Are women inherently more peaceful than men? And are women’s interests always united when it comes to debates over war and peace?
These are just some of the intriguing questions brought up by a new PBS documentary series, Women, War, and Peace, which is airing Tuesday evenings in October. Last week’s episode, I Came to Testify, tells the story of the 1998 Kunarac case, in which sixteen brave women testified at The Hague against Serbian military officers who presided over the systemized sexual slavery of thousands of Bosnian women and girls. The case marked the first time an international body declared rape a crime against humanity.
“Rape has always been an undercurrent of war. People talk about raping and pillaging,” says US Kunarac prosecutor Peggy Kuo in the film—noting that even so, sex crimes were left off the docket at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals, despite ample evidence of mass rape in concentration camps. “I had heard that in Nuremberg there was a discussion of whether to bring up the subject of rape,” Kuo recounts, “and somebody made a comment: ‘We don’t watch a bunch of crying women in the court room.’ ”
Indeed, until late in the twentieth century, female victims were denied recourse for the special, gender-specific suffering they endured during times of war. The result of downplaying conflict-related sexual violence was that not only war but peacemaking and reconciliation, too, were coded as activities to be conducted by men.
The second film in the series, airing tomorrow night, is the award-winning and absolutely bracing documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the story of Liberian feminist peace activist Leymah Gbowee, one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Gbowee led a movement that united Liberian Christian and Muslim women to bring about an end to her nation’s blood-soaked civil war, in which male militias vied for control of Liberia’s mineral deposits, deploying drugs and sexual violence to terrorize local populations and recruit young boys as soldiers.
Wearing white, thousands of Liberian women lined the streets to pray, sing, chant and protest for peace. Their message was a powerful one—that as mothers, they would no longer tolerate their sons being drafted into a violent conflict that led to the mass rape of their daughters. When the female activists were excluded from peace talks in Ghana, they stormed the meeting, forcing a compromise that led to the exile of disgraced Liberian president Charles Taylor and the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month.