Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold: Peacebuilding is a political work

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  • Foto: Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold

    Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold is a politician and anthropologist and the initiator of the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005“, which gathered a network of female peace activists, including those from Croatia and the region. From 1995 to 2008, Vermot-Mandold was a member of the Swiss Parliament as well as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where she, among other activities, carried the role of a spokesperson for the conflict regions of the South Caucasus. On behalf of the Council of Europe, Vermot-Mangold investigated femicides in Mexico and cases of organ and human trafficking, as well as cases of illegal child adoption in Eastern Europe. She co-authored the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and followed up on the implementation of the Convention in various countries. After my studies in anthropology and sociology, I worked for several years in different African countries, focusing on women’s and human rights. Back in Switzerland, I married and became a mother of two daughters. Professionally, I managed the „Third World” School Office, developed school materials, and introduced the topic to teacher training and further education. In 1988, I founded the office “Hekate” and advised women in professional conflicts and decision-making processes, Vermot-Mangold begins our conversation. Today she is the president of the successor association to “1000 Women for Nobel Peace Prize 2005” – the feminist organization “PeaceWomen Across the Globe”. The focus of the organization is the role of women in conflict transformation and their concrete participation in peace processes.

    Bearing in mind that women in Switzerland only got the right to vote in 1971 and that they had to wait almost 15 years for the abolition of employment regulation demanding the express approval of their husbands to work, what was it like for you to be a young woman then?

    Denying women the right to vote meant that women were deprived of their human rights for many years and remained excluded from political decision-making processes. The fact that women had to fight hard for their political participation still has consequences today, because the exclusively male view on political decisions and development shapes society to this day. Moreover, the dirty voting battles of the time, in which women’s political participation was at stake, created deep rifts between the sexes that can still be felt. I was thirty years old in 1971, did my Ph.D., was politically left, and was shaped by the constraints of a poor household. My parents were day laborers, there was barely enough money for our large family and the daily necessities. They did not pay attention to the political restrictions subjecting the daily lives of women, they worked whenever working was possible. My mother took us children to the factory where my father worked to collect his wages. She managed the money and also hid it from my father, who sometimes got drunk in the tavern next door. I was aware of the legal restrictions for women but also about many other grievances in Switzerland, and as students we argued against them with zeal. I was a working student anyway and knew all the schemes to get a job because my career depended on it.

    You mentioned your mother’s influence in your life, the gatherings with her friends, and the conversation over tea about equality for women and social justice. How did your childhood determine your developing political consciousness?

    My mother explained to us over and again her political agenda, what she was doing, what political demands she was making with her friends in our kitchen, what they were planning, and what they were writing on the flyers and announcing publicly. It was mostly about better-paid jobs, wages, health care costs, better schools, rents, and women’s right to vote. Political disputes were part of our everyday life. I can’t help but think of development and events in political terms. Since poverty usually does not make people charming, I had to – or thought I had to – fight at school, and defend myself against teachers. Graduating high school was not possible for me. No money meant no further educational opportunities. I had no chance! My experience as a child taught me that I could only survive if I was political.

    I’m curious about your journey, which took you from an apprenticeship in Switzerland to the heart of some of the most hostile areas of conflict in the world. How would you sum up your path?

    My choice of profession was a disaster. I did not have much choice being a young woman and coming from a “modest background”. For economic reasons, I was supposed to complete training to become a secretary. A lawyer hired me as an apprentice. I had to type letters, but I changed them according to my feelings, for which I was reprimanded. In a conversation, I expressed my wish to go to university, to study. My employer informed my parents of my being “useless” as a secretary and suggested letting me graduate. He promised to pay my apprentice’s salary, on which my family depended until I enrolled in university. For that, I have been immensely grateful. My studies were followed by a doctorate and several years of research on women’s rights in Togo (Africa). I came in contact with interesting lifestyles, different cultures, and women’s experiences, but also with poverty, discrimination, and violence – towards myself or others – in all phases of life. The decision to enter politics was logical. I was a member of the Municipal Council of Bern, and the Grand Council of my canton, and in 1995 I was elected member of the national parliament and at the same time to the parliamentary delegation of the Council of Europe. My function as Vice-President of the Council of Europe’s Migration and Asylum Commission took me to many places of war in Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia, as well as to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo, where I was confronted with the inhuman situation faced by many refugees and displaced persons, who repeatedly urged me to act.

    Women organize themselves and take life into their own hands even in times of war and conflict. You witnessed some examples like these in Togo, West Africa when women fought against their husbands who used them as cheap labor force in the cotton fields, so they went on strike. In Georgia, women negotiated with Russian soldiers to let them go to the fields to get potatoes so they could feed their families. In Chechnya, women organized schools for children in the war zone. Do you think that the women’s side of the war and the intertwined female experience of trauma are visible enough?

    No, not enough, never. Because their work on the reconstruction and the care they give in times of war and post-war is also rarely visible and, above all, unappreciated.

