MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer. And this is Monica McWilliams:
MONICA McWILLIAMS: “Some said you’ll have blood on your hands if you go for election, that’s not what women are known for. The opposite voices in the room said, it’s time to wave goodbye to dinosaurs. Let’s do it.”
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Monica McWilliams fought for a seat at the peace table that negotiated the end to conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. As one of only two women in the room she tells us what they had to endure to make their voices heard for peace.
But first, Seeking Peace’s executive producer Kate Osborn spoke to a young peace activist from her home in southern Yemen, where the war there is entering its fourth year. A complicated conflict that is at once a civil war, Houthi led religious political rebellion, and proxy war that has U.S. backed Saudi forces fighting Iranian influence. The war in Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. An estimated 13 million people are at risk of starvation.
In the face of what feels like a never ending conflict, a group of Yemeni women have come together to push for peace. The Peace Track Initiative seeks to put the needs of women at the forefront of ending the conflict in Yemen.
Nisma Mansour is their on ground field coordinator.
NISMA MANSOUR: Okay, I am Nisma Monsour, the field coordinator for Peace Track Initiative. I am a Yemeni woman, I live in Aden, was born and raised here for all of my life. Growing up in Aden was great. Like I still remember that they like, when I was little, and things were fine, and we did not have that concrete wall in front of my house, and there was no constraints on women. Like, everyone, like, could wear kind of what they want. And my mother used to tell me that they could do whatever they want, they could wear whatever they want. And even law was in the side of women. But slowly, slowly growing up and people were adapting this bit of extreme mentality. When I hit puberty and I had to wear my hijab, I felt like I was very conscious about how everyone is telling me to put my hair inside of my hijab and that I should close my abaya, or that I should wear this, I should not do this. So by the time my, like, my teenage were not that fun because everyone already adapted extreme ideologies and everyone was already thinking that women should be at home and all of these mentality.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Inspired by the unrest that has shaken Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Yemen.”
NISMA MANSOUR: I still remember 2011 like it was yesterday, not seven years ago.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: The apparently well-organized demonstrations have cropped up across the capital, somehow.
NISMA MANSOUR: I was 16 at the time. I was very young. I did not even understand what revolution meant.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “President Ali Abdullah Saleh has governed the impoverished Arabian peninsula state for more than 30 years. Now, they want him to go.”
NISMA MANSOUR: However, um, however, I was very, very amazed to see how women are protesting and leading protests.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Yemeni women have protested in the capital Sana’a to call on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.”
NISMA MANSOUR: Like wow, finally women are doing something, not just staying at home.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: This female protester and a member of the opposition national council and said Yemenis were fed up with their president. Now we the people must stage a peaceful revolution until he leaves.
NISMA MANSOUR: I was amazed with how just hundred thousands of them decided to go out and tell the for my president just leave, like, I sometimes kind of felt like he is untouchable, and will just rule us until, like, infinity.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “The president of Yemen has followed through on his promise to give up power after 33 years. Ali Abdullah Saleh has signed an agreement aimed at ending the 9 month old uprising in his country. Saleh is agreeing to transfer power to his Vice President.”
[Background music plays.]
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Hijacked, abandoned, forgotten. That is how these young revolutionaries now describe Yemen’s popular uprising. Protests started by students have been overshadowed by tribal conflict, warring generals, and political parties. A power play.”
NISMA MANSOUR: At the time, there were, there were signs of war.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Well happening right now in Yemen, the army says the rebel forces have taken control of the presidential palace in the capital city.”
NISMA MANSOUR: Since the coup of the Houthi militia on the capital of Yemen somehow everyone expected that war will come anytime soon.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “There are battles between armed militias from a group known as the Houthis, they’re mainly Shiite, and they have been fighting to seize control of the capital and push the president from power.”
NISMA MONSOUR: It was the 16th of March, 2015,
[Sounds of gunfire.]
