The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

We’ve got to be bold: Lessons from globally-renowned peacebuilders

What is Canada’s legacy?

Across the country in 2017, especially in Ottawa, this question seems unavoidable – everyone is talking about legacy. As we near the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday, people are asking, what is our current legacy? What will future generations of Canadians say in 50, 100, or 150 years? We can’t escape it – on the barriers around construction sites, in city parks and at government events we see the signs: “Canada 150.”

By the time it’s over, 2017 will no doubt be a year of unending festivals, cheesy punch lines, and romanticized political speeches, glossing over complex and often disturbing elements of our history.

But beyond the fluff of “Canada 150” celebrations there is a real opportunity to build a legacy of leadership and peace in Canada and around the world. A legacy built on actions, not just words.

This was the challenge for Canada a few weeks ago from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. She was joined by fellow global renowned peacebuilder and human rights activist Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and President of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

On April 12 I had the privilege of attending an event where Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Matt DeCourcey and NDP Critic for Foreign Affairs Héne Laverdière joined Leymah and Yanar to discuss innovation in Canada’s development programming. The two global peacebuilders challenged Canada to be a leader when it comes to international assistance – funding and partnering with innovative grassroots organizations and individuals to promote peace and justice from the ground up.

Earlier that same day Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai had addressed Canadian Parliament upon receiving honourary Canadian citizenship. She praised some of Canada’s humanitarian commitments of recent years, all while challenging Canada to be a leader in supporting education for girls and young women as a means to promote development, peace, and a better world for all: “If Canada leads, the world will follow,” Malala said.

Leymah grabbed onto Malala’s message, challenging the Canadian government to put its money and resources where its mouth is. For Leymah and Yanar, this means funding grassroots women’s and human rights organizations. “There are 10,000 Malalas out there…we just need to find them!” Leymah said. The point that both women emphasized is that these grassroots peace, community development, and human rights organizations are showcasing innovation and action, getting things done.

It’s a common misconception that local organizations are sitting around, waiting for funding from Western governments and civil society organizations. But this is definitely not the case. People are always looking for ways to better their local communities and are doing so every day, in difficult circumstances and with few resources. What outside funding of these local initiatives does enable is for local champions and actors to expand their impact. At MCC we seek to partner with local organizations for the same reasons, and together support great work being done within communities around the world.

But where does the Government of Canada stand on funding local partners? That’s a good question!

Last spring and summer, MCC, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals, participated in the International Assistance Review, spearheaded by Global Affairs Canada and the Hon Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development. While the government has published some of the major feedback from the review, after almost a year there has yet to be any official policy tabled.

And what does Budget 2017 say about Canada’s commitment to international assistance? Not much! No new spending money has been allocated for Canada’s international assistance. The programming priorities can still shift, but by not increasing the overall spending Canada is taking zero steps in 2017 to move toward the internationally-recognized goal of 0.7% spending on Official Development Assistance. Yet in pre-budget consultations, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development identified this as a goal to be reached by 2030. Instead, Canada is staying at about 0.26% spending for international assistance, which is not much higher than our all-time low.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill Morneau hopes that organizations and groups will “do more with less,” as the government is focusing on increasing Foreign Direct Investment private sector initiatives, rather than investing more in grassroots peace and development organizations.

So, what does that mean? What should the direction of Canadian assistance funding be?

In the spirit of Canada 150, Leymah directed her comments to Parliamentary Secretary DeCourcey, sighting a joint Match International/Nobel Women’s Initiative campaign that challenges Canada to mark this historic year by making 150 new contributions to 150 small grassroots peace, development or human rights women’s organization around the world.

While genuine consultation and working with the grassroots communities takes time and flexibility, and it can be messy, the results speak for themselves: change and action from the ground up!

They urged the government to make Canada 150 count for something tangible.

Leymah and Yanar both see this year as the moment to speak out and act for the future. “A new legacy is waiting…It can be grabbed now, or by a future government!” Yanar challenged.

Now is the time: turn words into something tangible. Let’s make a new legacy of action!

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa. 

Edna Hunsperger’s witness against war

This year MCC’s Peace Sunday Packet – a resource to help churches commemorate Peace Sunday – focuses on the theme Women as Peacebuilders. This reflection is written in the spirit of that theme.

