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Marcela García and Nick Osborne

Women in arms

Photos courtesy of Mel Snyder

Empowering women living in the midst of conflict and civil unrest may be one of the most sensible and effective ways to build peace.

“The hypothesis is that women are quicker to compromise, that they know how to get into places that men can’t go because they’re less threatening, that they have their fingers on the pulse of the community, etc.” says Swanee Hunt, founder and chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security, which promotes women’s participation to achieve peace and stability in societies all over the world.

These five women exemplify that theory. They have many things in common, but fundamentally they are fighting for gender equality in extremely patriarchal societies. They were in the Boston area recently to participate in a weeklong symposium Hunt’s Institute hosts every year for women leaders from conflict zones or new democracies.



Suzan Aref Maroof

Her work spans two governments, multiple United Nations agencies, and thousands of Kurdish widows, but Suzan Aref Maroof’s most important moment may have been claiming autonomy in her own life, eight years after her husband’s death.

Shut in with her family for protection, forbidden to work or study, Aref felt “hopeless, sad, and lonely.” Widows yearning for autonomy across Kurdistan and Iraq face overwhelming cultural stigma and even honor killings, which have been outlawed but still persist, especially in smaller tribal communities.

Suzan Aref Maroof.Courtesy of Mel Snyder

“I decided on suicide,” Aref said, before she confronted her father with her desperate choice in 1998. “He told me: ‘Take this idea out of your mind. You are more important than the neighbors.’ ” After that, everything began to change. With her father’s support, Aref began to define her identity independently of the men in her life. She worked at a women’s center before advising the Kurdish regional government on sustainability and campaigning for equal opportunity for women.

Aref’s story mirrors that of hundreds of other widows shut away for the rest of their lives, a symptom of the institutionalized repression of women that doggedly clings to Iraqi civil society. The country’s State Ministry for Women’s Affairs was founded after the 2003 US-led invasion, but the effort has been panned as little more than window dressing for the West, denied any real budget, planning, or skilled staff.


As director of the Women’s Empowerment Organization based in Erbil, Kurdistan, Aref aims to help rural women with mobile legal aid clinics, a telephone hot line to report abuse, and media advocacy. The group works with both the Kurdish and Iraqi governments to find legislative support for women on a broad scale. Perhaps most importantly, Aref strives to make marginalized women aware of their legal protections and civil rights, and empower them to take ownership of their own lives.

“The first thing was to create my identity,” Aref said. “There’s no ‘impossible’ in my dictionary anymore.”

Sylvia Aguilera

Cases of “los desaparecidos” in Latin America still mostly conjure up awful memories of Pinochet’s Chile or the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, where mass forced disappearances occurred at the end of the last century. Yet disappearances are not a thing of the past for Mexicans. Since 2007, it is estimated that 26,000 people have disappeared in Mexico — victims of drug cartel violence and other criminal organizations, sometimes in complicity with the government.

Sylvia Aguilera is leading a chorus of voices in the country now asking for policy and societal changes to end the forced disappearances but also bring resolution for families of those already missing. “There is a growing social movement of relatives, especially mothers and sisters, looking not only for their loved ones but also trying to change the structural situation in Mexico,” Aguilera said.


Sylvia Aguilera.Courtesy of Mel Snyder

As the executive director of the Center for Civic Collaboration in Mexico City, Aguilera has been working and organizing families at the grass-roots level. The aim, she explained, is “not only to search for the disappeared and go after the perpetrators but to understand the psychological and social impact of” having people vanish, and the sorrow and terror it creates in communities, many of them in rural and remote areas. Some of the disappeared are Central American migrants in transit. “You don’t know if they’re dead or being used as slaves or if they’re somewhere in a clandestine prison.”

The disappearance of 43 students last year in the southern state of Guerrero led to international pressure for a proposed law to address the troubling status quo.

As someone who was always aware of the keen social injustices in Mexico, and the powerlessness associated with them, Aguilera thought she wanted to be a lawyer but instead ended up working as an advocate for indigenous rights. Soon she realized that she had to get involved at the policy level if she really wanted to fix a broken system where impunity is the only law that rules. Indeed, in a major victory, she helped create and enact the victims’ law in Mexico with critical input from the victims themselves.


And now she hopes to codify into law the processes needed to bring peace to 26,000 families who don’t know where their loved ones are. “Now there’s even the concept of the second disappearance. First one is when they vanish, and then they ‘disappear’ again when the government decides to burn bodies without proper identification,” Aguilera says.

What gives her the courage to keep fighting on behalf of the mothers and sisters of the disappeared? “My kids,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “My daughter is 8, and I want her to be free of fear and to live fully.”