NISMA MONSOUR: A whole, a whole conflict happened near my house. My brother went out and told us that tanks are at the end of our neighborhood.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Gunfire in the Yemeni city of Aden causes panic on the streets after Houthi rebel forces and their allies seize the nearby airport…”
NISMA MONSOUR: Houthis entered Aden and it was horrible that it became a street war.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Shiite Houthis appear to be tightening their grip on the outskirts of Yemen’s second city.”
NISMA MONSOUR: The Houthis were just sending missiles with no target, they just wanted to horrify people. I still remember the sound of the missile, like the ‘zeeooo.’ You would like wake up from your sleep and go run and look for somewhere safe. And then few days later, um, clashes advanced and missiles were falling in front of my aunt’s house.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Houthis’ advance into Sunni Muslim areas have raised fears that regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the Yemeni conflict. The UN has already warned that Yemen in on the brink of civil war.”
[Sounds of missiles falling.]
NISMA MONSOUR: We heard news the day before that a whole family died while trying to escape, a missile hit them, so we were very scared. Because literally the missiles were falling on the building in front of my aunt’s building. So my aunt decided, that uh no, we need to go to my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s house was inside the district that was not invaded, so, um…
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “A major Saudi-backed offensive was launched earlier this week and has advanced successfully. Yemen’s Vice President Khaled Bahah said the province has been liberated from Houthi rebel forces.”
NISMA MONSOUR: So, um, we were lucky, but,
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “The UN says thousands have been killed in this conflict, a million have been displaced, and 80% of Yemen’s 25 million population face a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions.”
[Melancholy music plays.]
NISMA MONSOUR: It changes you sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worse. But it really changes you because sometimes I’ll be like, oh my god, I want to go back to my biggest worry in life to find the nice color of nail polish that I, I saw on TV. That was me as a teenager. I’d be like now, now you are not the same person anymore. Like, at these moments I think, like, really shaped who I am and gave me confidence that I just can’t stay doing nothing. So, uh, I remember that one of my friends, she told me that Twitter is a tool of change. So I decided to use my Twitter account, tweet about what is happening, tweet in English. So I was just tweeting, and tweeting, and tweeting, telling the world what was happening.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, interviewer: “The negotiations underway, Yemeni women have been demanding a seat at the table.”
NISMA MONSOUR: So, the group of women I am with, with the Peace Track…
ARCHIVE AUDIO, interviewer: “Now one of the women at the helm of this campaign is Rasha Jarhum. She’s a women’s rights activist from Yemen, she’s also the director of the Peace Track Initiative and, uh, she joins us from Ottawa in Canada. Thank you so much for speaking to us.”
NISMA MONSOUR: Me and Rasha, we basically, me and Rasha Jarhum, we basically found each other via Twitter. And then a year after she and our co-founder Yasmin Al-Nadheri decided to found Peace Track Initiative.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, interviewer: “…Peace Track Initiative, and she joins us from Ottawa in Canada. Thank you so much for speaking to us. Rasha you said one women at the table in the negotiations in Yemen. What role did your organization play in the latest round?”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, RASHA JARHUM: “Um we, um, we have been advising the UN and voice team on how to make this ceasefire agreement more responsive to women’s rights.”
NISMA MONSOUR: So we were doing our best to connect the voices of women from grassroots initiative, those women who are working on the ground, and connect them with the policy makers so they tell them what is really going on, what is the women’s need and how this war is affecting women in such a bad way.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, interviewer: “Rasha there have been reports suggesting that women are the ones who are paying the price of Yemen’s what, what’s your assessment here?”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, RASHA JARHUM: “This is very valid, I mean Yemen, even before the war, was a hostile country towards women’s rights. So with the war, everything has magnified. Women who want to travel for medical evacuation are not able because they seek the permission of their guardians, women are more prone to famine because they eat last, this is normally what happens in Yemen. Women are more prone to diseases such cholera because they are caregiving, caregivers.”
