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Interview with Maryam Elahi

The following interview with Maryam Elahi originally appeared in the Peacemaker, the monthly newsletter of the Peace and Security Funders Group.

Since joining OSI last June, you have taken the International Women’s Program in new directions. Tell us about the program.

The overall mission of the program is to promote and protect the rights of women and girls. In particular, we focus on the empowerment of women groups to access education, economic reform, legal rights and health. While we are continuing our partnership work with women groups around the world we have decided to have an added focus in working on women’s issues in a handful of conflict and post-conflict societies. Traditionally, the program was focused in Eastern Europe. That has changed as we’ve become more global.

Why focus on areas of conflict?

Women are particularly vulnerable in violent conflicts and sometimes are invisible. They often carry the huge psychological trauma of conflict, as well as a greater risk of physical harm. And when a country is trying to move into a more stable post-conflict situation, women have critical roles. We work with women’s groups, as well as community leaders, lawyers, church leaders. We try to ensure that women are right up there with men in these institutions and that their voices are heard.

Women are more natural allies when it comes to building societal structures. They are more focused on development and a powerful resource for rebuilding society. In many contexts, it is the women’s groups that are focused on providing health care, primary education and sufficient food for the next generation. These are the basic elements of civil society. Women have a different experience in conflict—hence a different perspective on conflict resolution and rebuilding society. In general, women are more engaged in doing things that empower themselves and the next generation. For this reason, the women’s organizations are more impressive than other NGOs.

What countries are you working in?

Our top three priorities right now are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Nepal. Over one-half of the conflicts in the world are in Africa so it was natural for us to engage there first. We have two criteria for engagement. First, we looked at countries where OSI already has a presence. Second, we made an assessment of the situation and have chosen countries where we felt we could have an impact.

You just returned from a trip to the Congo. Was it a success?

Yes, it was. The objective of the trip was to meet with activists and women’s groups and get a better sense of what structures exist, what is being done and what advocacy work we could do. As you know, OSI does both funding of others and its own advocacy work.

We were concerned with gross violations of women’s rights. Rape is widespread. And 80 percent of the rapes are committed by the militia. They terrorize women to cause them to flee their land so they can seize their land and homes. The fact that the militia is the perpetrator makes the impunity issue much more complicated. The women can’t get justice. So we need to develop different tactics. As in all wars, when a militia commits violations and they are not defeated by the government’s forces, it is critical that the government protect the targeted population. This is not happening. We were tremendously impressed by the activists in the DRC. The victims have a highly sophisticated sense of justice. They aren’t looking for retribution or compensation. They want their land and their homes back so they can be self sufficient and they want the Rwandan rebels to leave the DRC and go back to Rwanda. The groups have successfully pushed for legislation on rape. This legislation is now being tested. What you have in the Congo is a very weak central government—there’s really a big vacuum there—and that leaves some room for civil society to take over the space. So many of the governments in this region are repressive, such as the one in Zimbabwe. In the Congo, this is less true; the government is corrupt and incompetent yet there is space for civil society to grow and thrive.

Is there much of an international presence or support?

First, there is the UN presence, with a rule of law and a human rights component. Both components are doing very important work. Second, a number of governments including Holland, Belgium, Canada and the EU are providing support. Third, there are local groups doing great human rights work with international support, such as the organization Sofipadi based in the eastern province, as well as international groups such as Women for Women International.

Where are the greatest needs?

There is need for building proper infrastructure to address justice. There is a need for groups who know legal and transitional justice work. There is a great need for better health care and access to health. In general, there is not enough funding going into basic human rights guarantees.

How does the situation in Nepal compare to that in the Congo?

The situation in Nepal is more hopeful. There is an incredibly vibrant NGO community in Nepal, including incredibly vibrant women’s groups with a fairly sophisticated agenda and outreach strategy.

What is your professional background?

I am a human rights attorney. I used to work for Amnesty International. I joined Amnesty shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait as the advocacy director for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Before coming to OSI, I was at Trinity College in Connecticut, where I founded and directed the Human Rights Program. This was the first undergraduate program of its kind.

What do you say to other members of the Peace and Security Funders Group that work on peacebuilding?

We’re at a moment when we can make a big different in the DRC and in other conflict and post conflict societies in Africa. I would encourage other funders to explore the situation on the ground. There’s lot of good to be done.

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