MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer. And this is our very first episode.
It’s a new show where we introduce you to women who make peace possible. Today we talk to an unlikely peace activist — Kristen Bell.
I recently spoke to Kristen Bell about her new role off screen as the first global advocate for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, a partnership between the United Nations and civil society. But first we bring you a story from the largest refugee camp in the world, where a group of women may be about to change the course of history. Journalist Susannah Savage and producer Brenna Daldorph traveled to the camps in south east Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar a place hundreds of thousands of refugees now call home. Most of them are Rohingya Muslims that fled a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army in the summer of 2017. They spoke with Rohingya women there who are making sure their voices are heard around the world.
The world’s largest refugee camp is located in southeastern Bangladesh, across the border from Myanmar. The people living there are Rohingya Muslims. They fled a brutal crackdown by the army in Myanmar in the summer of 2017. Since August last year, over 700,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in the camps. Today, the vast majority of camp residents are women and children.
Journalist Susannah Savage and producer Brenna Daldorph met with a group of Rohingya refugee women who work to help one another in the camps. However, they are also doing something much bigger. These refugee women are playing a key role in a case at the International Criminal Court, which accuses the government of Myanmar of genocide.
BRENNA DALDORPH: We are in the middle of a sprawling camp, in a little shelter that belongs to a woman named Khalunesia.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: She’s in her 40s. But she looks much older–except for her eyes which are quick and youthful. She’s bustling around a corner of her shelter, which serves as her kitchen.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Khalunesia, like everyone else in the camp, is a refugee and a Rohingya Muslim, and a refugee. Back in 2017, she was living just across the border in Myanmar–in a place called Rakhine state, which is the traditional home of the Rohingya. She was working as a midwife and raising two sons alone after her husband died. It was a tough life.
BRENNA DALDORPH: In part, because the Rohingya have faced discrimination in Myanmar for decades. The country is majority Buddhist and has long persecuted this minority Muslim group — including denying them basic rights like education and citizenship.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: In 2017, it got much, much worse.
[NEWS ARCHIVE: Myanmar is accused of conducting a state sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims who live there. Villages were burned to the ground. Women were systematically raped. Thousands of people were killed. Many, many more were forced to flee the country.]
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: When the army came to Khalunesia’s village, she says she grabbed her two young sons and fled.
BRENNA DALDORPH: They ended up here in this camp. In her time living here, she has become a community leader. Every day, she walks from shelter to shelter to talk to other refugee women about what they’re facing so she can report their problems to the NGOs that work in the camps.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Today, we — along with two translators — are going to join her on her rounds.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: It’s raining hard as we climb stairs cut into a muddy hill. At the top, we can see the camp for as far as the eye can see. Lots of mud and tiny shelters with tarp roofs… there are thousands of them.
BRENNA DALDORPH: We stop by one little shelter, and there is a woman living there alone with her two-year-old son.
TRANSLATOR: So her husband died in Myanmar. The military killed her husband.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: She told us that her husband was shot by the Myanmar army as they were fleeing. She says that she is really struggling on her own.
TRANSLATOR: She has to carry the food on the way no one helps her to bring the food from here and it is really difficult for her.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: It’s hard for her to gather firewood and carry water back with no one to care for her little boy. As we sit on the floor together, Khalunesia listens to her carefully. Khalunesia can’t read or write but she makes a mental note of everything the young woman says.
TRANSLATOR (for Khalunesia): So, per day, I visit ten to twelve houses and around one week, I almost visit fifty to sixty houses.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Khalunesia spends her day fielding the problems and issues fellow refugees are facing. At another shelter where 11 people are living, they tell her that there are no toilets nearby and that houses are getting flooded regularly.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: In the middle of all these temporary shelters, there is one solid structure with a pink flag outside.
BRENNA DALDORPH: So we have just come into the women’s space.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: There are lots of women and girls here, talking and laughing. Lots of babies, too.
[TAPE: Do you remember when you were here when he was tiny? Yea. Hi. Salaam Alaikum!]
