In 2010, Maria Victoria (Mavic) Cabrera-Balleza founded an organization to help and advocate for the rights of women and girls globally, but it was her childhood experiences that first politicized her. Martial law was declared by the dictator President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 1972, when she was in fourth grade.
Born in Manila, Cabrera-Balleza grew up as part of a generation witnessing and experiencing human-rights violations in their own backyards in the Philippines. Militarized state police raided neighborhoods, entering homes without search warrants, to look for guns and forcing all men to line up outside to strip naked and be inspected for tattoos. People arrested were helpless without due process, and activists were tortured, killed or disappeared.
It wasn’t until studying communications at the University of the Philippines in the 1980s when martial law was lifted. But the violence and oppression continued until Marcos was ousted by the Filipino People Power Revolution in 1986, and he and his wife, Imelda, fled to Hawaii, with the blessings of President Ronald Reagan, Cabrera-Balleza said in an interview with PassBlue in March. Even afterward, there was little accountability or justice in efforts for reconciliation in the Philippines.
“This was the social political environment I grew up in,” Cabrera-Balleza said. “It was almost organic for me to become an activist and a feminist.”
Post-university, Cabrera-Balleza had a short stint as a newspaper reporter in Manila but was frustrated by discrimination against women journalists and barriers to career growth at the time. Disheartened, she switched careers to work with a nongovernmental organization in the Philippine island of Mindoro.
Cabrera-Balleza found her niche, organizing a provincial alliance of women farmers, who made up about half of the farming population on the island, many of whom were facing exploitative working conditions. They were at the mercy of a system run by men who might simultaneously be their landowner, loan shark and supplier of agricultural tools, and the women would be subjected to sexual harassment or abuse.
“The entire system was exploitative to the max, and those lowest on the totem pole were women farmers,” Cabrera-Balleza said.
After seven years on Mindoro, she moved back to Manila to manage the communications for Io, then one of the biggest women’s organizations in the world, where she experienced her first foray into international women’s networks, attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the birthplace of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
The International Women’s Tribune Center (IWTC), an original influencer of the global feminist movement, asked Cabrera-Balleza to help with its communications strategy around United Nations Resolution 1325. The landmark document, adopted in 2000, mandates women’s equal involvement in peace negotiations and other peace-building activities in wars and post-conflict settings.
By 2005, Cabrera-Balleza was a self-proclaimed “1325 nerd.” She saw a glaring need to start collecting data about women’s participation in peace negotiations and conflict-prevention. The UN needed evidence from monitoring, research and evaluation to find out what parts of the 1325 resolution were not being implemented and why.
That is when Cabrera-Balleza started the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), in New York City, to respond to this need. She invited 12 women’s organizations from around the world to work together and present recommendations to the Security Council on the resolution’s potential to drive women’s roles in brokering and ensuring peace in war zones. The network now consists of more than 100 civil society organizations, mostly from conflict-affected countries, that operates various projects focusing on not only peace-building but also women’s empowerment. The organization is financed by government agencies, development organizations, UN agencies, private donors and corporate charity.
Cabrera-Balleza’s work and her organization have pioneered a “localization” program in communities worldwide to work with governors, mayors, Indigenous leaders and community elders in countries such as Guatemala, South Sudan, Colombia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Liberia and Iraq to teach them how to carry UN international laws in their areas.
PassBlue caught up with Cabrera-Balleza during the annual major women’s conference at the UN, the Commission on the Status of Women, the busiest time of year for women’s rights activists at the world body. She answered our questions by email. — SONAH LEE-LASSITER
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q. Your organization is centered on collaboration. What are some challenges in working with so many different members from across the globe to achieve your mission?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: The main challenges lie in navigating the different interests and agendas of governments, agencies within governments, civil society, local communities, various sectors in communities and societies. Finding a common ground among our different ideologies and geopolitical priorities is a related challenge.
A big part of this challenge are the changes in government leadership. Through relentless advocacy, we are able to get some governments to adopt progressive laws and policies on women’s rights, peace and security. Then election or government reorganization happens. The new officials do not know or do not want to implement the policies previously adopted, especially if the opposition party adopted them. Often, it’s like starting from scratch again. That’s why it’s important to have a strong local civil society that can hold governments accountable and tell government officials that laws and policies are not owned by individuals. They are co-owned by governments and civil society, and the primary responsibility to ensure implementation belongs to governments.
Q. What are some ways your organization is helping to advocate for women’s active participation in peace-building and in humanitarian responses as well as obtaining leadership positions?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: We are an international coalition of women’s rights groups and civil society organizations from nearly 50 countries—many of which are affected by violent conflicts. Therefore, our work is shaped by the needs and realities of women in local communities.