Edna Hunsperger was a trailblazer. Most young women growing up in the 1930s in a rural (Old) Mennonite community in Ontario anticipated early marriage, child-bearing and life working on the family farm. But Edna wanted an education and she wanted to serve others. She persuaded her parents to allow her to enter nurses training in Kitchener-Waterloo. She graduated as a nurse in 1937, the first Mennonite from her community to do so.

Two years later Canada was at war and in a short time there was a call for nurses to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp. Several of Edna’s friends responded to the call. They encouraged her to do the same. But Edna identified with the nonresistant convictions of her church community and knew that she could not enlist. At the same time, she did not want to be called a “yellow belly” or a coward–charges often aimed at young Mennonite men who sought exemption from military service as conscientious objectors (COs).

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MCC workers in England 1945, L-R: Ellen Harder, Sam Goering, Edna Hunsperger, Peter Dyck, Elfrieda Klassen Dyck. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

An invitation from Mennonite Central Committee resolved Edna’s dilemma. In 1941 MCC had begun a war relief program in England, and it wanted two Canadian nurses to serve in convalescent homes. Almost as soon as she heard about this need from her minister, Edna said yes. She saw this opportunity as a way of meeting human need, while also serving her country. Arriving in England in 1942, she remained until the war ended, caring for seniors and children affected by the devastation of war.

Edna, and her companion Elfrieda Klassen, were the first two Canadian women to join MCC’s emerging international relief service program.  And they were on the forefront of women’s involvement in MCC service as a witness for peace.

MCC’s relief service program–later known as voluntary service or, simply, service–emerged as a direct result of the war and the alternate service required of Mennonite men who registered as conscientious objectors. Even before the war was over, some people began to suggest that service offered voluntarily through MCC should continue after conscription ended.  After all, if Mennonites said they were about preserving life rather than taking life, they needed to demonstrate this at all times. Indeed, engaging in service was a way of giving an authentic witness for peace–something which simply refusing to go to war could not do.[1]  One leader put it this way:

“If our nonresistance is something only on paper it has no real worth. Our task is not only to not shed blood, but to preserve life and to help those in need.”[2]

During the war, women in Canada and the U.S. were not required to do military or alternative service by the state as men were. Nevertheless, many felt an “inner compulsion” to share in expressing their own commitment to peace and to preserving life.[3]  From the outset of the war, women’s groups were actively engaged in sewing garments for relief purposes.  But many wanted to do more–they wanted to actually serve in contexts of suffering and need.

In 1943 a group of Mennonite women in the U.S.–calling themselves “CO girls” — requested MCC establish service units for them at psychiatric institutions, as it had for men.[4] MCC did so, with some reluctance.[5] This initial experiment evolved into MCC’s summer service and voluntary service programs, which expanded rapidly across the U.S. and Canada.  At the same time, a growing number of women joined the relief service program overseas, caring for victims of war, poverty and disaster in many parts of the world.  Indeed, in the first decades of MCC’s service program, almost twice as many Canadian women served as men: 604 to 341.  Moreover, in 1950 alone, a full 40 percent of all MCC’s U.S. and Canadian service workers overseas were single women, twice as men as single men.[6]

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Edna Hunsperger worked for the Victoria Order of Nurses after the war. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Historians have offered a variety of reasons why women chose to join MCC service in such significant ways.[7]  There isn’t room here to explore those. Suffice it to say that in response to the conflagration of the Second World War, many Mennonite women eagerly embraced MCC service as their way of resisting war and embodying peace. That contribution has not been adequately recognized.

Times have changed since Edna Hunsperger left for England in 1942. Canada has not had conscription since the Second World War, and so pacifist Christians have not been forced to uphold their convictions in a wartime context for decades.

 Additionally, within MCC the strong link between service and peace–the idea that one engages in loving service as a way of resisting war and embodying peace–has waned. Peacebuilding has taken on different and more specific meanings today. Moreover, the opportunities for service–that is, giving several years of one’s life to tending to human need with little to no financial reward–are no longer there as they were in the post-war decades.  MCC is also more conscious of the downside of service:  service can, for example, feed impulses that are colonial and paternalistic and build on a foundation of white privilege.

