Isabelle Geuskens: Feminist Peace-building is a Powerful Model of Leadership for the World

Isabelle Geuskens

FAR Steering Committee member and Executive Director of Women Peacemakers Program, in conversation with Communications Strategist, Preeti Shekar.

Q1. Tell us about your work and how Women Peacemakers Program came about?

I’m the the Executive Director of the Women Peacemakers Program (WPP). We originally started shortly in 1997, shortly after the Beijing Platform for Action, at that time as a program of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) to make sure that women peace activists were supported in their work. A lot of the work we did at the time was about bringing women activists together to provide a space to discuss the challenges they faced in their work, and their successes, discuss what strategies they used. Also, the IFOR was a worldwide peace organization focusing on active non-violence. We give a lot of trainings on active non-violence, particularly from a gender perspective, so we focused on the important role women play in non-violent movements.

Then, in 2000, when Resolution 1325 came about, a lot of our work was around raising awareness about this resolution, both amongst women activists, but also within peace organizations, and pointing to the importance of anyone involved in peace work integrating a gender perspective in what they do. A lot of the work from 2000s onwards was, again, bringing activists together, but also providing trainings to peace organizations, still further developing the concept of gender-sensitive non-violence. Over the years, we also became active more in advocacy. For example, together with other Dutch organizations, we started developing a national action plan on 1325 for the Netherlands, and, soon after that, also started to get engaged on a European level with others, working on national action plans in Europe on: what are the lessons learned, what are best practices, but what still are the obstacles that we face?

Over the years, we’ve built up a community of organizations worldwide, feminist activists for peace, which include both men and women, because, as we started moving towards 2009, we also saw the need to develop a more holistic gender perspective on peace, and we translated that into developing the masculinity perspective on war and peace to ensure that men were also going to be involved in advocating for and participating actively for the WPS agenda. We’ve been doing a lot of work around international advocacy, and focusing on the UN on national action planning, on the one hand, and successes and obstacles, but, on the other hand, also on bringing back the more transformative concept around peace that emerged from the Beijing Platform for Action.

As you would go back to what women activists stated there, it was not just about making sure women have a role or are integrated in formal peace processes, they also defined, from a feminist perspective, what peace looks like to them, so they focused a lot on conflict prevention and the need to invest in that. They focused a lot on active non-violence as a way to address conflict. They focused on the issue of disarmament and the enormous militarist environment or thinking that our societies all over the world are caught up in. We felt, over the years, that 1325 implementation and agenda was losing this transformative perspective, so a lot of our work around international advocacy has been trying to bring that back. Most recently, we’ve been involved in advocacy around how counterterrorism, and specifically financing measures, are actually constraining women’s rights, organizing, gender equality, and also, ultimately, peace building on the worldwide level.

Q2. Can you speak to some of the ideas that feminist peace-building entails? How do we go beyond those of us who already know that we need a reframing of security? Even among the liberals in this country, for example, believe that we do need a military. They proudly claim that the ever growing military industrial complex is what makes this country “secure.” They don’t think that it should go away. Can you speak to feminist approaches to peace-building that are really trying to change or transform the current narrative? What are some of the ways your organization has employed to really be heard in international forums?

I think, first of all, you can’t generalize feminism. I think we have to recognize, within the women’s movement—and we’ve seen that within 1325—there are a lot of women’s rights activists and advocates who are in favor of having women in the police force and in the military, and they would do that from a feminist perspective. I think the feminist perspective that we talk about, I think everybody has the right to define it in their particular way. I think what we felt was concerning is that we didn’t see enough diversity of perspective. The feminist perspective that we talk about is one that looked at power in the broader sense and looks at, for example, why do you need a military? Why do you need a police force? How do you analyze violence?

It would, for example, point to structural factors where people might turn to violence because it has to do with structural injustices in society, lack of education, lack of access to justice. So I think a feminist perspective is, in that sense, really about investing in addressing the root causes. Of course, you can’t say from one day to the next, okay, today we have a military…and it sounds really unrealistic if you would say, tomorrow, we feminists want you to abolish all that tomorrow because that is a big step. It’s too far.

On the other hand, we will never get out of this viscous cycle of where there’s huge investment in military power, which takes away money from other sectors of society that, if you would invest the money there, there would be more equality between people, and it’s very likely that violence would decrease. But, if you always keep feeding the system of violence, there will be violence. You end up in a never-ending cycle. There’s a huge unbalance. There’s a need to invest, for example, also in education around conflict prevention and non-violence. I know that in the peace movement there have been numerous attempts to integrate into schools non-violence curriculum so that children would learn how to deal constructively with conflict or with injustice.

