As an adult, in 2016, Nada Majdalani became a board member of Ecopeace, a regional organization composed of three offices, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, “full partners, none of the teams being above the others”, she assures. She has now landed the director position of the Ramallah office: “It is the job of my dreams. It is challenging, but extremely rewarding.”

Challenges come running when trying to tackle environmental issues in a region where conflicts have been going on for so long. “When there is ‘peace’ involved in the name, it is very suspicious around here, says Nada Majdalani with a smile. Each office has been accused of ‘working with the enemy’ but we have survived it like we have survived, for 25 years, the many ups and downs in the region: the second intifada, coronavirus…”

A talk between the organization and the communities it aims to help must then take place before any project. “We always highlight that we are absolutely not either tree-huggers or angels, explains Nada Majdalani. Then, we build on the regional work, facilitating data and information exchange through face to face conversations between communities, young leaders and stakeholders.” This is how Ecopeace managed to improve lives on the Gaza Strip. The region lacked plants to enable water sewage treatment. Gaza inhabitants were living with this polluted water on which they depended. The organization advocated for change and opened the eyes of the Israeli authorities: 90 000 cubic meters of raw sewage were leaking in the Mediterranean, threatening to cause a pandemic on both sides. “Not doing anything was similar to shooting themselves in the foot for the Israeli”, underlines Nada Majdalani. Raising awareness paid off. Policies were loosened to enable the construction of new water treatment plants. Talks concerning energy supplies and power plants for Gaza are now moving forward.

It is possible to unite when we have an enemy in common and support each other as humans to find a solution together.” This is the mindset Nada Majdalani works with. She is even more convinced that it is true in the time of coronavirus. “The Palestinian authority and the Israeli government have been working together to fight the pandemic and have been open about it, she is pleased. It means we can do the same for climate change: have an open emergency room to discuss environmental issues that are going to affect our region, such as water access, food security and drought. The ongoing pandemic can be a wakeup call to start working together.”

Nada Majdalani is now calling advocates for the protection of the environment to build their network and appeal more people into the fight. In the region, like everywhere else on the planet, the youth has already shown its determination to act. For the Palestinian director of Ecopeace, women also have a large role to play. “They are the agent of change in their communities, believes Nada Majdalani. Current decision makers must understand that involving women in the decision process, even in central governments, will make us reach higher, eventually. I found myself setting the example.”

Reine Alapini-Gansou or the voice of international justice

Conflicts rattle peace. And conflicts happen when people are not understood, when they don’t talk amidst each other, when they don’t respect others”, defines International Criminal Court’s Judge Reine Alapini-Gansou. The former Beninese lawyer was appointed to the ICC in March 2018, for a 9-year-term, on her second try at entering the highest jurisdiction in international criminal law. Reine Alapini-Gansou is not cutting her teeth in The Hague, where the ICC sits, though. “I could never put up with injustice around me and I had the right profile to study law, she remembers. I knew early on that I wanted to become a lawyer.” In 1986, Reine Alapini-Gansou passed the bar in Benin. Among the defendants she helped, one left a deep mark on her: “I was still an intern then and I was assisting a case of murder with my boss. We were the counsel of one the defendants. His first wife had already been held in preventive detention for 7 years while she continued to keep the same discourse of innocence from the very beginning of the case. She demonstrated her faith and her total trust in God. She was acquitted at the end of the trial, when the other defendants were sentenced to death.”

The cases she assisted and the activism she took part in made Reine Alapini-Gansou worthy of holding the seat of ICC judge. She joined l’Association des femmes juristes du Bénin (Association of Women Lawyers of Benin) as a first step into human and women rights mobilization. In 2005, the future ICC judge was appointed special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in Africa in her capacity of member of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). “I am glad I could be part of a ruling on violence against women in Democratic Republic of Congo”, says Reine Alapini-Gansou. In 2014, the ACHPR urged the DRC to ensure effective justice for acts of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups in the eastern part of the state.

Getting involved in such jurisdictions kept Reine Alapini-Gansou on her toes. To stay close to any development of the law, she runs on a principle: never stop learning. “I have tried my best to keep on teaching law at the National University of Benin throughout my whole career, she insists. It is essential to keep doubting our practices, to develop new ideas and new ways of thinking, to keep on discovering about law.”

Now, Judge Reine Alapini-Gansou is well aware of the criticism many address to the international justice system: “It is important to keep in mind that the matters the ICC examines have usually taken place on the long term and on large areas before it arrives on the Court’s desk, years later. Those severe crimes usually involve thousands of victims. We, judges, must take the evidence into account for our ruling to be truly independent and rigorous.”

Yet, for peace to thrive, Judge Reine Alapini-Gansou has ideas. “Sometimes, families and communities are at peace. Problems often rise when political leaders refuse to step down from power and leave room for someone else”, she noticed. In that case, she calls for harsher consequences for the ones violating human rights and power alternance. “We must also rely on the future generations to cultivate peace among the families, smaller communities and schools”, wishes the judge. “We could also reinforce the international institutions of justice. It might mean granting them more resources to conduct outreach, protection, and prevention actions. Seeing ICC judges come and see for themselves what has happened on the ground could have a positive impact on every level. Today, we have very limited means for that.”

Erasing gender inequalities: Kirthi Jayakumar’s fight

In a room full of men company and organization’s founders who discredit and underestimate her, Kirthi Jayakumar usually feels challenged: “They have this notion that whatever I, as a woman, am doing is lesser than their work. It gives me the opportunity to push back on taboo topics, for example!” The activist and entrepreneur had to rise to this challenge her whole life. Kirthi Jayakumar was born and raised in Chennai, India, where “patriarchy manifested in the way [she] was raised and the many things [her] culture passed off as acceptable”. Yet, after studying law – even though she had no intention to – to build herself a safety net and please her family, she realized her legal knowledge could help her achieve her goals.

There are many ways to prevent people from accessing resources and reach their potential: ethnicity, color, religion, etc. But, among these, gender inequality is the most striking, because it is universal”, Kirthi Jayakumar has come to understand. “Taking power away from the structures that perpetuate this inequal system is fueling the communities towards peace”, she believes. To do just that, she founded, in 2013, the Red Elephant Foundation, a non-profit organization whose first aim is to build peace through education. Seven years later, a new foundation has risen, the Gender Security Project: “The goal is to start talking to systems and structures. The Red Elephant Foundation was no longer enough in the sense that it addressed individuals instead of organizations of power.” Kirthi Jayakumar’s team is doing research on gender inequality and using it to advocate towards communities: “We show them what a gender policy looks like so that leaders know how to rule insuring nobody is left behind.” And it starts at an early age. The Gender Security Project intervenes in schools. Through stories and games, it aims at deconstructing the preconceived ideas about boys and girls and see how it manifests in the classroom.

Once the global pandemic is over, Kirthi Jayakumar wishes to expand her team and her reach. “If anything, the current situation is time to reflect on the things we have been doing and how to take racist and patriarchal systems down”, she insists. In India, the activist calls for a realization that togetherness is the key to a peaceful and thriving country. At the international level, “the UN structure needs to be rethought, advocates Kirthi Jayakumar. There needs to have more room for power share among states, especially at the Security Council”. To each person, everywhere, she advises: “Treat peace as a verb and look at every choice you make through the lens of the consequences it has. Try to minimize the negative effects your choices have on others. Look at ways in which you can better tomorrow.”

1

 Enfants-Soldats, Copyright©IsabelleBalot2017. Translation by John H. Brown