There are some good reasons for the shifts.

And yet, despite the changes, Edna’s question is still worth asking, especially in the context of Remembrance Day:  “If my friends and neighbours are prepared to do military service to defend the country, what will I do to witness to another way?”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office

______

[1] A 1945 MCC document put it this way, “The peace doctrine of the church requires a program of active relief work to be properly understood.” M.C Lehman, The History and Principles of Mennonite Relief Work: An Introduction. (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1945), 38.

[2] David Toews, as quoted in Esther Epp-Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013), 48.

[3] Harvey Taves used the phrased “inner compulsion” to describe women’s commitment to MCC’s relief program.  See Lucille Marr, The transforming power of a century: Mennonite Central Committee and its Evolution in Ontario (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 99.

[4] In the U.S., MCC administered the Civilian Public Service program; in Canada the federal government operated the Alternative Service Work program.

[5] Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Pres, 1997), 101-111.

[6] Epp-Tiessen, 63.

[7] See for example, Waltner Goossen; also Beth Graybill, “Writing Women into MCC’s History,” in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity (Telford, PA: Cascadia Press, 2011): 239-257.

Muskrat Falls: An opportunity for respect and reconciliation

This week’s writers are Dianne and Marty Climenhage, MCC representatives in Labrador.

June 27, 2016 was an historic day in Labrador. It marked the first time that all three Indigenous groups–Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government representing Northern Inuit and NunatuKavut Government representing Southern Inuit–stood together publicly and asked for a halt to Nalcor Corporation’s Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project (Muskrat Falls).

It has been our privilege, as MCC workers in Labrador, to stand with Indigenous partners in their call for respect for their land and their lives.

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Sign at the blockade. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

Since 2011, “land protectors” have been warning the public about the potential risks of moving forward with a project of this magnitude. In 2013, the project began with an estimated price tag of $6.2 billion and was expected to go online in 2017. Due to delays, miscalculations and changes in management, the project is now not expected to go online before 2019 and with an estimated total cost of $11.4 billion in an already financially unstable province.

Prior to the start of the project, only one of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador were consulted. The Innu Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, allowing construction with conditions. NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut were not given the opportunity for involvement on decisions that directly affect their traditional territories.

There are two issues that the Indigenous leaders are calling on Nalcor and the government to consider before moving forward with initial flooding of the reservoir.  First, the rise in methyl mercury levels in the Churchill River system has been reported by Nalcor to increase to the point where consumption warnings are put in place for a minimum of 15 years.  An estimated 2,000 Indigenous people rely on the Churchill River system for their food supply. Fishing and hunting are not only traditional ways of life that must be protected, they can mean the difference between life and death in Labrador. An independent study by Harvard University indicates that if organic material is not removed, methyl mercury levels could increase anywhere from 25%-200% downstream, depending on conditions in the river. This would have devastating results, poisoning the food chain for generations in food insecure northern communities.

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Muskrat Falls will disappear when the flooding begins. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

The second concern is the North Spur. This is a natural barrier that will be used as a wall for the reservoir. The North Spur is made up of layers of sand and marine clay, also known as quick clay. Nalcor has used stabilization methods to reinforce the spur, but there is no precedent for building on marine clay. It is, “moving and alive” according to dam safety expert Jim Gordon. Experts from Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Sweden have all cautioned there is a high likelihood of a North Spur breech and collapse.  This would have devastating effects for communities downstream: lower Happy Valley and Mud Lake.  Mud Lake is an island community in the Churchill River with the only access being boat or skidoo, which would not allow enough time for evacuation according to Nalcor’s emergency timeline.

The provincial government has issued permits to Nalcor allowing initial flooding, up to 25% of the reservoir, to begin any time after October 15, 2016. On that day, protesters from Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and settlers all descended on the main gate of the Muskrat Falls Project in a desperate attempt to halt the flooding of the reservoir until organic matter is cleared. They successfully blocked workers from entering the site over the weekend and on Monday, October 17, nine protesters were arrested for defying a Nalcor court injunction. There are currently 4 people on hunger strikes from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Three of them–Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister–traveled to Ottawa to take part in a rally at the Human Rights Monument on Sunday. On Monday they planned meetings with Amnesty International representatives, Indigenous and government officials.