One fundamental need that we address is the lack of information about laws and policies that women can use to understand and assert their rights. With regards to peace-building, humanitarian response and leadership, we hold various training on international laws and instruments, such as the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and its nine supporting resolutions; UN Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security and its supporting resolutions; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).
At the end of our Basic Localization training, which lasts two days, we want the woman farmer in Sierra Leone, for example, to understand what 1325 means to her; or the young woman in a fishing village in the Philippines to realize how UN Resolution 2250 can make a difference in her life.
Q. What successes are you most proud about accomplishing at GNWP?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: I’m proud of our work with women’s rights organizations and other civil society groups and governments in more than 20 countries in developing and implementing national action plans on Resolution 1325. These are the instruments that we can use to hold governments accountable to their obligations under the women, peace and security resolutions.
I’m also proud of our localization of 1325 work in partnership with more than 5,000 governors, mayors, indigenous leaders, tribal leaders, paramount chiefs and other authorities around the world in developing local action plans and local legislation on women, peace and security. Our localization work has resulted in reduced cases of gender-based violence in certain districts in Uganda; increased livelihood sources for women in Sierra Leone; and increased participation in decision-making in Indigenous communities in the Philippines.
Our Cora Weiss Fellowship for Young Peacebuilders also makes me proud. Every year, we sponsor one young woman leader from countries affected by violent conflicts to travel to New York and train with GNWP for one year on global advocacy for women’s rights, peace and security. In the last five years, we have trained women from Nigeria, Nepal, South Sudan and Afghanistan. They use their learning and the networks they developed during their fellowship to start new peacebuilding initiatives in their countries when they return.
Q. You established the Young Women for Peace and Leadership program in 2014, a network of young women in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, South Sudan and Ukraine who are leading peace-building efforts in their communities. Please tell us more about this program’s current activities.
CABRERA-BALLEZA: We work with youth peace-builders who have stepped up to the frontline of the current pandemic to distribute relief goods, face masks, hygiene and sexual and reproductive health products as they monitor cease-fire and peace agreements. We did this in less than a month after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Local women and youth peace-builders were on the frontlines at the outset of the pandemic, even as governments did not yet know what to do or were paralyzed by politicking and bureaucracy.
The activities vary from one country to another. In Myanmar, the Young Women Leaders were undergoing training on leadership and peace-building and the implementation of the Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 2250. Then the coup was declared [on Feb. 1, 2021]. Like thousands of others in Myanmar, they are protesting the renewed repression in that country. In Indonesia, we work with young women in using social media to counter violent narratives online as well as Islamophobia. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Indonesian members of the Young Women Leaders for Peace were running a project called “Peace Goes to School.” They go from school-to-school, teaching other young people how to prevent violent extremism. However, this was put to a halt because of the pandemic. We have since continued the training on peace-building, countering violent extremism, and economic empowerment — among other topics, virtually.
Q. What improvements or positive changes would you like to see your organization achieve this year as the Covid-19 pandemic still rages?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: We are working with Rohingya women and girls in refugee camps and those in host communities in Bangladesh to enhance their leadership and peace-building skills. We also conduct literacy and numeracy classes for those who have not been able to go to school. Our goal is to build their capacities to participate in decision-making on the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis.
Q. When you’re constantly faced with dire statistics or news of violence against women and girls globally, especially in the pandemic, how do you and your team stay dedicated to your cause?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: It is important for us at GNWP to pay attention to our team members’ well-being to effectively do our work. Working in conflict-affected communities and humanitarian emergencies is tough. The pandemic aggravated the hardships in conducting this work. We incorporate meditation in our staff meetings, and we have a “fun channel” where we share jokes and other nonwork related information.
Q. What does the world look like to you when, hypothetically, your work is complete?
CABRERA-BALLEZA: My work will feel complete when women’s leadership in all levels of decision-making is equal, fifty-fifty, and standard practice. Women represent more than 50 per cent of the population, so they should occupy the same percentage of seats in all levels of leadership. Beyond the numbers, women have diverse experiences and profound knowledge on a broad range of subjects. My work will feel complete when we no longer have to argue for women’s meaningful participation in peace negotiations because it is a given. When we longer have to fight for women’s seats at the decision-making table. When we don’t have to campaign anymore for a woman [UN] Secretary-General.
My work will feel complete when governance structures and social institutions such as the media, schools, and churches reflect the diversity of the world we live in. It’s a world not just for women and men, girls and boys, but also for gender nonconforming individuals. It’s a world where different races, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientation, a world where diversities are celebrated and not a cause of division. I know it’s utopian, and it will probably not happen in our lifetime. But this is the kind of world that we should be aspiring for and working towards.
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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.