Role of Women in the Humanitarian Community

Role of Women in the Humanitarian Community

This highly anticipated third session of the 2016 Aurora Dialogues, moderated by Nancy Soderberg, former United States Deputy National Security Advisor and former ambassador of the United States mission to the United Nations, brought together a panel of exceptional women. It included two finalists for the Aurora Prize, Marguerite Barankitse from Burundi, founder of the Maison Shalom and the REMA Hospital, and Syeda Ghulam Fatima from Pakistan, secretary general of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF). Joining them were Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Dr. Josephine Kulea, a dynamic young activist from Kenya.

In her introduction, Nancy Soderberg shared a disturbing observation: even if women in the world were a greater part of the discourse at the international level, there would be much left to do in order to reduce the inequalities between the sexes, as well as different forms of discrimination. Women account for only two percent of global decision-makers, only 17 percent of Members of Congress in the United States are female (compared to 22 percent of parliamentarians globally), and only 24 countries in the world are led by women. 

Yet, women can play a vital role in resolving numerous problems. According to Soderberg, the more women are involved in world affairs, the more they will contribute to solving problems like access to education, the resolution of conflicts and socio-economic development.

                                       Moderator Nancy Soderberg

The four panelists shared their respective experiences in turn. Marguerite Barankitse gripped the audience with her vivacious advocacy for greater empathy for the most vulnerable, while criticizing the forgetfulness of the international community and, notably, the arrogance of the United Nations. “Often, we want to help Africans, but this aid cannot be effective if we don’t listen. Instead of seeing [Africans] as beneficiaries, we must first accept them as part of a single family, that of humanity,” she insisted with conviction. According to her, the challenge is not to help these people, but to do so while allowing them to maintain their dignity.

                                       Panelist Leyma Gbowee

Leyma Gbowee underscored that the world is blind in one eye when women are not part of the decision-making process. This mother of eight has witnessed the courage that women showed during wars that ravaged her country. “We are not better than men, but we are more thoughtful. It’s not about our egos, it’s about the wellbeing of our community,” she said.

For her part, the young Josephine Kulea turned the auditorium upside-down with the eyewitness story of her battle to save young Kenyan girls from forced child-marriage and female genital mutilation practices. She noted that if she didn’t have a mother who believed in education, she probably wouldn’t be a panelist at the Aurora Dialogues.

             Inaugural Aurora Prize Laureate Marguerite Barankitse

Undoubtedly, the highlight of this discussion was Marguerite Barankitse’s explanation of the reasons why she became an activist. “I was born in a country that has known nothing but massacre since its independence. I was born a rebel. I was born into a profoundly Christian family and my parents taught me generosity without discrimination. I revolted the day I realized that human values were not being taught at school. And then my world was rocked one day, in October 1993, when 60 members of my family were killed. If I wasn’t Christian, I think I would have committed suicide. But I was able to get past it and I learned to forgive the killers because, as Jesus said, ‘They know not what they do.’ I was not expected to ‘fix broken pots,’ but destiny led me to the day when men of my ethnicity came to kill 72 people that I was protecting, including one Tutsi friend who had married a Hutu. Before dying, she told me, ‘I entrust my children to you! Surround them with love and affection.’ It was at this moment that I realized what my mission was, believing that the new generation would be able to break the cycle of violence, affirming that love is the common religion for all humanity.”