When It Rains Collect Water

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December the 8th marked the opening ceremony of the Sthree Mela (meaning Voices of Sri Lankan Women) exhibition and conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sthree Mela was organised by the Association of Women affected by War with the key global, national and local women actors and activists onUnited Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). As a project Sthree Mela has been on-going for the past year with the vision of creating unity among women from diversified backgrounds, ethnicities and religions within Sri Lanka, striving for peace, reconciliation and sustainable development.

The World YWCA participated in the conference with a delegation of 13 women, 60% of whom were young women from Zimbabwe, Colombia, Myanmar, Palestine and Sudan accompanied by YGlobal Norway Programme Officer, Tor Kjetil Edland and YWCA of Sri Lanka. The delegation was led by World YWCA staff Juli Dugdale and Marie-Claude Julsaint, later joined by World YWCA General Secretary, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda. Furthermore, the attendance of the World YWCA at Sthree Mela was conducted as part of the FOKUS project managed by the World YWCA and funded by YGlobal, Norway. The FOKUS project is a joint multi-country capacity building project on UNSCR1325, designed to target the situation of women affected by armed conflict in Sri-Lanka, Southern Sudan and Palestine through the work of YWCA partners.

Sthree Mela duly opened with a screening of ‘Women, War and Peace’ produced by Abigail Disney, whom also spoke at the World YWCA Council earlier this year. The World YWCA delegation actively participated in Sthree Mela and was invited to facilitate three panel discussions: Using Media for Peace Building, Young Women’s Perspectives on the Impact of Conflict on Women and Implementation on UNSCR 1325.  During the young women’s panel discussion delegates shared their personal perspectives of conflict from their respective countries. Sichelesile from YWCA of Zimbabwe spoke of the increasing levels of violence against women (VAW) after the political unrest in 2008 and how many young women were forced into sex work as a livelihood, putting themselves at risk of HIV infection. In response the YWCA of Zimbabwe now runs VAW programmes and holds regular discussions on reconciliation and peace. Throughout the discussion the importance of a healing process was reiterated, as one delegate intuitively shared “To truly have peace we need to have a healing process”. Magda from the YWCA of Colombia highlighted the absence of women in peace negotiations and stressed how imperative it is that women are involved in the peace process because without them there will be no peace. Kue Ku from the YWCA of Myanmar effectively hit the nail on the head with a Myanmar proverb- “When it rains collect water”, meaning when opportunities arise you need to seize the moment. Moreover, Kue Ku pinpointed that women and young women need to ‘grab’ leadership opportunities and claim their space in the peace process. However, referring to the situation in Colombia, Magda explained the obstacles in achieving women’s participation in her country as women are often attacked or killed when they do actively seek peace and sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war. In this regard it was felt that there needs to be ‘human rights defenders’ amongst state actors; duty bearers who promote and protect human rights.

The conference ended with a live video broadcast from Norway of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, with the Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka present, and the World YWCA General Secretary, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda saying a few words in recognition of the three awardees; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president; Leyma Gbowee, a Liberian women’s rights activist; and Tawakkul Karman, a democracy activist from Yemen and the first Arab woman to win the prize. To end on such a prestigious note paid homage to the achievements and integrity of women, young women and girls in Sri Lanka and around the world. As one delegate put it, “The highlight of Sthree Mela for me was the experience of solidarity in action, of women and young women alike from so many YWCA’s around the world, advocating for UNSCR 1325”.

As a movement the World YWCA first adopted the UNSCR 1325 back in 2007 at the World YWCA Council in Nairobi and in July of this year at World Council 2011 in Zurich, VAW was made a priority focus for the World YWCA movement as part of the strategic framework.