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Brooklyn Woolfrey Allen drumming for Elders at the blockade.  Photo courtesy Jenny Gear

The number of land protectors has increased on site, communities across the country have held solidarity rallies, and Amnesty International and Idle No More have issued statements, all asking the Federal Government to step in and use this case as an example of how they will implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and work toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In May 2016, Canada officially adopted UNDRIP. The federal government announced “unqualified support” of the document that ensures Indigenous rights are considered in every decision they make. True Nation to Nation relationships can only be built if the federal government follows through on what it promised.  Now is its chance.

Shirley Flowers, a member of Nunatsiavut and a partner of MCC, has been holding an almost daily vigil, at times alone, at the Muskrat Falls gate since June of this year.  She sees the risks to her own way of life and the consequences of non-action for her children, grandchildren and generations that follow. Shirley says, “If the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are not respected and followed, then the whole process is tokenism.”

Just as this blog post was prepared for publication, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Government came to an agreement with all three Indigenous Governments and a plan for moving forward together. Though concerns regarding methyl mercury and the North Spur remain, UNDRIP has been considered in the agreement, and Indigenous leadership and knowledge with be part of the process.

A rich feast of peacebuilding flavours

My head and heart were very full at the end of the Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference and Festival hosted by Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, June 9-12.  How could they not be, after three intense days of plenary sessions, workshops, a conversation café, a concert, a drama performance, art exhibits and a rich closing worship service?

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Making new friends. GMPCF photo/Jen Konkle

Two years in the making, the conference and festival brought together 200 peace practitioners, pastors, theologians, activists, students and others from 20 countries. From Canada to Colombia, from India to Indonesia, from Germany to Nigeria, we gathered to consider what it means to be Mennonite peacebuilders in unique and vastly different contexts.

There was much to celebrate about Mennonite peacebuilding, particularly with respect to the building of bridges across divides of fear and distrust. From Paulus Widjaja[1] of Indonesia we learned how, in the wake of the Asian tsunami and other disasters, local Mennonites worked alongside members of a militant Islamic groups to rebuild homes.  In working side by side, they became friends.  From Dann Pantoja[2] of the Philippines, we learned how a peacebuilders community has helped to foster reconciliation between separatist Muslims and evangelical Christians. From Christina Asheervadam[3]  of India we learned that restorative justice principles have fostered healing within families and within the Mennonite Brethren churches.

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A choir performs “Earth Peace” by Carol Ann Weaver. GMPCF photo/Jen Konkle

The celebration included stories of unique peace initiatives within local, national and international spaces. From Thandiwe Daka[4] of Zambia we learned how peace clubs for children and youth are transforming family and community life in parts of Africa. From Jenny Neme[5] and others from Colombia, we learned of how Anabaptist advocacy for peace has helped to bring about some legal provisions for conscientious objectors and to build momentum for a national ceasefire, after decades of war.  And from Fernando Enns[6] of Germany, we learned that Mennonite participation in the World Council of Churches over many decades has helped to nurture a growing commitment to peace and nonviolence within the worldwide Christian church.

Indeed, there was much to celebrate.  But the conference was not only about celebration.  It also invited us to name and reflect on failures in Mennonite peacebuilding.  And there were many.

Kim Penner[7] reminded us that Mennonite peace theology has neglected to adequately address violence against women.  Lisa Schirch[8] pointed out that Mennonites have often been quicker to love the offender than the victim of violence.  In a facilitated dialogue, Leah Gazan[9] and Steve Heinrichs[10] insisted that Mennonites have only begun to consider what decolonization means in the Canadian context and what reconciliation between Indigenous and Settler people will require. Regina Shands Stolzfus[11] and Tobin Miller Shearer[12] were even more hard-hitting, saying that “white Mennonite peacemaking” is an oxymoron; in their view, white Mennonites rarely dare to consider their privilege of “whiteness” and this failure keeps them from genuine and authentic peacemaking. Numerous voices reminded us that Mennonites are often better at peacebuilding outside of our own churches and communities than within them.