BRENNA DALDORPH: This is the Women’s Friendly Space — basically a safe space where women can gather.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: I am just going to find out if they are having a meeting. Are you having a meeting?
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: We all cram into a very hot room for this weekly meeting. This is when women leaders like Kalunesia, report the issues that they’ve heard about in their communities.
TRANSLATOR: They face a lot of problems with going to the infirmary and the children here they have to go far to attend the schools. I am living on top of the hills so really very difficult for me to go to the hospital. They want a hospital and lady doctor near their area.
BRENNA DALDORPH: One leader says that it isn’t safe for women to be out after dark. There is a real fear of getting attacked by men. She’s says she’s so afraid to go to the bathroom at night that she has developed a bladder issue.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: The women listen to each other’s problems and offer reassurance. The women started meeting when they first arrived in the camp. At first, it was informal — they just wanted to talk. Talk about what happened in Myanmar. Talk about their issues in the camp. It was therapeutic. Then, some local aid workers took notice of these meetings. And offered them a place at the Women’s center.
[Women protesting, marching.]
BRENNA DALDORPH: To encourage them, aid workers showed them videos of other women’s groups across the world.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Khalunesia told me she was really inspired by those videos. She thought, “If other women can be heard, why can’t we too?” Over time the women started to think about what they could do to make their own voices heard.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: On International Women’s Day, they organized a march in the camps — a peaceful protest to highlight what they went through in Myanmar. It’s there that Khalunesia found her voice — by giving a speech. For Rohingya women who were raised in a very conservative tradition, it was quite incredible. Traditionally women are not even allowed to raise their voices, let alone give speeches in public. And it was then that they named themselves the Shanti Mohila or the Peace Women. As a group, they decided to to petition the Bangladeshi prime minister. With help from aid workers, they eventually sent the prime minister a list of 12 demands calling for better treatment for the Rohingya people.
BRENNA DALDORPH: They asked for the right to return home to Myanmar. To be given citizenship. They also demanded justice for the wrongs done to them. To further their cause, the women of Shanti Mohila also decided to share their stories.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Some of the most powerful testimonies came from Nurjahan and her teenage daughter, Minara. Like Khalunesia, Nurjahan is a community leader. She invited us to her shelter to talk about those testimonies.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Okay, so we are going to Nurjahan’s place.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Just as we got there, it started to pour with rain. The camp was rapidly turning into a sea of tan-coloured mud. Her shelter was leaking. Nurjahan lives in this dark and damp shelter with her two daughters. They say they the only survivors of their entire family.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: It’s hard to believe their change in circumstances. Back in Myanmar, they had a good life. Minara used to have fun, shopping with her friends — like teenagers everywhere.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Then, in the summer of 2017, the Myanmar army attacked their village.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Minara says she ran and hid in a rice paddy. She stayed there for days.
BRENNA DALDORPH: When Minara was finally rescued, she learned that her father and brother had been killed in the attack.
[BACKGROUND AUDIO OF NURJAHAN RECOUNTING STORY.]
BRENNA DALDORPH: Nurjahan survived but she says a long scar on her stomach came from that day.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Many people in the camp bear physical scars from Myanmar soldiers. Many of the women were raped.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Nurjahan tells us about children being gang raped, and about pregnant women being raped with bamboo sticks. Some are rumours, but she says she knew other victims personally.
TRANSLATOR (for Nurjahan): When I remember this kind of things, I cannot control myself. I don’t know how we can tolerate all the things that happen to us. If I tell you all the things that happen with us, you will die. You cannot control yourself.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: And at one point, she starts talking about revenge. About all the things she’d do to the people who hurt Rohingya girls and women, who hurt her and her family.
TRANSLATOR (for Nurjahan): I want to kill him cruelly and I’ll chop him and I’ll eat his meat, raw meat.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: It’s just so clear that women like Nurjahan experienced horrible things.
