If you rely on British media, you might get a simplistic image of Iraq. It is true that various religious, ethnic and tribal communities have been fighting, in some cases for decades, and also that this cycle of violence may continue for a while yet. But there is another way to look at Iraq: that citizens, especially women, are doing the hard work of strengthening democracy by developing concrete ideas that improve people’s daily lives. It is a story not of sectarian dynamics, but of active citizenship.
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Last week, I had the opportunity to see one citizen-led initiative during my visit to Erbil, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I was invited by PAX for a two-day workshop with members of the Iraqi parliament. With a group of nine female MP’s, the organization is facilitating a project called “Women Building Bridges”, supported by the U.K. Embassy in Baghdad. Together, in the next few months, they aim to hold community consultations in Ninewa Governorate (its capital is Mosul) in northern Iraq in an effort to improve social cohesion and encourage people to be more involved in their own governance.
This initiative is unique in a country riven by sectarian strife. These nine MPs belong to different political parties and represent some of the major communities in Ninewa Governorate: Sunni Arabs, Shia Turkmen, Kurds, and Yezidis. These brave women are impressive on so many levels. Women in positions of power are often the target of attacks, and a group of nine female MPs stands out.
Before they can help build bridges in communities, they have to put aside their own differences to work together. This is not easy, but they are determined to be inclusive and look for pragmatic solutions. I repeatedly heard such sentiments as “Mosul is for everyone,” “We want all displaced persons to able to return with dignity,” and “We need justice, not revenge.” They have a strong vision of how they want Iraq to be, and need support to make that vision a reality.
We have learned from other countries emerging from internal conflict that women’s meaningful participation in decision-making, women’s leadership and inclusive governance are key to minimizing the chances of recurring violence. Iraq is not an exception. In the end, Iraq’s future will be determined by the people in Iraq, not by the international community and donor organizations. But we do have opportunities, and an obligation, to try to support Iraqi efforts towards democracy and justice through programs that ensure victims of crimes committed by all parties have universal access to justice.
It is also important that international support for inclusive approaches to governance and women’s political, social and economic participation starts with listening to the needs of citizens and communities in Iraq. At present, donor pledging conferences are being prepared: one for Mosul and one for Iraq. The agendas and outcomes for these conferences must not dominated by pre-cooked programs written in European capitals, or only by the leadership of the dominant political parties in Iraq or Kurdistan. We should make sure that women meaningfully participate in setting the agenda as well as in the conferences themselves, and that women’s rights organizations and leaders are consulted throughout. To really make progress in Iraq, people who have a vision of how to move beyond the sectarian narrative must have access to these conferences. The U.K. can help to make this happen. It will not be easy, but as one of the Iraqi MPs explained to me, “We are not striving for superficial changes. This is about deep societal and political changes.”
The Women Building Bridges initiative demonstrates women’s immense resilience and strength in a country where women and girls have suffered unimaginably. It demonstrates the chance for Iraqi women to play an equal role in political reform and in the rebuilding of their country. It demonstrates the need for consistent implementation of the women, peace and security agenda, which recognizes that women’s leadership, security and fundamental human rights are essential for peace. The U.K. government has an excellent opportunity to provide that support by way of our upcoming National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, and by meeting our commitments to provide political and financial resources to the women participating in peace processes, negotiations and state building.
If we are to move beyond the narrow story of sectarian dynamics, the U.K. must do so and back the women and citizens building peace without delay. The women I met in Erbil are ready.
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