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Diplomat wants female peacemakers

Theresa Civantos | Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A former United Nations diplomat told a Notre Dame audience Tuesday that 80 percent of the world’s refugees are women and children – and she wants women, including female refugees, to become “architects of peace.”

Gillian Sorensen, a senior adviser to the United Nations Foundation who is known as “the diplomat’s diplomat,” delivered the lecture “The State of Women Internationally” in the Hesburgh Center auditorium.

“Women are often marginalized, pushed to the edge,” Sorensen said in an interview before the lecture. “The United Nations is at the center of so many things. We could have focused on any number of topics. But women’s rights, women’s issues, are very important.”

She said women have been throughout history victims of war, but they possess the traits that make strong peace builders. The opportunities to act in this capacity, however, have been denied to them for centuries.

“Although women are half the human race, men around the world seem to seize authority and power and decision-making, and they sometimes use it to hurt women,” she said. “It wasn’t really until this century that the rights of women have been seen as equal to the rights of men.”

And though their rights may be the same, women’s inherent traits differentiate them from their male counterparts in the way they both deal with conflict, Sorensen said.

“Women make a real difference in building peace,” she said. “That’s not to say they can’t be as tough as men. They can, if they choose. But many women have a perspective and experience that gives them a special ability as peace makers and peace builders.”

She said that, although many of the world’s war refugees are female, men have dominated peace-making diplomacy in the past.

“Look at pictures in The New York Times of peace conferences. Why is it all men?” she said.

“Men have been doing this for centuries. Women could do it as well, if not better. Give it to the women and see what they can do,” she said with a laugh.

But Sorensen was serious when she said women have “untapped potential as peacemakers.”

Tapping that potential, however, will require drastic changes in almost all institutions worldwide, Sorensen said.

“My dream is that women receive respect and education, health care – so they can safely give birth – and opportunities. That’s not so different from men, I guess,” she said. “I’m wishing they had the same opportunities as men.”

Globalization, she said, posed a threat to that dream as it “has increased social and economic inequity” between poor and wealthy countries. Religious fundamentalism, as well, is detrimental to the advancement of women as diplomats as it “literally tries to veil and hide women.”

Sorensen emphasized the need for strong role models for young women to combat these challenges, noting she came from “a family of strong women,” which includes her mother, a journalist and activist.

But in many countries, she said, young girls are unable to find inspiration in other women, because females are devalued from birth – sometimes to the point where baby girls may be killed because they are not considered as economically or socially valuable as boys.

“I do believe that women’s brains, their intelligence, their capacity to do good work is equal to men’s if they have the same education and opportunities,” she said. “We need to convey a sense that girl babies are just as precious as boy babies.”

And students could become the tools with which that change can be made, she said.

Sorensen challenged her collegiate audience, urging individuals to ask themselves how they can “make a contribution to the larger world.”

“How can we look across boundaries and bring their talents to where the need is very great? How can we make a difference in the world?” she said.

A former U.N. assistant secretary-general for external relations, Sorensen has also tried to make a difference as a U.N. special adviser for public policy.

She is now traveling the country talking about her experiences with the United Nations and describing herself as “the U.N.’s national advocate.”