    We see this even today. The second Ukraine Recovery Conference was held recently. Who sat at the table negotiating the billions needed to rebuild the country after the war? There were hardly any women present. But in many places, they are caring for the war wounded, the orphaned children, the elderly, and the sick trying to get food and medicine. Reconstruction is not only a technical matter, it is not only the rebuilding of infrastructure, roads, army, industry, houses, schools, kindergartens, parks, etc. It also includes the renewal of society. Reconstruction also means rebuilding society, organizing health care, and making education possible. It also means reducing fear, healing trauma, normalizing everyday life, and so on. This also costs money, and it is outrageous that women are already cut off from its flow in the current negotiations. Because, it is men that are fighting for a good, healthy life because they know that “women can handle it” and that they care enough. The money always flows and also belongs in the hands of women.

    You also visited refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What are your memories from there, especially regarding the women’s experience?

    It was the same everywhere: the men smoked and waited for me at the gate of the camps, scow-ling, frightened, and demanding. But first I wanted to visit the women who took care of everything inside the often dilapidated and dirty camps lacking sufficient infrastructure. They built schools, ran sewing rooms and small infirmaries, kept the schools running, bargained with authorities demanding enough medicine and food, and made sure that the sick and injured were taken to hospitals – if those still existed. They negotiated with authorities and usually remained firm in their demands. I did not meet any women in the camps who thought of themselves as victims. They were strong, resourceful, constructive, resolute, and fearless. It was more often the men who represented themselves as victims.

    Visiting those camps always touched me deeply and made me angry, because there are always too few of those built for the refugees. Neither the people nor the peace is the focus of warring parties, but power, profit, weapons, armament, and destruction. We see it every day. The fact that people and societies get destroyed in the process represents only collateral damage in the vocabulary of the warmongers. The images and experiences from the camps I visited gave me the idea to make visible the quiet and hidden but centrally important and fearless work of women, to found the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005”.

    How did the idea for the “1000 Women for Nobel Prize for Peace 2005” initiative develop?

    In my line of work, I have repeatedly met women who rebelled against injustice and fought for their rights. But their protests went largely unnoticed. As well as the Swiss parliamentarian and member of the Council of Europe, I was also a spokesperson for the refugee crisis in the South Caucasus. In the refugee camps, I met many women who coped with difficult day-to-day tasks with little money but with a great deal of personal effort. During a visit to Chechnya, I met a young woman, Lara, who was teaching children in a bombed-out cellar. She wished for some “beautiful” books to show the children a peaceful world. The next time I visited, I brought along some books, but Lara was dead, shot by a sniper. This and other terrible experiences shook me. And then the idea of nominating a thousand women for the Nobel Peace Prize was born.

    The nomination process was a huge undertaking. A team worked around the clock in our tiny office. We searched for coordinators in different regions of the world, founded an international association, and developed strict criteria for the selection of PeaceWomen. The main message was: Look – see and learn from the tireless and unspectacular reconstruction, care, and peace activities of women in conflict countries, but also in the so-called peaceful countries. Learn from these women. Give them and their experiences and demands an important place in peace negotiations and governments.

    Accompanying events followed, as well as the Nobel Prize decision itself.

    We wanted to make these PeaceWomen, these committed feminists, visible. With the “1000 PeaceWomen Across the Globe” book, the film “1000 Women and a Dream” and many media reports we granted them more visibility. Our “1000 Faces of Peace” exhibition was shown thousands of times worldwide – in schools, universities, churches, and villages.

    In the end, the 1000 PeaceWomen did not win the prize! The Nobel Prize went to Mohammed el-Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Sure, we were disappointed and thought of giving up. But there were immediate protests: we should continue to support women’s peace work, because “peace without women” is simply not possible – women must participate in peace processes and exert their political influence. That convinced us. Creating a new organization out of this wonderfully lively, wild sisterhood and making projects possible was not an easy step. But we succeeded.

    The idea sparked something – a thousand women, all taking on the task of creating a place of peace out of a divided and wounded world and caring for the traumatized victims of war. But a good idea is not enough to change the world forever. It needs the focused peace work of feminist women’s organizations. Again and again, it needs women’s tireless and forceful work. Pressure from women’s peace organizations has convinced international organizations that without women, lasting peace is impossible. Resolutions such as the UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security call for the participation of women. However, progress is slow. But in any case, peace work is political work in this time of increasing numbers of wars worldwide, massive armament, terrible destruction, and huge movement of refugees.

    Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world. These numbers are not encouraging even though, according to a UN report, the presence of women considerably increases the probability of a stable agreement. What do you attribute this contradiction to?

