Nearly 700 people, many of them young adults and students, flocked to the United Nations recently to attend an all-day gathering on “War No More.” Who were they eager to see and hear? The global feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Leymah Gbowee, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who led her fellow countrywomen to help end Liberia’s civil war in 2003.
Among many notable speakers on the Feb. 28 program, Steinem and Gbowee spoke about how achieving peace can begin by equalizing the roles of women in families and by taking small actions in our communities, like socializing with Muslims in your town.
The conference was held by the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN), a volunteer-based group, to not only remind the audience about war’s harsh consequences but also how women play integral — if unreported on — roles in preventing war and galvanizing peace processes.
Steinem spoke first, recounting having walked across the North-South Korean demilitarized zone five years ago with 30 other female peace activists (from 15 countries) to call attention to the world’s longest war.
“Since then, some of that land has been de-mined, the leaders of North and South have met to shake hands and even Donald Trump, who probably couldn’t find North Korea on a map, is trying to take credit for peace efforts,” said Steinem.
She urged Americans to watch their Congressional representatives’ support of US House Resolution 152, which calls for a formal end to the Korean War.
Carol Jenkins, the chief executive of the ERA Coalition, a nonprofit group working to ratify the United States Constitution to include an equal rights amendment, moderated the panel featuring Steinem and Gbowee, titled “The Role of Civil Society and Women in Prevention of War and in Peace Processes.”
The daylong conference also featured panels about peace education, new technologies (hypersonics, artificial intelligence and drones), women’s roles in peace and security, disarmament and using laws for peace.
The head of the teaching committee, Anne-Marie Carlson, kicked off the first part of the program, introducing two other speakers: Virginia Gamba, the UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, who highlighted the need for solidarity around special education for former child soldiers to help them get back their lives; and Ambassador Cho Hyun of South Korea, a co-sponsor of the conference. He recounted the horrors of his country’s war in the 1950s, which still leaves Korea divided, and reaffirmed South Korea’s commitment to peace.
The program also celebrated another peace activist: Cora Weiss. She was honored with a Global Citizen Award by the teaching committee (of which she is a member and which has donated to PassBlue). Weiss, a longtime New Yorker, helped to draft UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was adopted in 2000, requiring women and gender perspectives at all peace tables.
The program’s star speakers, Steinem and Gbowee, kept the audience riveted. Gbowee, who walked across the DMZ line with Steinem, said: “In most of our societies where wars are raging, you can’t even talk about hope. The stuck reality of a lot of these people is that they can’t even find their basic security needs. And it makes it easy for them to pick up arms based on promises from politicians that it’s going to get better.”
Having endured more than 14 years of life when war was normalized in Liberia, her perspective around conflict encompassed the idea of not losing hope. Gbowee shared personal encounters of witnessing hopelessness in a variety of places: in online comment sections, on an airplane talking to a flight attendant and with a group of Libyan boys after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the leader of Libya.
Even after a war has ended, Gbowee said, the world needs to redefine the concept of peace, especially for women whose lives were still not good during peacetimes. She called for radical transformation and reorganization of society as a way toward a new kind of peace after war.
Provocatively, Steinem asked, how can people tell how peaceful a country will be in the future? By seeing how a country treats its women and girls, she said.
“Because the dominance of females is the first form of violence that we may see even in our own families and neighborhoods,” she said. “And it makes us believe that one group is born to dominate another or that domination and hierarchy are an inevitable part of human nature.”
Look at the culture of terrorism, she added, where the environment is always gender-polarized, while the most democratic and peaceful societies are primarily gender equal.
“We will never have democratic countries until we have democratic families,” Steinem said.
“And we are way more likely to have nations without war if we grow up in families and cultures in which men are not at war against women. . . . It all starts in the family. If there is violence, dominance and hierarchy in the family, there is violence, dominance and hierarchy in society.”
But the idea of a gender-equal family may be a hard pill to swallow for many governments. At the UN, for starters, the topic of “family” and “gender roles” related to women’s reproductive rights have been hotly debated for decades. The UN’s annual women’s rights conference, held every March in New York, is an obvious example of where sexual and reproductive health rights still do not make it into official summary documents.
Steinem offered simple steps to start finding democracy within families and communities toward peace:
- Listen as much as you talk.
- Sit in circles instead of in hierarchies.
- Celebrate that people live in difference and not sameness.
Steinem and Gbowee urged the people in the room to take such action on their own and not wait for the UN or those in power to do something.
“The essence of no more war is not something that will be achieved in the corridors of the UN,” Gbowee said, calling out those who have been in such UN chambers and refused to stand up for peace, leaving “room for tyranny and terror to reign.”
Gbowee encouraged people instead to “walk your talk.” She noted, for example, that student activists who were going to airports to protest the Muslim ban in the US had never once invited fellow students who were Islamic to a meal or befriended them in other ways. She encouraged people to go further than reactionary activism and get to know who they fight for.
Steinem echoed the sentiment on the UN, saying: “Honor, respect and pressure the UN, but don’t wait for the UN. Just do it.”
This article was updated.
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Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.