No Peace Without Women

Zainab Salbi

(Adapted with permission from a TED presentation that the author gave last year)

   I am a woman who lived in war, who continues to work in war, and who has learned in my forty years of life on this earth that there is another side of war.

   You see, I grew up in war-torn Iraq. I grew up with the colors of war – the red colors of fire and blood, the brown tones of earth as it exploded in our faces, the piercing silver of an exploded missile so bright that nothing can protect you from its color.

   I grew up with the sounds of war. The staccato sounds of gunfire, the wrenching booms of explosions, the ominous drones of jets flying overhead, and the wailing warning sounds of sirens. Those are sounds you would expect. But there’s also the dissonant concert of a flock of birds screeching in the night, the high-pitched, honest cries of children, and the thunderous, unbearable silence. The silence is the worst. It is the silence of children so terrorized they do not scream. War, said a friend of mine, is not about sound at all, but about silence: the silence of humanity.

The Shapes of Fear

   I have since left Iraq and dedicated my life to working with other women survivors of war from places like the Congo, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Bosnia. All wars bring about the same fear: a fear of not only losing loved ones but, as Samjia, a Bosnian woman, once said to me, a fear “of losing the I in me.”

   Over the years of working with women in wars, I have learned that the fear comes in many shapes. The worst shape of all is when a person feels as if she is dying over and over again. As a Palestinian woman once told me, “There are times in which I feel I’ve died ten times a day,” recalling how soldiers patrolled her neighborhood day and night, punctuating their rounds with gunfire. “But there is only one life, and there should be only one death.”

   Without knowing the smell, the color, and the feel of war, we lack a full, nuanced, comprehensive understanding of it. We distract ourselves with high- level preoccupations over troop levels, draw-down timelines, surges, and sting operations, when we should be examining the details of where the social fabric has been most torn, where the community has improvised solutions that sustain life despite tremendous obstacles.

   These are the two sides of war. On the one side: seemingly objective discussions of politics, tactics, weapons, dollars, and “casualties.” This is a language of sterility. How casually we treat casualties in the context of this debate. This is where you conceive of rape and these casualties as inevitabilities.

   Then there is the other side: it sees the colors, smells the smells, touches the clammy skin of death, and washes clean the sticky liquid of blood.

   There is the side of war that fights, and there is the side that keeps the schools, the factories, and the hospitals open.

   There is the side that thinks of peace as the end of fighting, and there is the side that thinks of peace as the arrival of schools and jobs.

   There is the side that is led by men, and there is the side that is led by women. Both sides belong to the same coin, but, unfortunately, the world typically sees only one side of the coin. It is time to see the other side of war. It is time to understand war and peace as women see it and feel it.

   In a brutal irony, violence spikes after peace ac- cords are signed. Men with guns who have seen unspeakable horrors demobilize, return home, and take aggression out on the most vulnerable people: women. In the five years since Sudan’s peace ac- cords were signed, violence has been increasing to its highest levels since the conflict. That’s the toenail perspective of peace. It is time to understand war and peace from that toenail perspective. If we ignore it, I am afraid we will miss out on building a lasting and true peace.

   We know the statistics about women’s experience of war:

75 percent of modern war causalities are women and children.

80 percent of refugees world wide are women and children.

Women historically have faced violent acts of mass rape and mutilation, from the rape of an estimated two million German women by Soviet and Allied forces in World War II to the rape of hundreds of thousands of Congolese women occurring today.

   These statistics, egregious as they are, are yet still understatements of the horrors women have seen.

Women’s Battles

   What is missing is Nehai’s story, from Gaza. She’s a woman who spent her time organizing bread baking and distribution to all the neighbors during the few hours of ceasefire in the last war in Gaza.

   Or what about Farida’s story, the piano teacher in Sarajevo who walked through the snipers’ alley every day during the four-year siege of the city to keep the music school open? That was her fight in the war.

   Against this backdrop of the millions of Nehais and Faridas of the world, it is incredibly unfair of us to limit our conceptions of women in war to the image of the disempowered, helpless victim. It is unfair to exclude women from peace negotiations that define the terms of justice and award coveted leadership posts in new and interim governments. Less than 3 percent of all peace agreements have women as signatories.

   It is time to change that dynamic. No peace without women: We need to make sure that at least half the members of negotiating teams during peace talks are women. This is the only way we can en- sure that negotiations are not only focused on disarmament, demobilization, and defining the terms of power, but also on infrastructure, job creation, and building schools and hospitals for all men and women, boys and girls.

   We must invest in the success of these women – in their contributions to peace negotiations and their visions for rebuilding their communities. The United States has spent more than $1 trillion on the soldiers fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only some half a billion on the grassroots women who still struggle to define and maintain peace. How can women meaningfully contribute if they can’t afford to travel to the capital cities for the peace talks, if they don’t have the resources for associations, computers, internet access, and all the tools we take for granted every day in which we attempt to effect change?

   It’s time to flip the coin. Witness what women are doing to survive and you will never want to stop investing in them.

   Listen to the songs women sing and you will want to sing with them.

   Appreciate the other side of war and you will believe in the stories of survival and hope.

Zainab Salbi is founder and CEO of Women for Women Inter- national (, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of wars rebuild their lives. Since 1993, the organization has helped 299,000 women survivors of wars access social and economic opportunities through vocational skills education, rights awareness training, and income-generating opportunities. In its eighteen-year history, the organization has distributed more than $95 million in direct aid and microcredit loans.