2012 Women PeaceMakers
A commissioner in Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), Alice Nderitu stands at what she sees as a crossroads in her country between peacebuilding and human rights. “I am a child of these two worlds and the need to bring the two together is urgent,” she says. With rich and varied experience in both worlds, Nderitu is an essential leader in preventing and transforming conflict in her native Kenya.
In the aftermath of Kenya’s notorious 2007-2008 post-election violence, Nderitu joined the newly created NCIC to mediate ethnic and race-related conflict and promote peaceful coexistence. As a mediator and a human rights and ethnic relations specialist for NCIC, Nderitu leads and builds mediation teams in Kenya’s conflict hotspots. Often working within traditional structures, she brings elders from conflicting ethnic groups together to dialogue and defuse communal tensions. But she also challenges traditions, pushing for women to be included in the rigidly male-dominated elder institution. Similar to her work in Kenya’s highest official levels, Nderitu is often the only woman at the peace table with the elders.
With NCIC, Nderitu has developed peace education curricula, pushed for the implementation of laws on hate speech and hate crime, and directed a nationwide television show discussing ethnic differences and conflict. She has also taken her conflict prevention lessons outside of Kenya to South Sudan in preparation for their referendum on independence.
Prior to her role as an NCIC commissioner, Nderitu worked as a prison officer, a teacher and a reporter before joining the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in 2003 as its first staff member. There she created and headed the commission’s human rights education department and pioneered the first human rights curriculum for public officers.
For several years, Nderitu has been training law enforcement and military officers on civil-military cooperation and the rule of law at the International Military Peace Support Training College and at the Rwanda Military Academy. She also directed the Education for Social Justice Program for Fahamu, a UK-based charity, facilitating human rights and conflict prevention training for civil society in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Uganda.
“The specter of ethnic-related violence … looms in Kenya’s upcoming elections,” Nderitu says of Kenya’s presidential elections scheduled for March 2013. She watched the violence of the last election temporarily bring her two worlds together — peacebuilders and human rights practitioners — to campaign for peace. But Nderitu is determined to unite them as a stronger force to prevent conflict, not just respond when it erupts. “We do not have the luxury of waiting for a crisis,” she insists.
Radha Paudel, the founder and president of Action Works Nepal (AWON), has been described as “one of those people who just makes things happen.” She founded AWON on the principle of action over lip service, and assists primarily rural, poor and marginalized women to live dignified lives in a country still recovering from a 10-year civil war.
Paudel began her career as a nurse as the civil war between the Maoist insurgency and the government army broke out. Working in Karnali Zone, an isolated, mountainous and conflict-ridden area in the Mid-Western Region of Nepal, she witnessed women and girls arrive day after day at the hospital suffering from gender-based violence or preventable diseases. But getting them help was risky. She was targeted by both the Maoists and the government, as each side suspected her of assisting the other. At times, Paudel had to move from house to house to escape being abducted or killed.
The armed groups eventually started to trust her as she was courageous and defiant in her dedication to helping women, but also because she was one of the only medically trained people in the area. She began treating injured soldiers and rebels in their field hospitals, and eventually negotiating with the two sides to access communities in need became easier. Paudel later raised enough money to establish a blood bank and a hospital for maternal surgery — the first in the region.
Paudel’s experiences during the 10 years of violence prompted her commitment to change the culture and overcome the barriers to resources that kept rural women poor and marginalized. With AWON, she has started several campaigns to promote human rights and give women a voice in local and national affairs. The Miteri Gau, or Let’s Live Together Campaign, engages all levels of rural communities in a dialogue on the rights of women and the various roles of family and community members in a peaceful society. The SHARP Campaign — Sexual Harassment Response and Prevention — addresses harassment on public transportation and in educational institutions.
After the civil war ended and the constituent assembly was created to draft a new constitution, Paudel began working to incorporate a gender perspective in the process and brought the voices of rural and conflict-affected communities to the capital. She is also working closely with political leaders, security personnel and media to build accountability on women’s rights, protection and participation according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Her simple motto to the complex dynamics of gendered democracy and post-conflict reconstruction is “no women, no peace.”