NISMA MONSOUR: In my opinion and what I see on the ground, women are the first respondent to what, what it is happening, because they really just want to protect their families.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, RASHA JARHUM: “But it is important for us to not see women as passive victims but to see their strength and resilience, um, trying to address all of these issues.”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, interviewer: “Rasha Jarhum, the co-founder of the Peace Track Initiative saying women are often the last to eat. Thank you so much for your time.”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “After 3 years, the conflict in Yemen is showing no signs of slowing down. An estimated 10,000 people have already lost their lives. The vast majority were civilians.”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, voiceover translation: “Look, the explosion was so strong that this woman and her child were blown all the way here. I’m begging the international community, you need to send some help.”
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Saturday’s attack has only added to the horror and confusion in Yemen, a country ravaged by infighting, and that’s become a battleground for a bigger proxy war between Sunni and Shiite countries.”
NISMA MONSOUR: We did not gain anything from this war. It’s just, the militias, the Houthi militias, is the one who gained, and I think maybe the government and the officials are the ones who gained money and statuses. But for ordinary people, like me and everyone else, we just gained nothing. For me, I gained even more sorrow. And I am meeting women who suffered from violence and women who have lost their providers. And I hear their stories and I feel more and more obligated, that you know, we need to help them and do something, we need to advocate for them, we need to keep going and pushing for women’s agenda. Because deep inside I know that it’s not a luxury, and all of the Yemeni officials need to know that it’s not a luxury, it’s a need. Peace is not a business deal. When this party will say like you take this, I will take this and okay, we’re settled, let’s have a peace — no, it’s not. Because it’s not about making victory, it’s about millions of people who are suffering.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the the end of the Troubles between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998, was the result of decades of peace activism and two years of talks. Talks that included only two female representatives. One a Protestant, Pearl Sagar, and the other a Catholic, Monica McWilliams, both representing the Women’s Coalition of Northern Ireland.
I recently spoke with Monica McWilliams about how she and the coalition fought for their seats at the negotiating table. She began by describing her earliest memories of what was known locally as “The Troubles.”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: So my first memory is walking with my father and my brothers and my sisters, um, on those marches and being told that they were illegal, that our demands for the right to vote, the right to have a job, and the right to social housing and were illegitimate demands and that the marches were illegal. And so there was a great deal of reaction which was stupid on the part of the state who employed the army and we see us gas and rubber bullets were fired at us even though we were walking on a beach… I never dreamed that that would then lead into a 30 year violent war. It could have been resolved peacefully.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: How did your decision or desire to be a part of ending that conflict begin to take shape?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: That’s a good question because it was asked of myself and the other woman who formed the women’s coalition. Where did you come from? As if we’d fallen out of the sky and we have to remind those who were posing this question that we’d been around for 30 years…
We’d stood at too many graves. I myself had a boyfriend murdered in 1974. And I remember the shock and the pain and the trauma. And by this stage there were thousands dead. And we said this has to stop. We knew nothing else…
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “The killing climaxed a day of violence, including a bomb at Belfast’s luxury Europa hotel. While the wreckage of the Europa Hotel was being cleared, two bombs were found outside the Tilly Hall. Rifle shots…”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Violence became the norm and it was peace that was strange… And so the extraordinary moment happened of finally ceasefires in 1994 and that was opening up a window. And we as ordinary women fell into extraordinary times.
When the peace talks were declared after the ceasefires, we asked the question, where are the women, um, because we knew that as activists we had existed and had we not been around the war would have been much worse. It was neighbor on neighbor, it was community against community, but it was the women who were the peace builders from the ground up.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, announcement of all party talks: “We are committed to an elective process leading to all party negotiations without further preconditions.”
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: By 1996, the all party talks were finally set.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, news reporter: “Those negotiations will start on the tenth of June. There is no place for violence…”
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: and there were going to be elections to determine, the political parties that would be participating. At that point, how did the women come together to win a seat at the peace table?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: It was a very spontaneous decision. we actually had not initially decided to stand for election, but we decided that we would put it up to the other parties to see if they would put women in their delegations and they didn’t take that issue seriously.
And so two of us sat down one night and we said, is it possible that this could happen? The next day we started sending out messages, putting press statements and advertisements into the newspapers, asking women, would they come to a meeting to discuss the possibility of us coming together as a coalition. And it was the most unbelievable meeting. Hundreds of women turned up.