Oksana Romaniuk

On Dec. 1, 2013, just weeks before the 2014 Ukrainian uprising, journalists were attacked and viciously beaten in the streets of Kiev. By Dec. 2, Oksana Romaniuk had equipped dozens of her colleagues with construction helmets, safety goggles, and orange protective jackets so they’d survive to report on the violence. She would go on to distribute thousands of helmets and Kevlar vests to journalists over the next several months.

“There were massive attacks on journalists,” Romaniuk said. “But people valued information.” She currently heads the Institute for Mass Information, IMI, a media watchdog and nongovernmental organization based in Kiev. Since mass protests broke out in November 2013, the organization has tracked more than 200 attacks on Ukrainian journalists and the chilling list of causes: beatings, grenades, shootings, gas, detentions, and arrests.

Oksana Romaniuk.Courtesy of Mel Snyder

People trying to silence her are nothing new for Romaniuk. While she was reporting on government corruption, hackers broke into her computer, stealing and dumping all of her e-mail online. Even worse, they altered and falsified dozens of the e-mails to give the impression that she was working with the United States to undermine the Ukrainian government.


“Then they sent me a message saying, ‘Next week, you will want to kill yourself’,” Romaniuk said. When IMI filed a criminal case, the police responded by interrogating Romaniuk’s employees and parents multiple times. Romaniuk promptly organized free cybersecurity training for activists and journalists to fend off similar attacks.

Under her leadership, IMI advocated for journalism standards that expose corruption and propaganda. The media proved a pivotal battlefield as pro-Russian propaganda flooded Ukraine, attempting to force the national narrative away from protesters’ demands. Noting that pro-Russian outlets refer to the annexation of Crimea as a “friendly takeover,” Romaniuk’s group spread a vocabulary of neutral terminology for Ukrainian news organizations to combat pervasive bias. “When Russia occupied those territories, the first thing that they did was switch off Ukrainian TV channels and just switch on Russian TV channels on the same frequencies,” Romaniuk said.

In Kiev, lawmakers passed several media reforms in 2015, but Romaniuk is not satisfied. “We have a lot of work ahead.”

May Sabe Phyu

Excitement was felt all over the world on behalf of Myanmar last November as the Southeast Asian nation held contested elections for the first time in decades. But for May Sabe Phyu, a recognized political activist and advocate for women’s rights, the feeling is more anguish than joy. Her husband is one of more than 200 political prisoners in the country, half of whom are students, still locked away.

He was jailed in October on a bogus charge of defamation, according to the activist, who is also known as Phyu Phyu. She says her husband’s Facebook account was hacked and a photo making fun of the country’s army chief appeared later on his page. Amnesty International has repeatedly called for his release, decrying an increased crackdown on civil liberties by Myanmar’s authorities.

May Sabe Phyu.Courtesy of Mel Snyder

Phyu Phyu feels her husband’s imprisonment is in retaliation for her extensive and vocal activism, work for which she has been awarded international honors. As cofounder of the Kachin Peace Network, Phyu Phyu worked tirelessly to end the ethnic conflict in the northern Kachin State, where she is from.

“My family is very conservative,” she said. “I grew up hearing all these prejudices against ethnic minorities and women, ‘women shouldn’t do this, women should be like this or like that.’ ” In fact, her father stopped talking to her for 10 years because he didn’t approve of Phyu Phyu’s choice of husband. “Even after my two daughters were born, he didn’t soften. But when I had a son, he changed.”

It’s only fitting that after experiencing gender discrimination within her own family she is now director of the Gender Equality Network. “At first, I kept feeling like, why am I here? I should be with my children. I felt bad for leaving them back at home while my husband is in jail,” she said of her trip to Boston. “But here I am learning and listening to the other women leaders. And their challenges are even more difficult than I could imagine. So I said to myself, if they keep going, why can’t I?”

Apuk Ayuel

Being the world’s newest nation has not come easily to South Sudan. After decades of civil war, Africa’s longest-running, the fledging country seceded from Sudan in 2011. Less than three years after independence, however, South Sudan found itself at war again.

Apuk Ayuel.Courtesy of Mel Snyder

Apuk Ayuel has been one of the leading voices working to secure a new peace. It’s a role she knows well — since high school, Ayuel has been organizing and engaging her compatriots. In the 1990s, she and her family arrived as refugees in Texas, fleeing the violence of the civil war. “I was trying to educate myself and the youth in the diaspora so I built a website, South Sudan Angels,” she said.

Ayuel is now a diplomat with South Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is deeply involved in the ongoing peace negotiations and to include women as agents of change. “For me, the claim for representation is not just having people sitting at the table because most of the time you can have women there who wouldn’t necessarily bring the gender perspective.”

More importantly, it’s a woman’s right to be present, Ayuel adds: “When she is there and is empowered, a woman has a different perspective in terms of the war. She experiences the war different than a man. And that’s important [to recognize] if we are going to have sustainable peace.”

Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer and can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa. Nick Osborne can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nxosborne.