April 29, 2015

Oral Histories Project Captures Firsthand Accounts of Pressing Issues in Peace and Security

In 2012, Libyan human rights activist and lawyer Salwa Bughaigis sat down to an interview with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security (GIWPS).

Bughaigis had been on the front lines of the movement to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Later, she sat on the transitional council that sought to bring order after Qaddafi’s fall.

“We are trying to…[put] pressure on decision-makers,” Bughaigis said in the interview, now available on the institute’s YouTube channel. “The change is not going to be easy or fast.”

Yet this work came with great risks. In June 2014, Bughaigis’ courageous work as a peacemaker and activist came to a sudden end when she was assassinated in her home in Benghazi.

The tragedy of Bughaigis’s story speaks to the importance of collecting oral histories from others like her across the globe.

Profiles in Peace

The Georgetown Institute launched the Profiles in Peace Oral Histories Project in 2012 in order to collect unique, firsthand interviews from women and men who are optimizing the agency of women in peace, security, and post-conflict reconstruction. 

“The idea behind the project is that, so often, if you look at the way in which history is recorded, the stories of women and their contributions are left out. This especially true in the fields of peace and security," said Mayesha Alam, GIWPS associate director. 

Over the past three years, more than 50 leaders, mostly women, have participated in the oral history project. This truly unique project represents the largest collection of on-the-record interviews with leaders in the field of women, peace, and security.

Past interviews have included President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; Dr. Monica McWilliams, co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition; Zainab Bangura, special representative on sexual violence in conflict in the United Nations; and Mari Skare, NATO special representative of the secretary general for women, peace and security.

Women, Peace, and Security

The project advances the mission of the institute, which was founded in 2011 to identity and document the ways in which women experience peace and conflict and contribute to resolving conflict and creating security.

“The fact of the matter is there is very little evidence available to show what difference women’s participation makes. Even where women have held leading roles, there isn’t much documentation available, and even less is available in their own words,” Alam said.

Although the project has had remarkable opportunities to interview high-level leaders about their experiences, Alam has found that some of the most inspirational accounts have been from the “unsung heroes”—individuals that most people would not necessarily know, like Salwa Bughaigis.

Alam explains, "They are the ones often risking their lives to bring women's voices to the peace table, rehabilitate former female combatants, provide psychosocial and economic support to survivors of sexual violence, promote women's political leadership, or shine a light on discriminatory practices, oftentimes without the recognition or respect deserved.”

New Definitions

In each interview, the institute asks leaders about the strategies behind their work, their vision for change, the lessons they have learned, and how what "peace" and "security" mean to them.

The videos are designed to be a tool for students, scholars, policymakers, and practitioners that can inform solutions, highlight challenges, and connect different stakeholders.

Such knowledge can deepen society’s understanding of the processes of peace and security.

“It’s not just about the constitution and laws,” Bughaigis said in her interview. “I have to tell you—I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about society respecting women’s rights and believing in [their] role in politics.”

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