And there were different voices. Some said you’ll have blood on your hands if you go for election, that’s not what women are known for.
The opposite voices in the room said, it’s time to wave goodbye to dinosaurs. Let’s do it. And those voices won out and that night we agreed that we would form a coalition. Women’s started nominating themselves and by the end of the evening we had 70 candidates running in the election.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: And I think you then had your slogan that was repeated, wave goodbye to the dinosaurs.
MONICA McWILLIAMS: The slogan wave goodbye to dinosaurs was very creative, but it wasn’t the most popular when we put up the posters with this on it. The reaction from the leaders of the parties was vitriolic. They said, how dare you call us a dinosaur. And the women said, is your name on that poster? And they said, no, it’s not, well, why are you self identifying as a dinosaur? And then we would walk away laughing.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Now I know there were a minimum number of votes that were required, uh, for any of the parties to make it to the table. When did you realize that you had reached a point where you would make it to the talks?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Well, it was a very different process. The threshold was not huge and it was 10,000 votes and we sat down at the table and worked it out that we probably could reach that threshold knowing that we had the networks in place, so we need to focus on local media and on our local neighborhoods. And that’s what the women did. They formed themselves into teams and every single county and community. And we sent them out around the doors.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, Monica campaigning: “I’m Monica McWilliams. I’d appreciate it if you’d consider giving me a vote next Thursday.”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: That’s how you get votes. And on the day of the count, we stood nervously because we did not think in a million years that we were going to be one of the 10 parties. And that night we were declared as one of the parties going to the talks.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, Women’s Coalition chosen for peace talks: “Also at the talks will be the Women’s Coalition, putting forward a new nonsectarian voice for constructive and inclusive dialogue.”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: We were in total shock.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, Monica on day of election: “We’re absolutely delighted. I mean, six weeks ago we had no fax machines, no telephones, no offices. So we’ve come from nowhere and we’re delighted today to have been getting a mandate to send us into those talks.”
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: What was it like in those negotiations? How were the women treated?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Well, first in the negotiations, there’s a lot of venting and a good part of the two years was about people shouting at each other and not really listening. But maybe you have to do that.
We felt like outsiders in the first year we were received a great deal of insults. Go home to the kitchen and go and breed for the country have babies, which is what you’re supposed to do.
And on and on it went. and the public were shocked that these men could, behave so badly towards, to women who had been elected to these seats.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You were also, playing a mediating or a refereeing role, between, some of the a male representatives in the process and those who were excluded.
MONICA McWILLIAMS: What we did was really important in negotiations. You need to know what the others around the table are thinking. When they find out that we were talking to Sinn Fein who had been locked out during the first year because they haven’t reinstated their ceasefire and we were back channeling, which is what good negotiators and facilitators and mediators ought to be doing.
And it’s now accepted that it is something that you should do in a peace process. It was absolutely shocking. You women are in love with murderers and you’re just Sinn Fein in skirts and, and again, these labels came firing across the table. But we kept up that back channeling and convinced that party that they should reinstate a cease fire and get into the room because their ghost was rattling around in the room and we were spending time talking about them and they weren’t even in the room.
We said, look, we’re strangers here. We didn’t grow up alongside each other. We might’ve grown up amongst each other, but we don’t know each other and at this table we need to learn to know each other if we’re going to find out what our interests are. So we started inviting the loyalist parties to our homes on Friday night for dinner and we got to know them very well.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: These human elements that go on in a process like this are so important to the ultimate outcome is you’ve just vividly described. One of the things that was supporting the process for peace in Northern Ireland was the engagement and leadership of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States. President Clinton would invite the Northern Irish political parties to come to the White House on St Patrick’s Day. The male representatives of the various parties held a separate meetings with the president in the Oval Office. What happened with the women’s coalition?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Well, they forgot about us and someone realized that they had messed up and I think they approached you Melanne in your role as a first lady’s chief of staff at that stage and asked permission if we could speak to the first lady.
