The fearless women doctrine

Photo: Jasmin Baulhassani / Nobel Peace Center

We are women leaders. We are privileged—part of an elite. Therefore, we have responsibility.

PublishedAug 16, 2016
AuthorLiv Tørres
Executive Director


I met her three years ago, in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. At the time, I had worked in the humanitarian sector for years. I had seen more than enough conflict and drama, heard more than enough shattering stories, and seen more than enough individuals destroyed by war and conflict. Yet, the story of this Palestinian grandmother has stayed with me.

A World Marked by Conflict

It is the story of a life in exile, of a woman who has lived her whole life as a refugee in continuous flight. First as an infant from Palestine when the state of Israel was established; later in refugee camps in southern Lebanon until the civil war started there; then escaping to the camps in Sabra and Shatila; from there to Damascus, Syria, in the early 80s when the massacres took place, and then back to Sabra and Shatila after the war broke out in Syria. This woman’s story was filled with drama, rapes, killings, harassment, discrimination, massacres—images and memories still alive in her head and soul through a whole life as a refugee. Yet, she looked at me and said:

“The perpetrators have taken almost everything from me, but I will not allow them to define me as a victim, instil me with fear and take my smiles and dignity away. Because then I have nothing left.”

She had seen the devil in the eyes and had no fear left. Fearless, as so many other women I have met.

The world we live in is marked by conflict. Yet, even more by unpredictability and fear. There are more humanitarian crises and higher refugee numbers than in decades. We have a global power map changing with declining American influence, rising global competition, dwindling resources and widespread instability. The international institutional system we built after WWII is not only undermined by non-state actors, but also by the changes in global-political power. More than anything, the world we live in is marked by increasing inequality and following social unrest and anger. It is easy to give up, but we cannot. There are still many heroes out there: peacemakers who persevere when success seems impossible; people who ignore pressure, obstacles and ignorance to make tough decisions; and countless men and women who have the courage to leave the past behind to shape a better future.

Fearless Women
Photo: Paola Devia Barco / Nobel Peace Center Foto: Paola Devia Barco / Nobels Fredssenter

Thousands and thousands of women have endured. The Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi (L) received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts for democracy and human rights, especially the rights of women and children. Tawakkol Karman (top-photo), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee were awarded the Peace Prize in 2011 for their contribution to peace, development and democracy. Jane Addams and Emily Green Balch from the US received the prize many years before, for the establishment of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Others did not get any Nobel Prize, but are still heroes too. The 20-year-old Malawi girl, Memory Banda, for example, who at the age of 15, decided to spend her time campaigning to end child marriage. Earlier this year, the Malawi Parliament voted to make marriage before the age of 18, illegal.

Or the former Venezuelan attorney-general Luisa Ortega, who was fired and is under considerable pressure after criticizing President Maduro’s unconstitutional moves. Or Thuli Madonsela, the previous public protector in South Africa, who spoke truth to power and wanted to hold the president accountable for corruption. Or Bertha Lucia Fries, from Colombia, who was hurt under a FARC guerrilla attack, but decided to work for reconciliation and peace rather than spiralling conflict. Most of these heroines do not receive peace prizes or make it on the front page of newspapers. Yet, they do contribute to peace. They fight for human rights, development and democracy. And they refuse to succumb to fear.

"We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women acquire the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."
- The Norwegian Nobel Committee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Take Action

Men and women experience war in different ways. Women are more seldom the perpetrators of war and more often the victims. Women have a broader sense of the costs of war. In 2000, the UN Resolution 1325 made violence against women in wartime an international security issue and underlined the need to have women on an equal footing with men in peace processes and in peace work in general. There is, however, still a long way to go. Less than 10 per cent of the UN peace mediators, participants in the peace negotiations or signatories to peace agreements are women. Meanwhile the rapes continue. The sexual harassment continues. The costs of war build up, and the fear grows.

We need more women to take action. Some ask what women can do. But there is not a thing we cannot do. Peace agreements where women partake last longer. Peace building and rebuilding after war and conflict is also more sustainable where women are involved. And we are tired of being victims and passive recipients of assistance. We want to do more.

We, who have privileges and peace

We are women leaders. We are privileged—part of an elite. Therefore, we have responsibility. We have a responsibility to raise above the current backlash, references to pussy-grabbing and populist waves. And we, who have privileges and peace, have more responsibility and definitely more resources to push fear aside than those who are living in the midst of turmoil, conflict and poverty.

We need a doctrine that trespasses national borders. A doctrine that rebuilds power and hope. A doctrine that helps build an international peace movement again. A doctrine whereby civil society takes responsibility for defending democracy and human rights internationally. A doctrine recognising that women all over the world have a responsibility to fight for human rights and women’s rights all over the world. That doctrine contains the principle that we need to organize again. We need to rebuild our communities, our organisations and the peace movement. We need to realise that we will never get stronger than the weakest link in the chain. We need to raise above the pettiness of intolerant views of populists.

"When others go low, we go high."
- Michelle Obama, 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Human rights and women’s rights are universal. Without them, we have reason to fear. With them, we have a chance to build peace. We should not need to see the devil in the eye to fight or beat fear.

This text is a shorter version of a keynote address given at the Leadership Women Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas, in July 2017.


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