As she boarded the first flight of her globe-circling journey, Jayne Docherty, PhD, program director at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), carried a clutch of certificates she would present to the inaugural cohort of graduates in an innovative peace-training program.
All women, all Muslim, all university-educated, and straining the bonds of their conservative societies, these nine graduates of the Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program (WPLP) all live in Somali-speaking regions of east Africa.
“Credit for the creation of this program belongs to another strong and committed Somali-speaking woman, Dekha Ibrahim Abdi,” Docherty said in her remarks at the WPLP graduation ceremony in a hall of University of Hargeisa, Somaliland. Abdi visited Eastern Mennonite University in June 2010 for a gathering of women peacebuilders.
At that gathering Abdi asked these provocative questions: “Are we women innocent victims, or are we part of the problem and perpetrators? And if we contribute to war, then how do we organize ourselves to contribute to peace?” The ideas from that gathering – educating women to lead their societies away from violence and towards just relationships necessary for peace – are central to EMU’s new program.
18 months of study and practice
WPLP consists of cohorts of carefully chosen women – strongly recommended by organizations with a stake in peacebuilding in a particular region – who undertake coursework for 18 months, partly at EMU’s main campus in Harrisonburg, Va., and partly in their home region.
“WPLP was designed by women for women’s life situation and learning needs,” says CJP’s executive director Daryl Byler, JD. “The cohort model creates space for the students to support one another during their course of study, as well as during in-country implementation of peacebuilding practices.”
The first group received their graduate certificates from the program at the end of 2013 in a ceremony attended by six of the nine Somali-region cohort women. “The program they have completed was academically rigorous. They completed the same courses taken by our master’s degree students – and they did it largely at a distance, while meeting the demands of work and family obligations,” said Docherty.
In attendance and speaking at the graduation ceremony were the president of the University of Hargeisa, several political party leaders, and three women leaders of cabinet-level departments in Somaliland. The university facilitated this ceremony as a courtesy to EMU since the WPLP graduates would have had difficulty obtaining travel visas for the spring 2014 graduation at EMU.
“Strong, resilient women”
Graduate Asli Mohamoud spoke at the ceremony and praised her cohort’s “group of strong, resilient women… All the women you see in front of you are used to carrying weights and burdens… We are happy and thankful that now we have the tools and knowledge to guide our experience. We hope to work together as a team to enhance peace and stability in our respective communities.”
Working together as a team is a major component of WPLP’s approach. Drawing women who share a common language, ethnic identity and similar experiences of conflict, the cohort-based program requires a “very different form of teaching, a revamping of the curriculum, tailored around their problems and their region,” notes Docherty. Their real-life case studies, drawn into an academic framework, provide material for their courses.
The collaborative teamwork fostered during their coursework, practicum and mentored projects will hopefully continue as they implement what they have learned. “Each group of graduates builds out the peacebuilder network,” says Docherty. “Our graduates, wherever they work around the world, have an uncanny knack for finding and supporting each other.”
For Mohamoud, WPLP was more than an academic exercise. It was “a journey of healing and understanding and acceptance of our situation as women affected by conflict, and who are looked up to as the leaders of change in our locations.”
On journey of healing, pushing for answers
Her supervisor at CARE International confirms that Mohamoud “pushes us hard now, asking very tough questions and causing all of us to think.”
For graduate Hibo Kheyre, being part of WPLP enabled her to recognize that she had been doing peacebuilding work for a long time. “Now with the courses and skills I have had, I know that I can continue peacebuilding in a much better way. I have changed my world view into a bigger one.”
Colleagues now express amazement that she is serving in “the role of traditional elder,” who would typically be a man, she adds.
“Training gives these women the power to step up and lead,” said WPLP director Jan Jenner from Nairobi, Kenya, where she was interviewing the 2014 group of eight women candidates from that country. Two women from Sudan and two from South Sudan will complete the incoming group.
The Somalia-region group of graduates included women who live and work in Somaliland, Somalia, Kenya and Puntland. While enrolled in WPLP, many were promoted or found more challenging jobs that use their expanded skills. Their work includes aid relief, gender advisor, peace educator, migration issues advisor, HIV educator, job trainer and electoral reform policymaker. Their WPLP participation was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Mohamoud summarizes the interconnected issues these graduates will face. “I am now in a position to link peacebuilding work with gender, human rights, and environmental protection – all crucial to building lasting peace in Somalia and in Africa.”
Other first graduates from Liberia, Fiji, Solomon Islands
In addition to the nine women of the Somali-region, the first class of WPLP graduates includes two women from Liberia, two from Fiji and one from the Solomon Islands. Some of these graduates plan to participate in EMU’s April 27 commencement weekend.
Docherty described her journey around the globe to participate in the first WPLP graduation ceremony in Hargeisa, Somaliland: “I had already scheduled a trip to Burma/Myanmar, so I continued west from there. I stopped in Dubai, took a flight down to Hargeisa, was there four days, back to Dubai and then home. Total time on airplanes, coach class seats, was more than 48 hours. But it was important for someone from here to be there.”
This was Docherty’s second visit to Hargeisa. In September 2012, she, Jan Jenner, and Gloria Rhodes, PhD, traveled there to teach a two-week course to eight WPLP students denied travel visas for Summer Peacebuilding Institute training. Of that experience, Docherty noted in her graduation remarks, “Spending time here in Hargeisa was immensely helpful as we learned more about the rich culture of the Somali-speaking peoples and more about the potential for peace in this region.”