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Lots of conversation.  GMPCF photo/Jen Konkle

We also heard voices of caution and concern.  For example, Alain Epp Weaver[13] issued a caution against what he called “Christian pacifist triumphalism” – the notion that Mennonite peacemaking will always “work” and that we will have an answer for every violent context.  At some times, he insisted, “the most faithful response is silence, mourning and lament.” Tom Yoder Neufeld[14] insisted that Mennonite peacebuilders remember that Jesus – the crucified One – is our peace; without that remembrance he said, “Our theology will become an ideology of nonviolence.” And there was the plea from Betty Pries[15]  and Ted Koontz[16] that peacemaking is not so much about what we do as who we are – people of peace, with a heart of peace.

There was also the poignant story of KyongJung[17] Kim of South Korea, who spoke of what it means to be a conscientious objector in his country – namely, serving an 18-month prison sentence.  Describing his own personal journey to pacifism, Kim insisted that a Mennonite peace church will grow – not through comfort — but through difficulty and adversity.

So what does it mean to be a Mennonite or Anabaptist peacebuilder today?  The conversation café produced an abundance of ideas and images which were translated into the “wordle” below. The point was not to arrive at a consensus definition, but rather to engage as many participants as possible in exploring what they see as core to Mennonite peacebuilding.  The conversation hinted at the tension between those who see Mennonite peacebuilding as a set of well-honed tools and practices and those who see it primarily as a faith orientation and spiritual identity. It also alluded to the reality that, despite the conference’s deliberate efforts to involve Mennonites from the global south, those from the global north continue to have an undue influence in articulating what Mennonite peacebuilding is all about.

Wordle from GMPCFIn many ways, the conference was like a vast feast with an amazing array of dishes – each one offering a new flavour on Mennonite peacebuilding.  No wonder I felt full to the brim.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, with Rebekah Sears and Jennifer Wiebe, of the Ottawa Office.  

 

[1] Paulus Widjaja is Director of the Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace, Duta Wacana Christian University, Jogjakarta, Indonesia.
[2] Dann Pantoja, works with Peacebuilders Community, under Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Philippines.
[3] Christina Asheervadam is Director of the Center for Peace & Conflict Resolution Studies with the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College in India.
[4]Thandiwe Daka is from Zambia and is a participant in MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program.
[5 Jenny Neme is Director of Justapaz, Bogota, Colombia.
[6] Fernando Enns is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Director of the Institute of Peace Church Theology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He sits on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.
[7] Kim Penner is a doctoral student in theology at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.
[8] Lisa Schirch is Research Professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
[9] Leah Gazan is a member of Wood Mountain Lakota Nation in Treaty 4 territory; she teaches at the University of Winnipeg.
[10] Steve Heinrichs is Director of Indigenous Relations for Mennonite Church Canada.
[11] Regina Shands Stolzfus is Assistant Professor of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, USA.
[12] Tobin Miller Shearer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Montana, USA.
[13] Alain Epp Weaver is Director of Strategic Planning for Mennonite Central Committee, Akron, PA, USA.
[14] Thomas Yoder Neufeld is retired from teaching New Testament Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, ON.
[15] Betty Pries is a mediator and trainer with L3 Group/ARC Ministries, Waterloo, Canada.
[16] Ted Koontz is retired from teaching Ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN, USA.
[17] KyongJung Kim is Northeast Asia representative for Mennonite World Conference, Waterloo, ON.

Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

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Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

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Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

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Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.

How does Canada “walk the talk” on women, peace, and security?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Canada has a self-professed feminist prime minister.

Right out of the post-election gate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced Cabinet (“Because it’s 2015,” he explained. End of story.). Then there is his snapchat video on how men can be better feminists, his statements on gender parity at the World Economic Forum, his comments pushing for gender equality while in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women, and the list goes on…

“I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug,” he said recently in New York (to enthusiastic applause, I might add).

The prime minister is promoting himself globally as a defender and promoter of women’s rights. And, the (decidedly un-feminist) Saudi arms deal aside, there is hope that this perspective will shape Canada’s foreign policy in positive directions.

