8 women peacebuilders who shaped history
Research shows that women participating in peacebuilding efforts are less focused on the spoils of war – such as profits and land seizures – than men, instead centering their efforts on long term progress by working towards reconciliation, economic development, education and justice.
At the same time, women’s participation in peace mediation is low – for instance the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has so far pretty much excluded women from peace negotiations entirely. However there is no shortage of women peacebuilders throughout history. Here we shine a light on eight women past and present who have dedicated their lives to fostering peace and social justice.
Bertha von Suttner, the inspiring force behind the Nobel Peace Prize
Bertha von Suttner (1843 – 1914 ) was an Austrian author who first gained recognition as one of the leading figures of the Austrian peace movement when she published Lay Down Your Arms in 1889. It was a novel that called for disarmament while addressing a women’s place in society, the first time a book focused on the devastation of war instead of its acts of heroism.
Suttner struck up a friendship with Alfred Nobel, an arms manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite, and convinced him that weapons were not the deterrents of war he believed them to be, and were in fact quite the opposite. In a letter to Suttner, he famously wrote: “Inform me, convince me, and then I shall do something great for the movement.” As a result, several years later the Nobel Peace Prize was created.
Suttner continued lecturing, writing and lobbying for peace, with particular attention towards the looming threat of World War I. A year before her death, after speaking at The Hague’s International Peace Congress, she was named the ‘Generalissimo of the Peace Movement’.
Dorothy Day, the anarchist founder of the Catholic Worker Movement
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was an American journalist, anarchist and social activist who became a devout Catholic in her 30s, however she never gave up her socialist roots. She co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a nonviolent direct action group that campaigned for pacifism and the rights of the poor and homeless.
Day practised civil disobedience. In 1917 she was jailed after protesting for women’s right to vote in front of the White House, then going on hunger strike while in prison. She also led protests against nuclear testing and racial segregation which led to several more arrests – the last being in 1973 when she was 75. Since her death in 1980 there have been calls to have her canonised as a saint.
By fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute… we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world – Dorothy Day
The Catholic Worker Movement continues to be active in the US and in dozens of communities abroad, providing food for people affected by homelessness, supporting victims of trafficking and poverty, and campaigning against war.
Marii Hasegawa, the champion of post-war recovery
Marii Hasegawa (1918 – 2012) was an anti-war campaigner who helped to relocate and readjust many freed Japanese people after the war between the US and Japan.
Hasegawa herself had lived in a Japanese internment camp, after she was forcibly removed from her home in California and sent to Utah. There she served as a social worker and managed a field kitchen until she was released the following year.
She then joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a peace-seeking non-governmental organisation that opposed the internment of Japanese Americans. She worked with WILPF for 50 years, holding various roles including national president from 1971 to 1975.
During the Vietnam war she led a number of anti-war protests as well as a peace delegation to North Vietnam. In 1996 she was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize, a Japanese award given to those who work towards inter-religious cooperation and peacebuilding. In 2018, the Library of Virginia named her one of its ‘Virginia Women in History’.
Shirley Chisholm, the trailblazer of US politics
Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005) was a champion of civil rights, women’s rights and social justice, and became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, representing New York’s 12th congressional district.
While in Congress she was committed to addressing the needs of marginalised communities and advocating for progressive policies – she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation focused on redressing racial and gender inequality, tackling poverty and ending the Vietnam War.
In 1972, she made a bid for the presidency, becoming the first African American woman from a major party to run for the nation’s highest office. Although her presidential campaign faced many challenges, it was a significant milestone in American politics and paved the way for candidates of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds in the future.
All discrimination, whether it’s anti-woman or anti-Black, all discrimination is anti-human – Shirley Chisholm
Chisholm was a key figure in the Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s, and she fought for improved education, healthcare and social welfare. She was a co-founder of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, where she continued to push for equality and justice. Her motto was “Unbought and Unbossed,” typical of her commitment to standing up for what was right and fair, regardless of obstacles.
Wangari Maathai, environmental rights for peace
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was an environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, an organisation that combined tree planting with women’s empowerment.
Maathai recognized the interconnectedness of environmental degradation, poverty, and social inequality. With the Green Belt Movement she helped to mobilise thousands of women to plant trees across Kenya, helping to combat deforestation, soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity while simultaneously providing economic opportunities for women in rural areas.
She was also a defender of democracy and human rights, often facing huge personal risks and opposition from the Kenyan government. Her opposition to the construction of a 60-storey complex in Uhuru Park in particular led to increasingly personal attacks from authorities; in 1992 she discovered she was on a list of pro-democracy activists targeted for assassination.
In 2004 she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in environmental conservation and sustainable development. She was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, becoming chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor.
Today the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies aims to provide education on the sustainable use of natural resources in villages and rural communities throughout Africa.
Robi Damelin, peacebuilder in the Middle East
Robi Damelin (Born 1943) is an Israeli peace activist and spokesperson for the Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF), an organisation formed by Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Born in South Africa, she left for Israel in her twenties because of the pressure she faced being involved in the anti-apartheid movement. She later experienced personal tragedy when in 2002 her son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while serving in the Israeli army. Rather than responding to her grief with hatred and anger, Damelin chose a path of forgiveness and joined the PCFF.
I believe removing the stigma from each side and getting to know the person on the other side allows for a removal of fear, and a way to understand that a long–term reconciliation process is possible – Robi Damelin
Damelin is the main subject of the documentary ‘One Day After Peace’ made in 2012. She frequently travels to international events and meetings with policymakers to share her personal story; with the PCFF she travels with a Palestinian partner in communities and schools throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories to promote reconciliation and peace.
Rigoberta Menchú, the icon for Indigenous rights
Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú (Born 1959) has devoted her life to advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples. Born into the K’iché Maya community, her life was profoundly affected by the Guatemalan Civil War, during which her family endured violence and hardship.
Indigenous peoples were disproportionately affected by the conflict, and she became a spokesperson for her community and a fierce critic of the oppressive Guatemalan government.
In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her dedication to peaceful resistance. Her award specifically recognized her struggle for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples. She is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and ran for president of Guatemala twice, after founding Winaq, the country’s first Indigenous political party.
Peace cannot exist without justice, justice cannot exist without fairness, fairness cannot exist without development, development cannot exist without democracy, democracy cannot exist without respect for the identity and worth of cultures and peoples – Rigoberta Menchu
Malala Yousafzai, defender of girls’ education and freedom
At the age of 11, Malala Yousafzai (born 1997) was already an activist, blogging for BBC Urdu under a pseudonym to share her experiences of what it was like living under Taliban rule in Pakistan. Her advocacy made her a target, and in 2012 she survived an assassination attempt when she was shot in the head while on a school bus.
The incident and her subsequent recovery and resilience have led her to becoming one of the world’s best-known campaigners for the rights of women and girls’ education, and an inspirational figure that frequently appears on book covers and merchandise.
If one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it? – Malala Yousafzai
She is the co-founder of the Malala Fund along with her father, an organisation that works to ensure girls around the world have access to 12 years of free, quality education, and she regularly speaks about the importance of education as a tool for empowerment and social change alongside politicians and fellow activists.
In 2014, she became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.