Women, War & Peace film series

As a human rights student at Columbia University, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to volunteer with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations this fall. My particular interests concern international education and development after times of conflict, and I was excited to attend a film screening and panel discussion last week at the United States Mission concerning the role of women in war.

Women, War & Peace is series of five documentaries produced and broadcast by PBS that shares the stories of women living in conflict zones all over the world. The main purpose of these films is to highlight the agency of women in war and their necessary role in peacebuilding and reconstruction. I saw “War Redefined,” the last of the series, which summarized the specific stories shared in the preceding four films and linked these particular examples to larger issues about the causes and solutions of violence against women. I left convinced that not only is it essential to engage women when seeking peace, but also that women have the agency to make sure their voices are heard regardless of the situation.

The first issue the film addressed was the connection between small arms trade and increasing violence against civilians (most of whom are women and children) during conflicts. This graphic breaks down the numbers, but most of the 850 million small arms in the world belong to groups and individuals outside the regulation of government militaries and police forces. Women play an integral role in promoting disarmament because they have access to the weapons of the men, their sons, husbands, and family members, who are the primary fighters in conflict. However, this role is rarely formalized during peace negotiations and often goes completely unrecognized.

Another larger issue the film highlighted was the social and cultural significance that women hold and how strategies of war that target women also target culture generally. These include the “indignity” of refugee life and its obstruction to redevelopment and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Men interviewed in West Africa shared how they were taught that rape was a military duty. As the international community has started to recognize, rape is no longer an “inevitable byproduct” of war, but a cheap, effective, and integral strategy to many groups involved in conflicts. Rape is especially detrimental to culture when it’s used in situations of internal conflict to specifically target women of ethnic or religious minorities.

The series aired on PBS during from late October to early November, but all the films are available for free online at the Women, War & Peace. During the panel discussion the producers talked about their efforts to organize global screenings in order to start a “habit of organizing” and to get “women thinking of themselves as viable political actors.” They told about the difficulty of finding images of women during war to use in the films, especially of women portrayed as more than victims alone. Along with comments from the majority female audience conversation turned to ways in which to engage men, both those who perpetrate crimes against women without understanding the consequences and those who unknowingly overlook the role of women in peacebuilding. Promoting peace, while carried out by different groups in a variety of ways depending on the situation, is something that can only be accomplished when we work together.

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