This week, I had the great privilege of listening to some inspirational speakers at the rather wonderful RISING Peace Forum 2018, held here in Coventry, at our Cathedral.
These included former leaders of two nations at different ends of the development spectrum – the first democratically-elected female African President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton, who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement.
Both spoke of their experiences, and of their nations’ journeys from conflict to peace, albeit a sometimes still-fragile peace. Just a few weeks ago Liberia celebrated 15 consecutive years of peace following 15 consecutive years of conflict, and also in 2017 succeeded in peacefully transitioning power from one democratically elected government to another, for the first time in 75 years. Former President Sirleaf spoke of the challenges of addressing structural violence as well as direct violence, and of the foundational role women played in bringing the nation to where it is today.
“Death and destruction from the conflict was profound, and women and children bore the brunt of the suffering; sexual violence, abduction, enslavement, forced labour, the conscription of child soldiers… But women’s involvement in non-violent civil resistance has been a game changer, despite historically being denied full access to political spaces… I stand today on the shoulders of these strong, resourceful and resilient women.”
John Bruton gave an extraordinary overview of Irish history, from William and Mary to Brexit, and spoke of the need to get inside the head and heart of your antagonist – to ask ‘why are you my enemy?’ “Peace-building is hard work,” he concluded. “It’s hard intellectual work, hard imaginative work, meeting people you don’t particularly like and making agreements with people you don’t fully trust, but making it just the same and hoping you have put enough structures in place (to make it work).”
Despite the differences in their stories, common ground for both was found in their hopes for young people and the transformative power of education. In the Q&A sessions, audience members asked ‘what do you do about this intractable issue, or this insoluble problem?’, and the answer came back on multiple occasions – ‘education’.
At Global Care, education is in our DNA, but peace-building is not often a concept we use in which to frame our work. We talk much more readily of social justice, reducing inequality and escaping poverty, than we do of peace and conflict resolution.
Yet, listening to these world leaders, it struck me that every time we feed or educate a child, we take another step towards the creation of a healthier society.
In particular, when we educate a child who knows what it is to be excluded from public discourse – because of their gender, ethnic group, or disability (or all three) – we form another building block for peace in a fractured community. This drive to reach the most vulnerable is the key focus of our work.
When our work challenges cultural barriers – whether it’s with Disability Action Groups in Uganda, autistic children in Albania, Dalit communities in India or street children in Guatemala – when those young people formerly alienated by discrimination and stigma begin to be accepted by their own communities, we are creating an environment in which peace can flourish.
This point was rammed home by the third speaker, Yemeni activist Towakkul Karman, a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “Without justice, there is no peace,” she cried.
Let’s own this. We function at the very other end of the spectrum to these national leaders, supporting grassroots community groups working for change. But we are peace-builders too. The day-to-day work of Global Care, in 17 countries on four continents, driven from a small office in Coventry, is our very own peace process. And our UK donors and international grassroots partners are what makes this process the vibrant, effective tool it is today, backed up by 35 years of experience.
Of course, we could change the frame of reference again. As a Christian charity we talk both of serving the King and seeking His Kingdom first – the Bible is crystal clear that this is a Kingdom of both peace and justice, where the needs of the vulnerable are met, and the rights of the disenfranchised upheld. The Kingdom of the Prince of Peace.
Whatever your preferred frame of reference – thank you for your partnership with us, peace-makers and peace-builders all.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9
Carolyn Savjani, Head of Communications