Somehow the first lady understood exactly what she was talking about. And she asked what can I do for you? And I said, well, are you going to speak tonight? And she said, well, yes, I’ll be introducing the president. And I said, it would be good if the man in the room who comes from Northern Ireland can hear your voice
ARCHIVE AUDIO, HRC on St. Patrick’s Day: “Thank you so much. I want to formally on behalf of the president and myself, welcome all of you here this evening.”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: She stood up that night and there was a hush in the room. And she spoke about the role of women in conflict and the role of women in Northern Ireland and Ireland and the need to have women involved in these processes.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, HRC on St. Patrick’s Day: “A special word of appreciation to all of the women in Ireland and Northern Ireland, who have worked for peace and worked to bring about reconciliation over so many years.”
MONICA McWILLIAMS: And the man’s eyes just opened up and some of their mouths fell open because they hadn’t expected this. And I could feel their eyes on me and Pearl as if we had somehow bribed the first lady and they came up afterwards and said, how did that happened? And I said, well, while you men were with the president of the United States, we were with the first lady. And um, we just had a chat as women always do all over the world and this is the outcome.
And boy did they look disappointed.
And that meeting with the first lady changed everything. It gave me a great deal of confidence. And when we came back and the attitude most definitely towards us, did change.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: So in April of 1998, finally the Good Friday Agreement is signed.
ARCHIVE AUDIO, Monica on the day the agreement was signed: “The people in Northern Ireland have always asked and said, if only the politicians would sit down together and talk and reach an agreement. Today we have done it.”
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: So you went from being Monica, the peace negotiator to Monica, the politician, running for a seat on the women’s Coalition Party label in the Northern Irish assembly. What did you want to achieve in now taking up the prospect of elective office?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Well, it was a baptism of fire because that was the referendum and I think only a matter of weeks later followed the assembly election. The first assembly was difficult because it was the first attempt to implement what we had agreed.
So we spent more time talking about the differences in terms of that agreement than we did on bread and butter issues.
Sometimes it was a slow process, but we also were the first party, the women’s coalition to put a forward a private member’s bill, which was to recognize the need for children’s rights to be protected. And eventually that also became law.
And we ourselves, to be honest, Melanne had said that we had never wanted to be a long term established party.
That was not our intention and in fact, after the two years of the peace agreement, we were all hoping to be able to go back to our own lives, to do our day jobs, to do what we found very productive in our lives. But to be part of the implementation, you have to be part of that first assembly. So I ran.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: How did all of this change Monica Mcwilliams?
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Well, it’s you do not come through these processes and remain the same person. I hope I’m a lot wiser from having met so many different people who think differently, but also have shown me that there are different ways of looking at a problem and I hope I have more patience than I once did because you need a great deal of it if you’re going to be in these processes, but I also have to say that I’m a better person for having been part of it.
We need more role models. If a young woman doesn’t see a woman in that role, she cannot begin to expect that she can do that job and she can. But once she sees a woman doing it, she realizes I could do that too.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Monica, I’m so glad you mentioned those two words, role model, because that’s indeed what you have been and continue to be.
I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday accords. So thank you Monica McWilliams, for all that you’ve done and continue to do.
MONICA McWILLIAMS: Thank you Melanne for inviting me to be part of this podcast.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Monica McWilliams continues to work for reconciliation in Northern Ireland and to advocate for women’s participation in peace talks, worldwide. In this interview you heard clips from Fork Films’ documentary “Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs” which tells the story in detail of the Women’s Coalition. You can see the documentary as part of the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace Part II, airing on March 25th and 26th at 9pm, 8pm central. This series gives a fresh take on international events shaped by women. For more information visit pbs.org/WomenWarandPeace, where episodes will stream after broadcasts.
This is the final episode in our first season. Thank you so much for listening.
If you liked what you heard please share it far and wide. And for more of all of our esteemed guests, check out giwps.georgetown.edu/SeekingPeace. And don’t forget to join us for our second season.
MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute of Women, Peace and Security and Hard Listening Media.
This episode was made in conjunction with UN 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 is composed by Alison Leyton Brown.
This show was made possible by the Compton Foundation.