29 Sep Rising Star Visal, a Cambodian Peaceworker, is on a mission to make peacebuilding inclusive
“Peace is not only a noble vision for humanity. Peace is a call to action,” the UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered his message for the International Day of Peace 2023.
As he noted, peace is crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. While the world commits to taking actions for peace, here are three facts that underscore the gender gap in peace: conflicts disproportionately affect girls and women, yet they are notably absent from the highest echelons of power where peace is negotiated.
- From forced displacements to increase in gender-based violence and trafficking, conflicts increase women and girls’ vulnerability. According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reports that more than half of the planet’s 80 million displaced people are women and children.
- The participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes a peace agreement 64% less likely to fail.”
- Women’s participation in formal peace processes remains low. Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, just 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world.
The exclusion of women puts achieving the Goal 16 of the SDGs—building just, peaceful, and inclusive societies— at stake. Perhaps the hope lies in the fact that, although men dominate formal peace processes, women leaders are active and more effective at brokering peace at community level. As emphasised by the UN Secretary-General, our hope for peace rests on our actions, and women leaders deliver peace most effectively.
But why do women make effective peacebuilders? Our Rising Star Visal tackles the question in this article. Visal started peace work as a Project Officer four years ago at the NGO forumZFD in Cambodia. Her team worked on a narrative project, which encouraged Cambodians to reflect on their individual and collective narratives around the Cambodian Civil War. After completing her tenure with forumZFD, Visal is working to set up a community led peacebuilding organisation.
Learn about Visal’s motivation for peace work, her efforts in realising the goal of a peaceful Cambodia and ASEAN region, and why she believes women leadership is critical for global peace. Read her incredible story below:
The intertwined personal and national history
As is the case for many Cambodians, Visal’s family was not spared from the violence that took place in the 30 year-long conflict in the country. Her father and uncles were part of the armed conflict and fought on the opposing sides. She questions aloud, “What could have led them to serve in the opposing troops? What led them to join the military, knowing that they were fighting against their siblings?”
Visal continues, “It is easier to label one faction of the conflict as a perpetrator and shift the blame on to them. But first, it is important to understand the root causes of conflict. What motivated them, my family to take up arms against each other? What is my responsibility to fix the problem? As a new generation, it is my responsibility to prevent these problems as a peacebuilder.”
It was the knowledge of her family’s traumatic past that motivated Visal to pursue peace work. The experience of her family gives a microscopic view of the Cambodian Civil War. Alongside reflecting on her family’s history, she believes it is her duty to educate fellow Cambodians on the futility of war.
The nurturing of community of women leaders
During her undergraduate years, she assisted a Phd candidate in anthropology. Her engagement with texts, including archival research, about the history of Cambodia fueled her hunger for knowledge. Following the research, she enrolled in the undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh in 2016.
It was the company and care of women that nurtured her calling and sustained her focus in peace work. Amongst students and professors from countries across South and Southeast Asia at AUW, Bangladesh made her feel at home. In addition, it offered her an opportunity to understand the history of violence in the region, from Bangladesh’s post-colonial history to the escalating violence across the border in Myanmar.
The Narrative Project: Helping fellow Cambodian Cope with their Past
Once she was back home in 2019, she found the perfect opportunity to formally begin her peace work with forumZFD and their work with the narrative project. The project encouraged Cambodians to reflect on their individual and collective narratives around the Cambodian Civil War. Emphasising the need for a repository of the lived experiences of Cambodians, in a language that is accessible to them, Visal added, “In Cambodia, people do not want to talk about history. There is a limited resource to learn about Cambodian history. So, when young people want to learn about history, their go-to resource is the internet. The books they find online are written by foreign scholars, mostly in French and English. But what about the knowledge produced by Cambodians themselves?”
“In Cambodia, people do not want to talk about history. There is a limited resource to learn about Cambodian history. So, when young people want to learn about history, their go-to resource is the internet. The books they find online are written by foreign scholars, mostly in French and English. But what about the knowledge produced by Cambodians themselves?”
The Well-being of Peace workers — Caring for the carers?
Despite her accomplishments at work, Visal noticed that her vigour for peace fluctuated. Experts in the region agree that peace work can take a massive toll on the health and well-being of workers. It tests the resilience of even the most passionate workers like Visal herself. But her recent travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a first at AUW and more recently at International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) programme has reinvigorated her. IWP supports grassroots women’s activism in Thailand and Asia through courses, workshops and retreats, which are grounded on its principles of feminism, social activism and spiritual practice.
She says that Wedu’s community of women leaders is another energy-giving source for her. After first becoming a Rising Star, she stepped up to become a mentor. She also became a Rising Star Ambassador and helped extend Wedu’s reach among women changemakers in Cambodia.
Why do we need more women leaders in peace work?
When we look at human history, it’s a series of wars and conflicts. Visal does not think it’s a coincidence that the majority of the leadership role is occupied by men throughout the history of societies. She believes that women’s leadership, especially their resourcefulness and inclination to prioritise communication over violent measures would have changed the course of history.
Visal answers, “I believe women are transformative as leaders. Women leaders prioritise their team’s well being, invest in the personal development of the team, and bring out the strengths of the team. They become role models for their teams. I believe women are more inclined to resolve conflict through communication over violent measures. What’s often frowned upon as women’s love for ‘gossip’ only means that they collect information in detail and negotiate better than men. They choose communication for success, not violence.”
- Council on Foreign Relations, Women’s Participation in Peace Processes, https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/
- UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, Global Trends: Forced Displacements in 2019, Global-Trends-Report-2019.pdf (unhcr.org)
- Wedu, Amplifying equal voices for peace: Insights and lessons from women peacekeepers and mentors in Asia
Take action today.
Conflicts are displacing unprecedented numbers of people from their homes, and many are with its aftermath. It is critical that we recognise and celebrate women peace workers, like Visal. More importantly, women leaders like Visal need allies who will champion and create opportunities for them to advance in their leadership journey.