BRENNA DALDORPH: It’s also clear that the family hasn’t been able to heal at all.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: But halfway across the globe, her testimony is being heard. Aid workers compiled all of the testimonies given by the Shanti Mohila and passed them on to a human rights lawyer, who has been figuring out if the women have a case against the government of Myanmar. This fall, I traveled to the Netherlands — to the Hague, where the women’s testimonies are being processed at the International Criminal Court. There I met with a human rights lawyer, Wayne Jordash, who took the Shanti Mohila’s case. He first heard about them in 2018. At the time, he was already thinking about what was happening in Myanmar and wondering if it amounted to genocide.
WAYNE JORDASH: Well, genocide is a very specific crime which requires a very specific intent.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Even though we refer to genocide a lot, it’s actually a legal term, and in court, it’s something that is very hard to prove. In fact, there are very few cases that legally amount to genocide — which is strictly defined as the willful destruction of a group. After reading the testimonies, Jordash thought they might have a case. He wanted to include the stories of sexual violence — even though, in the past, sexual violence hasn’t been included in genocide cases.
WAYNE JORDASH: I think that the men who were prosecuting and investigating these crimes were blindly prioritizing other crimes above gender-based violence and sexual violence because they were men and because they didn’t understand.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Jordash wanted to build his case on those accusations. If the case goes forward this will be the FIRST time a claim of genocide is based not just on murder but ALSO mass sexual violence. In the spring of 2018, he filed the case with the International Criminal Court. And then, he and the Shanti Mohila waited. It tooks months for the court to respond. But finally, in August the court decided to accept that there are grounds for the case to go forward. The government of Myanmar continues to maintain that they did not attack innocent people. That the violent crackdown specifically targeted what they call Rohingya extremists. There has not been independent verification of what happened, because the government will not allow outside NGOs and most journalists to travel there. So if this process goes forward it will be the first, official investigation of genocide in Myanmar. But what comes next for the Shanti Mohila? That’s still not clear:
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: One of the things I noticed when I was there is that the women realize that this is something that is.. That they’re not going to see the results of this necessarily. To what extent is this a long-term game?
WAYNE JORDASH: Yeah. International justice is a long game. I mean that’s the reality… you really are talking about processes which last years and not weeks or months. So you know, the average length of a trial at the ICC is in the region of eight or nine years.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Eight or nine years is a long time, when the Shanti Mohila are living the day-to-day struggles in the camps and dealing with their trauma. The Hague is 5,000 miles away from Khalunesia, Nurjahan and the others. Honestly, it feels worlds away. I think about what Khalunesia once told me, that this work was for the next generation.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Back when we were in the camp, going on rounds with Khalunesia, we made an important stop.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Wow, she’s beautiful.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Oh my god. How old is she? How many hours?
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: She went to check on a baby that she had delivered–just a few hours earlier.
ROHINGYA PERSON: Two or three
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Two or three hours?! Oh my god.
[TAPE: Little whimpering noises.]
BRENNA DALDORPH: So we go to see the mother, who is in the next room, resting on a mattress on the floor.
BRENNA DALDORPH: Salaam alaikum.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: Salaam alaikum.
SUSANNAH SAVAGE: We say congratulations but being born into a refugee camp — especially as a girl — means your life won’t be easy.
[Baby crying and fussing, Rohingya people speaking.]
BRENNA DALDORPH: Khalunesia has a big smile as she cradles the perfect little baby. We ask our translator Nabila to ask Khalunesia what she is thinking.
TRANSLATOR: She is happy and she is saying that that baby girl is going to be a member of Shanti Mohila!
BRENNA DALDORPH: What does that mean for baby’s future?
TRANSLATOR (for Nurjahan): She thinks her future will be beautiful.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: The Shanti Mohila are still waiting to hear if the International Criminal Court will allow their case to go forward. To see photos of some of the women Susannah Savage and Brenna Daldorph spoke to during their reporting trip, head to our website: GIWPS.georgetown.edu/SeekingPeace.
