Reflections on the alchemy of everyday peacebuilders by Sarah Owusu (Peace Day, 21 September 2016)

The 21st of September is The International day of Peace – what grand and idealistic words. Some might even say naïve. What good is one day of Peace in the face of global conflict, war and crime? Can people ever be truly peaceful? And what does it even mean to live peacefully?

I have been reflecting on these questions for a long time, and in 2013 I had the honour of working with Peace One Day – the organisation that ensured that Peace Day became a UN recognised day of global unity and intercultural cooperation, and whose objective is to institutionalise the day as one of taking action around the question: who will you make peace with?

Personally, this question has come up for me again recently as I was faced with my own visceral anger. It was a few months back when a close friend spoke to me about how the relationship she was in, one that had been escalating for some time, had reached a point where she could no longer stay. I sat up with her late, listening to her talk about the latest and most vicious interaction that they had and welling up at the sight of the bruises on her chest and arms.

Listening to her story, I was frustrated and angry at how little I felt able to do – and the anger stayed with me. I see anger as a great tool to help you identify your boundaries, your hard lines, your convictions – and for me, here I was faced with my own anger, a clear pointer towards something that I did not want to see in the world. Experiencing anger in this way, allowed me to activate the transformative power behind the anger – so I was left with another question: what alchemy can I make with this feeling?

It is with this energy, that I am convening a dialogue on Peace Day this year for a group of women to discuss gender based violence, it’s impacts and the healing and action that we can take to counteract it. And crucially, we will be using the space to come up with a simple tool for spotting the indicators of manipulative and abusive relationships.

I do not think that the idea of one day of Peace is naive, and I do not question the impact of this day. Behavioural change and change of mind starts with awareness, conversations and insight. Peace One Day are supported by McKinsey who measure the impact of Peace Day – they estimate that of the 709 million people aware of Peace Day in 2015, 13 million of those act more peacefully on the day (Peace One Day 2015 Report).

Social movements theory also outlines the power of distributed action and the concept of “Big Task, Small Ask” (Wilde, 2016) as the way to most impact. The latter points to the fact that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, as many social changes appear, it needs to be broken down into smaller manageable tasks that individuals can own and implement.

I believe that these examples of everyday peacebuilding and leadership can make a real difference. Globally, one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime (World Health Organisation); a key way to prevent this is through awareness and catching potentially violent behaviours before they begin. In the We Will Lead Africa volume of everyday African leadership that I am editing (with my co-editors, Yabome and Judith), we include a powerful story by Fatou Wurie who implores us to support, listen to and take seriously the many survivor stories of women and girls who have faced sexual and violent abuse.

There are many people doing extraordinary things every day to counteract violence and build peace – I will be shining a spotlight on that on Peace Day. Peace Day is about doing something, taking action – big or small – from exactly where you are standing. So, Peace to you, and who will you make peace with?

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– Peace One Day 2015 Report can be found here.

– World Health Organisation Fact Sheet on Violence against women reviewed in 2016 can be found here.

– Joanna Wilde (2016), The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and Intervening in the Workplace. London: Routledge.

– Fatou Wurie (2013), Not Just Another Gender-based Violence Statistic. Online for Huffington Post here.

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