Basically, what we’re saying in our work is conflict is not always bad. Sometimes it’s a way that you actually move forward, but it’s how you address it. Overall, these are attempts that very seldom succeed. As long as you put a lot of resources on the one hand and hardly anything on the other side, and you get all sorts of societal trends, and then you say that justifies the need for using military or police power, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s a feminist critique is about. If you want to break that cycle, you start investing in the other arena where we know you are addressing the root causes, the structural injustice, that will have a preemptive effect.

Q3. Can you speak to what the state of the women’s rights movement is in Western Europe, given the very tenuous political landscape with so much going on right now?

What I’ve seen changing over time is that, some years ago, we had some really strong European feminist organizations and movements. For example, some would really focus on feminist economics or others would focus on a feminist perspective on war and peace. Increasingly, we see that several of these organizations had to close down or had to change their way of working to be able to still operate.

Basically, what a lot comes down to, if you want to work on international issues—for example, economics in relation to development or peace, which is also always a global issue—very easily, if you look for funding, it means that your donors would perceive you as somebody who is going to channel funds for women’s rights activists far away to support them in their work. But it’s sometimes really hard to get support for the critical activism that we need to do within our own European context. For example, when it comes to war and peace, holding our countries accountable in terms of their military spending. Also, for example, the kind of military interventions that they support.

I think that that’s a huge dilemma that we’ve been seeing in our work. Although, on the one hand, you see that a lot of development organizations or mainstream peace organizations might have started a women’s program…so, on the one hand, you would think that’s progress. Much of that is geared towards helping women in South, and the becomes a very traditional development model, which does not operate from the idea of a movement, where women in the North and women in the South can come together and analyze our independence in our specific roles in holding those responsible for what is often global injustice accountable.

I think that’s the very difficult reality we are now in, that on the surface in Europe there seems to be a lot of civil society activity. There are a lot of NGOs that are involved working internationally, but it’s really difficult for feminist organizations to make the combination of doing very critical feminist work at home, as well as also find the resources to come together with activists from other parts of the world. For example, what we’ve seen in our work, especially in the early 2000s, we were always having international meetings—bringing our network of activists—we would come together. Then, it become, suddenly, you had to find funding, and you could be lucky if you could cover regional activities. Now, it’s even that you have to work on a country-by-country basis.

Very often, when you find funding, it ends up, like, “Okay. Implement 1325 project in this specific country,” which goes totally against our philosophy because it almost feels like you’re doing traditional development work, where, as a Westerner, you’re going into a certain country far away and tell them how to do certain things, and, many times, these people will know that much better than you do.

Q4. Despite all the challenges, there has been some pretty incredible work that’s happened in your region. Could you shine a light on those, so we can also honor that there’s been good work done, and, also, how a younger generation of feminists can build on that?

I think what we have definitely seen in the last 15 years is much more awareness about the importance of women having a role to play in peace processes. I still remember, just after 2000 when we had the resolution, if you would talk about 1325, whether among civil society or governments, there were very few that knew what you were talking about. I think we’ve seen quite a lot of engagement on policy level.

For example, in Europe, a lot of countries have a national action plan. It’s being integrated in European policy, a lot of civil society, including those who are not women’s rights organizations, are integrating into their work. I think that shows a major awareness increase in only 15 years. That has also brought along resources. Still, definitely not enough. I think you know that, in terms of funding for women’s rights. It’s still peanuts compared to the money that is going to other things in the world, but it’s much better than it was before this agenda.

The world is at a turning point, and I think the fact that civil society has been very successful in the last couple of decades in creating awareness about human rights, in addressing environmental concerns, in pointing out the systematic, global inequalities, in pointing out issues around racism, some of the pushback, I think, that we’re seeing right now is related to those successes.

Q5. Are there social justice movements that you admire or appreciate both in the global North and global South that you draw a lot of inspiration from?

I think we always have. A lot of our work is based on the non-violence movements from the past, but also currently. I think, for example, everything that is happening around Standing Rock is really inspiring to us. I also like groups like ARAJ[? who were just created not that long ago, but they try to use social media in a way, or online linking to mobilize people. Also, small initiatives like, here in the Netherlands, when ordinary citizens stand up against gas drilling. They’re very creative in trying to stop our government because we have a lot of earthquakes in certain parts of the country. Basically, any form of creative non-violence, small or big, we find very inspiring.

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