    Of course, I am aware of these statistics and I hear the “old” sigh of U.S. President Bill Clinton, who said after the inconclusive breakdown of the peace talks between Israel and Palestine at Camp David on July 5, 2000, that if women had participated in the talks, they would have been more successful. Peace negotiations are often managed by men and a handful of women who do not understand each other and, above all, cannot agree. Of course, more women have to be included – but perhaps there also needs to be more men who do not think in terms of war and retaliation, but who are willing to compromise and think in terms of unconditional peace. For that, however, they would have to be willing to turn their attention to war-weary civil society and to women who are victims of sexual war violence. To negotiate good solutions. Human solutions. With dignity.

    During the twentieth century, the role and involvement of women in peacebuilding have been evident through numerous initiatives, which are still active today, in the (re)construction of post-conflict societies. However, all efforts at the level of civil society often fail to influence governments, decision-making, and negotiations. Why do you think this is so?

    Compared to the negotiations at Camp Davies, more women are involved in peace negotiations today, as mediators, advisors, and leaders. They are women from grassroots movements, women from organizations, and universities. Women in Colombia were members of the truth commissions that were part of the peace process, and in Senegal, the women of the “Platform for Peace” had access to parliament and government members as spokespersons for peace issues. Many examples are known. But as we can see, the number of wars is on the rise, but peace processes are stagnating. Why? There are many factors involved.

    I would like to add a question what do women need to participate in peace processes as recognized partners? By this I mean not only during the phase of concrete negotiations, but during the whole peace process from the beginning to the end.

    In patriarchal and highly militarised societies, for example, women are not taken into account as possible negotiators. One of the most important obstacles is the massive patriarchal and thus misogynistic structure of many highly militarised countries, which leads to women being considered worthless. Women have a lot of social walls to tear down in order to become audible and visible. These structures must be replaced by democratic ones in which women’s and human rights are respected.

    Women also often have very different attitudes to questions of war and peace, and they need to meet each other if they are to develop a reasonable common path to peace that is transparent to all. Hard disputes exist between different women activists. Women also live dangerously as peace activists. When Russian and Ukrainian women meet for peace talks, they must be able to do so in a protected setting if they want to avoid being branded as traitors. This requires a lot of skill and care. Many women’s organizations have no representatives in politics or no means for political representation; they need to take a detour and often use a lot of skills to make themselves heard in the centers of power. We have spoken of money, which often enough flows into the wrong hands, because corruption and nepotism, violence and criminality are closely linked to warlike actions.

    As a negotiator you have to know the laws, previous agreements, and possible compromises very well, otherwise, you will not be heard and will be sent away. While the established peace negotiators – mostly men – have whole departments to work on specifications, law requirements, statements, and opinions, women usually don’t have enough money and hardly have any support in their requests and demands. This is a significant difference. But women are also good at networking and are skilled in exchanging ideas. Where do we go from here? In many warring countries, there are no functioning political structures or parliaments and parliamentarians as partners in a discussion. Who should women turn to? Therefore, PeaceWomen Across the Globe organizes peace tables with partner organizations, where analyses are made, but strategies are also developed to reach political leaders.

    Among the most important measures is the networking of women’s organizations with those in other war-torn countries. Women’s organizations in Nepal, Colombia, and the Philippines regularly exchange information about their work in truth commissions and on topics such as transitional justice. Such cross-border learning and sharing of experiences is fundamental and empowers women.  However, women’s organizations must also make every effort to increase their sphere of influence both within the country and outside it. The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace, and Security” is an instrument to which women in war zones can refer to, because this resolution is binding for many states.

    Peace procedures are long and endless. So many questions arise, women have to be smart and think strategically. The Women in Black for example have great experience in long-term peace work. They know that self-care is also important in response to potential exhaustion, and they encourage women to make sure that they do not abandon the fight due to fatigue or frustration.

    At the Women’s Peace Tables events that “PeaceWomen Across the Globe” organizes, a concern that the players are changing, but not the game was discussed, that is, that the inclusion of women should go parallel with changes within the system. How important is the dimension of gender in building peace?

    Long-term peace is only possible if previously disturbed and war-driving systems are changed and structural problems addressed. Already compromised systems cannot be used as a basis for the new peace. Politics, society, economy, and laws have to be rethought and discussed – in a gender-responsive way. This requires both women and men – who have equal rights, even if possibly different roles in society.

    For years, women were banned from peace negotiations. Today, people are aware of the need for their strong instincts. For this, however, one must listen to women, and learn how and with what strategies they survived the war, violence, losses, hunger, and cold. Their stories are not arbitrary narratives but indications of what a new, peaceful society could look like. “PeaceWomen Across the Globe” organized PeaceTables with partner organizations in various war and conflict zones. This is just one example. It is not just about speaking out, crying, and getting angry, but about gathering the experiences and insights, formulating them as demands, and thinking about how to bring them to the political level, to which body or authority – and how women need to make sure that they are not left out or systematically forgotten along the way. Women must learn to be smarter, more troublesome, and always visible if they want to influence peace processes with their presence.


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