I have always been fascinated by Purim — a holiday that celebrates a disaster that nearly happened but didn’t, a planned genocide against the Jewish people in ancient Persia that was subverted at the final hour. The heroine of this story was a woman, Queen Esther, whose nerve and diplomatic savvy rescued the Jewish community from a plot to destroy it.
The way Purim is observed today celebrates the importance of this female activist. Even some of the more traditional Jewish movements, in which women are not obligated to participate in organized prayer, demand that they participate in the reading of the Megillah. This story is not only a cherished part of Jewish history but also a call to recognize the important role women can and should play in resolving conflicts that continue to take lives by the hundreds of thousands.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with 100 modern-day Queen Esthers. Along with Mary Robinson — the former president of Ireland — and other women human rights activists, I served as one of the advisers to the Sudanese Women’s Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The participants, all Sudanese women, represented a cross-section of the two conflicts that have devastated that country over the past 25 years, the civil war between northern and southern Sudan and the genocide that is currently taking place in Darfur. There were refugees, activists from Darfur, women from southern Sudan, and some from eastern Sudan and Khartoum. Though the women had very different perspectives on these conflicts, they found common ground on two principles: that the time has come to end the violence and that women must be at the peacemaking table if progress is to be made.
Women and girls comprise 85% of the Sudanese refugee and internally displaced population. They are both the recipients of aid and the saviors who keep their communities alive; they risk their lives collecting firewood and water and bear the brunt of gender-based violence, kidnappings, rape and trauma used by militias as tactics of war. Like Queen Esther, most of the women I met fear for their lives, but they carry on with the work of protecting their communities. When serious peace negotiations in Darfur finally begin, the issues that will ultimately be settled — land rights, stewardship of water resources, access to health care and building a robust educational system — acutely affect women, and their perspectives are vital in helping to rebuild their communities and their country.
Without women at the table, some of the byproducts of years of war will fall through the cracks when world leaders convene to negotiate the end of this conflict. With women represented, we have much greater reason to hope that deep societal problems — gender-based violence, a dearth of income-generating ventures for women and gaps in children’s education — will be addressed.
A group of women from southern Sudan asked to meet with our delegation privately. Having emerged from a years-long civil war with northern Sudan and trying now to navigate a tenuous peace brokered by the Bush administration, they wanted to emphasize that they are very concerned about the dramatic rises in prostitution, human trafficking and gang-driven crime in their own communities.
The southern Sudanese women were torn between the need to deal with their own challenges and the realization of how dire the situation is for their counterparts in Darfur, where the military continues to attack civilians, threaten aid workers and prevent international peacekeepers from doing their jobs. I told them that their work to empower women and overcome violence in their own communities will help chart a course for the women of Darfur, who will eventually face similar challenges. This is the essence of women’s empowerment — one group of women diving into the fray and charting a course for the next group tasked to bear the burden of a community’s survival.
The conference attendees know that the true power of women to unite and lead can only happen when they gain access to the process as active participants. Before the forum disbanded, they made a commitment to meet again in six months. They have formed subcommittees, drafted a mission statement and worked with Mary Robinson and the other advisers to present it to the African Union. This is a powerful demonstration of women cultivating power from the ground up by organizing, assessing needs, defining goals and marshalling resources to tap into existing decision-making structures.
Queen Esther’s role in the Purim story was a precursor to these brave women’s work to mend a society rent by decades of bloodshed. Like Esther, the women of Sudan are negotiators and peacemakers, standing up against power and demanding to participate in charting the course for their people. Their success will go a long way toward ending the first and, hopefully, only genocide of the 21st century.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.