Actress Kristen Bell is best known for her roles in Veronica Mars, Frozen, and The Good Place. But if you follow Kristen on social media you might know that her passions extend beyond acting — she’s a committed activist and philanthropist. This year, Bell became the first global advocate for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund. It’s a partnership between the United Nations and grassroots women’s organizations all around the world. I recently sat down with Kristen Bell to talk about her new role.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You’ve been involved with many charities and projects. I know and like, Invisible Children, which brings visibility to the issues of child soldiers in Central Africa to working for people who are assisting with the homeless. What is it that attracts you to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian fund?
KRISTEN BELL: Well I think I have a soft spot for the underdog. I mean all the organizations that I’ve supported, what they have in common is that they lift people up who otherwise might be ignored or feel insignificant. And you know with the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian fund there are crises all over the world whether it’s you know war or conflict, humanitarian disasters, or refugees fleeing persecution. But in every single one of those situations, there is often a woman standing nearby ready to help. We have irrefutable evidence that when women are included, it accelerates peacebuilding, it improves humanitarian response, and it helps the economies of these countries that have been in conflict recover faster. But despite this less than 1 percent of international aid to countries in crisis are given to women’s organizations and I just, I find that kind of unacceptable. I think women are more than 1 percent of the solution. So the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian fund was created to invest in women’s untapped potentials, giving them the resources that they need to pull their own communities out of crisis. It really puts the power in their hands and the support sort of comes from our hands with their ideas because they’re the ones on the ground, you know, mediating local disputes which might otherwise turn violent. The women in these communities are facing crisis and they’re doing vital grassroots work. And we’re really going to them and saying: “What do you need?” We’re giving them capacity training and, you know, going in and basically helping them organize and helping them with tech and giving them funding and then with the hope that those ideas will become successful and we can franchise them out and women in other communities can create more peace.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: How do you see this acting career, which obviously you are very successful in, connecting to your humanitarian work? Is there a connection between the two?
KRISTEN BELL: Sometimes it can be looked at when you have someone who’s been in the film and television industry speaking for an organization that’s actually done really tactile, philanthropic work, it can seem a little vacant and that is not my commitment here. This is not just a title. I want to be involved as much as I can where I can add. But I also recognize the reality that my platform from film and television allows the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund to gather the eyes and ears of a demographic perhaps that they wouldn’t capture. And I recognize that and I think that that is a responsibility I have, because those are things that weigh on my heart. When I go to bed at night coming home from a day of shooting, I do think about how to be a better person and I do think about how to help my community and communities around the world just fight for goodness a little bit more. You know if I can have 16 year olds, 24 year olds, 30 year olds, who don’t know anything about philanthropy, liking my show The Good Place and following my Instagram account. and I started Instagramming about these women in Bangladesh or Rohingya crisis and say, “This is, you know, a top priority for me right now, because people are suffering. Did you guys know about this?” I mean I was somehow given this crazy key to unlock doors that bring people together. And I do not underestimate what a responsibility that is.
[Theme music plays.]
MELANNE VERVEER, HOSTT: I know that you attended the United Nations General Assembly meeting this past September. Did you meet any of these women peacebuilders while you were there?
KRISTEN BELL: I did.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Because this is a fairly new role for you, becoming the global advocate, and I think that might have been one of your first experiences at the U.N.
KRISTEN BELL: It was. It was and it was an overwhelming and charming experience because everyone’s gathering because they want something better and something more and to help. So that’s inspiring. It’s also overwhelming because there are a ton of people and I was really lucky to have had firsthand contact with a couple of the women that the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund has been actively supporting. Maria Hymena from Colombia, and Marie Concesa from Burundi, and they spoke — they’re a part of local women’s organizations that we support. And they were incredibly inspiring. I mean, Maria Hymena is from the area in Colombia where the Farc began and for 50 years you know she shared about how her community was in conflict. She told me that the daily life for her and her neighbors was walking on trails and paths that had active mines and they were not able to move freely in their community. Their access to food was restricted and the women in Colombia where historically, they’ve been frightened and silenced and made invisible and abused and she just — despite all of this, I mean she never gave up hope. She has so many ideas, and the peace agreement has given her and the women of Colombia a possibility to change their communities and their futures. And based on that opportunity, that’s what the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund aims to help. We want her to have every ounce of support that she deserves to change her own community into a more peaceful one.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: So, clearly, she was inspiring in every way and helping to move her country out of this terrible decades-old conflict. What can the fund now do? What is it trying to do? There’s been a peace agreement that’s been forged, but we know that that’s just the beginning. That it’s a hard road to make sure that all the provisions of an agreement become reality and that people’s lives can become transformed.