Ludmila Popovici is the founder of the Rehabilitation Center of Torture Victims Memoria, or RCTV Memoria, the only such organization in Moldova working with survivors of torture and one of the first nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations in the country. Over the last decade, RCTV Memoria has treated more than 1,300 survivors of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
In the late 1990s, Popovici was training to become a medical doctor and working at the Nicolae Testemitanu State Medical and Pharmaceutical University in Moldova when she first became involved with the treatment of torture victims. She learned of centers in neighboring Romania that rehabilitated people who had been tortured under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. In Moldova there were a large number of people who suffered torture under the Soviets before the end of the Cold War. Popovici made parallels between her field of medicine and the epidemic of torture: “I understood that my destiny was to teach others the epidemiology of torture. My vocation became helping people and finding efficient vaccines to prevent this dangerous phenomenon for my society.”
She founded RCTV Memoria in 1999 to provide mental health rehabilitation services through medical, psychological and legal assistance to victims of torture. When the communist party came back to power in Moldova in 2001, the beneficiaries of RCTV Memoria expanded beyond former political prisoners under the Soviets to include victims of police violence and torture. The organization’s services were also offered to refugees and asylum seekers from around the world.
Popovici’s vocal advocacy for survivors of torture and her lobbying to criminalize torture in national legislation was incredibly dangerous at a time of heightened repression under the communist regime. On one occasion she was interrogated, accused of defaming the state. But instead of being punished and perhaps tortured herself, she convinced the police of the positive role that her and RCTV Memoria’s activities had on society. “I explained that by helping victims, we contribute to reducing revenge, and in this way we can diminish confrontation in society” between the police and communities. She was released on the condition that she would organize a seminar for the police on the prevention of torture.
Popovici is called upon as an expert on torture and treatment of its victims at national and international levels. RCTV Memoria also goes beyond direct services. In 2005, it released a book and documentary called Shattered Destinies, chronicling the stories of 14 women victims of political repression during the Stalinist period. Popovici plans to expand this type of work by the organization, so that it will become not just a rehabilitation center, but also a major resource and reference center on trauma.
A journalist by training, Nancy Sánchez has been documenting human rights abuses and the survival strategies of everyday women and men for over two decades in the more than 40-year-long conflict in Colombia.
Her work has taken her to remote and dangerous regions of the country: first to Magdalena Medio in the north and later Putumayo in the south. In the early 1990s, it was in one organization that Sánchez found her vocation. She states, “Everything I am and everything I have done in human rights I owe to what I learned in CREDHOS” — the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights.
In the countryside of Magdalena Medio, she and her colleagues witnessed the scorched earth campaign being carried out by the military, while in the main city of Barrancabermeja, paramilitaries were committing massacres against civilians. Among other documentation, Sánchez and her five colleagues in the committee recorded unidentified bodies, many of whom had been tortured, in the morgue. The archive became the only way people could find their disappeared loved ones. Their courage to speak out came at a tragic price: Three of Sánchez’s five fellow committee members were assassinated.
With the threat of death so near, Sánchez moved first to the capital of Bogotá and then to the Putumayo region, an epicenter of political violence and the illicit drug trade. She and a Catholic priest, Father Alcides Jiménez, worked closely with local leaders to highlight the effects of the war on the communities, until, again, Sánchez lost a colleague to the war. Father Alcides was killed by the rebel group the FARC, in front of his parishioners during Mass. But she continued her human rights work as the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia was implemented in the region, when indiscriminate aerial fumigations of coca crops caused massive public health problems and devastation as people lost their livelihoods. Her vigilant monitoring of human rights abuses resulted in death threats and she was forced to flee the country.
Upon her return in 2003, she began work with Asociación MINGA, a human rights organization, again in Putumayo — but this time primarily with women. She and her colleagues traveled “on horseback, on motorcycles, in canoes and in jeeps, on unpaved roads, over mountains and through jungles” to meet with women in remote areas to hear their stories of the conflict and offer workshops on human rights.
Sánchez’s work has been recognized internationally with several human rights awards, and for U.S. citizens her reports and investigations offer a window to a poorly understood conflict where so much U.S. funding has been spent.
“My 20 years of experience as a human rights defender in various regions has given me the experience to assert that there is a great potential for women to transform their reality. … The struggle for life is in the hands of women.”