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The crucial role of women in public service 

'A fundamental shift in how we understand peace and security is necessary'

March 17, 2008 - Ella Ruth Hunnicutt from the group Grandmothers for Peace sits in an Atlanta police paddy wagon after being arrested on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. She is one of several elderly women who were arrested while trying to enlist at the U.S. Army recruitment center at Midtown Plaza.

Joeff Davis

March 17, 2008 - Ella Ruth Hunnicutt from the group Grandmothers for Peace sits in an Atlanta police paddy wagon after being arrested on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. She is one of several elderly women who were arrested while trying to enlist at the U.S. Army recruitment center at Midtown Plaza.

As the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approaches, I've been reflecting on that hot August day when I stepped into the streets and joined the Civil Rights Movement. The lessons I learned in those years from John Lewis, Julian Bond, Mary King, other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers and community leaders have shaped my lifetime of activism.

My opposition to oppression, injustice, and violence has only deepened over time. I marched with SNCC folks against the Vietnam War, and later joined the fight against the launching of the war in Iraq. For 25 years in the Georgia legislature, I've worked to increase the ranks of women and people of color in the halls of power. I've fought for policies to protect rights and expand opportunities for working people.

A recent meeting of United States women legislators with women leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan both affirmed my belief in the crucial role of women in public service, and alerted me anew to the challenge of attaining peace and justice in the aftermath of war.

As we near the end of a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan — and fear what will become of our Afghan sisters in the process — I believe that a fundamental shift in how we understand peace and security is necessary. Amid the devastation, courageous Afghan women have spent the last 12 years working fearlessly to rebuild lives that include some semblance of basic human rights.

Without a U.S. transition plan that includes a strong commitment to promoting Afghan women's rights, an accelerated departure of U.S. security forces could return the country, its people, and the women of Afghanistan to a state of profound instability. We risk leaving Afghan women and girls vulnerable to systematic human rights violations and physical violence. There can be no peace in the region when half its population is oppressed.

Despite our nation's military dominance and bloated Pentagon budgets, the United States recently took an important step toward implementing a "human security" approach — education, health care, jobs, and international aid — to its foreign policy objectives through the enactment of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (U.S. NAP) in 2011.

Spurred by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, U.S. NAP seeks to address the disproportionate impact of modern warfare on women and girls. The U.S. NAP also underscores the necessity of substantively including women in all efforts to promote peace and security: "Deadly conflicts can be more effectively avoided, and peace can be best forged and sustained when women become equal partners in all aspects of peace-building and conflict prevention, when their lives are protected, their experiences considered, and their voices heard."

According to the World YWCA, 90 percent of current war casualties are civilians, the majority of whom are women and children. Typically, formal peace agreements are negotiated between the few armed combatants that originally fought the war; groups whose experiences on the battlefield are not easily transferred to the difficult task of building peace.

Women are rarely included or considered in such negotiations, and disproportionately bear the brunt of rebuilding post-conflict and war-torn societies. Yet, women are emerging as critical actors of peace, mobilizing communities across religious and ethnic divides and using their social roles and networks to mitigate violence and mediate peace.

Here in Atlanta, SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. is lifting up the martyrs of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, erecting memorials, and touring busloads to educate about that movement and the lessons learned from it. Georgia WAND, Women's Action for New Directions, has organized and maintained an 11-year weekly street corner vigil at the corner of 14th and Peachtree streets in opposition to the wars in the Middle East. I'll always remember that it was a woman, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who cast the lone vote in Congress against the Bush administration's launching of the war in Afghanistan. Across the world, the nation, and right here in Georgia, women leaders are in the forefront, resolving conflicts, finding solutions, and crafting resolutions for a more peaceful world. Herein may lie the hope for our future.

Nan Orrock has been serving in the Georgia state legislature since 1987.

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