KRISTEN BELL: Yeah.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: So, what, what is the fund doing in Colombia?
KRISTEN BELL: Well in Colombia specifically the work focuses on the territories most affected by the armed conflict. And it emphasizes support to the indigenous and Afro-Colombian women. We support 16 organizations that are anything from helping implement the peace agreement and making sure women are a part of that process, actively a part of that process, to helping women understand and participate in the political process for the first time. Working to end the gender and sexual based violence, helping women start businesses and learn job skills and gain access to things like savings and loans. As it’s been recovering from conflict, Colombia, it’s just such a key time to advance women’s rights across all aspects of society there.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You know, Kristen, I’m here listening to you and thinking about people who might ask themselves, there so many challenges in the world today, so many challenges here at home. Why should we care about women in conflict areas? What difference does it make to us in our own lives?
KRISTEN BELL: Well. We are a connected world. Conflict affects us all. I really believe that. You know, having become a mother five and a half years ago, I recognized every situation I saw I felt like it was happening to my child, whether it was a good situation or a bad situation. Even if you don’t have those maternal feelings, you as a logical person would recognize that conflict in the world affects our economy because it forces some people out of their homes, it creates environments ripe for human trafficking, and drug production which affects the whole world, it influences global human rights. It just creates an unstable world. And women are disproportionately affected by conflict. It hits them the hardest and I think that’s unfair and unacceptable. I think this is the time, the moment in history where we can’t look away, where we actually have an opportunity to face it. And one important way we can do that is by standing with women peacebuilders and responders and anyone who is supporting or donating to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, that’s exactly what we’re setting out to do.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You had mentioned your daughter, and I understand that the school that she goes to has an award called the Peace Builder Award. Can you talk about that a little bit?
KRISTEN BELL: Yeah. I have two daughters and one that’s in school. And. You know my I feel like my goal in life now is to create a world where, where peace and equality are ubiquitous for them where they don’t, they don’t ever feel that challenge on their shoulders. At my daughter’s school they take social emotional learning and inclusion and diversity very seriously and they have awards in the hallway called the Peace Builder and there is a picture of the child and a little explanation: “I was a Peace Builder because I this week showed skills on the playground helping people be involved in the kickball game and you know have a good attitude even if they lost or I stood,” you know they have examples in the hallway and it’s always really sweet for the parents to walk by and see these examples of children setting you know beautiful, kind behavioral patterns. And it occurred to me earlier this year as I was dropping her off that that I’m currently learning how to be a peacebuilder through working with the women’s human, Women’s Peace and Humanitarian fund. And she is simultaneously learning to be a peace builder as a five-and-a-half-year-old girl in kindergarten and that gave me such, I don’t know, like a lightning bolt of hope, that look how early this younger generation is starting to become familiar with the words peace builder and peacemaker and conflict resolution. And with the younger generation starting so early, I do feel like we will get to a point where peace and equality are ubiquitous in their lifetime.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Well that in and of itself is very inspiring. I guess we all need to be peace builders. Thank you so much Kristen.
KRISTEN BELL: Thank you for having me.
[Theme music plays.]
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: To learn more about the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund check out wphfund.org. Next time on Seeking Peace, I speak to one of the world’s most influential female leaders, and a woman I call a friend: Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute of Women, Peace and Security and Foreign Policy. Produced by Hard Listening Media.
This episode was made in conjunction with U.N. Women.
Our associate producer is Ali Post. The show is edited by Ibby Caputo and sound designed by Sara Curtis. With help from Steve Bone.
Our production manager is Sarah Rutherford. And our executive producer is Kate Osborn. Original music composed by Alison Leyton Brown.
This show was made possible by the Compton Foundation.
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