Indeed, there is already an energetic wind blowing through the women, peace, and security (WPS for short!) agenda.

On International Women’s Day, several ministers announceddownload Canada’s “commitment to gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls” (a rhetorical shift, as “gender equality” previously had been scrubbed clean from programs and policies, replaced by a focus on “mothers and children”). This commitment included the renewal of Canada’s National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325a historic resolution calling for women’s meaningful and active participation in peacebuilding.

It’s an important agenda for any feminist prime minister.

Why?

As even a cursory glance at media headlines tells us, armed conflicts continue around the world. And while women and children are the minority of combatants, they are disproportionately impacted by war—targeted by armed actors, facing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, and having fewer resources than men to protect themselves.

And yet they are regularly excluded from peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

UNSCR 1325—unanimously adopted in 2000, and followed over the years by interconnected resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242—recognized the important role women play in every stage of peacebuilding.

These resolutions highlight the need for the prevention of violence and the protection of women in peace operations, and the participation of women in peace negotiations, political decision-making, and institution-building in post-conflict societies.

Doreen Ruto

Doreen Ruto, director of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development of Kenya, leads a retreat for first responders on trauma healing. She died in January 2016.  (MCC Photo/Katie Mansfield)

They embody a monumental shift in how the international community grapples with the rights and security of women leading up to, during, and after conflict.

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General called on member states to give legs to these resolutions by developing national action plans that implement concrete initiatives, monitor progress, and strengthen policy coherence across government departments.

In 2010, Canada responded with its own five-year National Action Plan. And, since Ottawa loves its acronyms, we call it C-NAP for short.

Led by foreign affairs (and collaborating with defence, development, public safety, justice, and other departments), C-NAP made broad and ambitious commitments to the WPS agenda through 28 different actions and 24 indicators.

Women Peace and Security Network-Canada has done thorough analysis on C-NAP’s successes and shortcomings (check out their 2015 and 2014 reports), and there was an external review that offered 6 recommendations (the need for high-level champions, better monitoring/evaluation, stronger consultation with civil society, etc).

While C-NAP expired at the end of March, efforts to renew it are now underway. And the great news is, interest in the WPS agenda can be heard in other quarters as well.

On March 9th, the Liberal Senate Forum Open Caucus—a space for non-partisan exploration on issues of interest to parliamentarians, media, and the public—held an expert discussion on women, peace and security.

In the Lower Chamber, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development—at the urging of its sole female member (!), Hélène Laverdière—conducted a study on WPS. Alongside other civil society witnesses, MCC’s partner KAIROS testified before the committee, drawing on its grassroots partnerships in DR Congo to highlight the need for ambitious funding for women peacebuilders around the world. The Chief of Defence Staff also testified about a policy directive for integrating UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions into Canadian military planning and operations.

So, the wheels of government are turning. Global Affairs representatives, present a few weeks ago at a conference put on by Women Peace and Security Network-Canada, are also in active listening mode, looking for ways to make progress on a renewed agenda.

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Chea Muoy Kry (front), executive director of Women Peacemakers in Cambodia, trains young people on domestic and sexual violence and gender issues. (MCC photo/Amanda Talstra)

And there are ways to improve. As some conference participants aptly noted, we shouldn’t reduce the WPS agenda to sexual violence. We should also be actively considering the ways in which trade regimes, property laws, natural resource extraction, and so on, also impact women’s rights and lives in post-conflict situations.

And we need to find ways to bring the agenda from the margins to the center of policy conversations. As a (rather hefty) 2015 UN-commissioned Global Study illustrated, while there has been a normative shift on the global importance of the WPS agenda, implementation remains weak, and funding levels have been shameful.

In other words, while a rhetorical shift is welcome, we need to walk the talk.

As Canada makes its bid for a Security Council seat (Trudeau was busy recently doing as much), the prime minister could be a real champion for feminist foreign policy by putting women peacebuilders at the heart of the international security agenda. 

It’s an obvious win. And an obvious extension of his values. As Prime Minister Trudeau said himself (rather cheekily) to the UN crowd, “It’s just really, really obvious. We should be standing up for women’s rights and trying to create more equal societies? Like duh.”

My thoughts exactly.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director