Georgia Collins is in her final year at Friends’ School in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She was part of a group of young women who volunteered at the Women Beyond War & Militarism conference in Belfast from May 28-30, hosted by the Nobel Women's Initiative. Members of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict from around the world attended the conference. Here, Georgia reflects on what she learned about sexual violence in conflict, and how the personal stories she heard have moved her to act in her own life:
At 17 years old, most people in Northern Ireland don’t really care about politics and military warfare—you’d rather be watching the arguments happening on ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ than paying attention to government politics. Being 17 years old, I’m in the middle of my final years of school—exams, social life, and trying to experience as much as possible before I have to take life seriously. My life is pretty standard, to be honest; I do well in my subjects, I see my friends everyday, and I am a music-obsessed geek. Until recently, I hadn’t realized how lucky I am with the life I have.
This year, The Peace People, based in Northern Ireland, approached my school, Friends’ School Lisburn, looking for volunteers for an upcoming conference, Moving Beyond Militarism & War: Women-driven solutions for a nonviolent world. They told us how Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire helped form The Peace People in the 1970s and how their efforts contributed to ending The Troubles here in Northern Ireland. Mairead had experienced personal tragedy connected with The Troubles, pushing her to start The Peace People. Of course, in school, we learn about our history during The Troubles, but actually hearing how the horrific events of that period personally affected ordinary people was heart-breaking. What stood out to me was that even though she went through this horrible experience, Mairead was able to find peace and strive to bring peace to Northern Ireland, along with many other strong women who were involved with The Peace People. We discovered that Mairead would be just 1 of 6 Laureates who would be attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s fourth biennial conference, hosted in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the first time, all 6 Laureates would be together. After hearing each of these women’s stories, I wanted to become involved and learn more about the other activists attending the conference.
Being part of the volunteer group, we were at the conference from 27th-30th May. On Monday, we welcomed and registered over 80 activists who had traveled from every corner of the world to come to the conference. All of these women had experiences greatly connected to the topic of the conference, ‘Moving Beyond Militarism & War: Women-driven solutions for a non-violent world.‘ From their stories, I already guessed that the next few days would be a real eye-opener for me, hearing about things that aren’t heard of here in Northern Ireland.
I’ve always had an interest in film and social media, so our volunteer coordinator, Elaine, asked me to assist the Media staff from the Nobel Women’s Initiative. My role was to assist with interviews by finding the interviewees and guiding them to the interview room. I was also asked to take photos, note quotes for social media and the web, and help make an awesome music playlist for the closing dinner at the end of week.
Over the three days, I had a reality check when the women participants spoke. They had a sense of power about them—a power to change the world for the better. These wonderful, down-to-earth women explained their experiences of why women’s human rights are so important to them and how their work strives to stop women becoming victims of war and conflict. The suffering that these women have seen and live with shocked me, learning more than I ever would elsewhere.
Some of these women spoke of sexual harassment and assault in connection with The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict. It was these stories that really stood out to me. Women spoke of how they had suffered from sexual violence in protests. They spoke of how in Cairo, men on the streets target and harass women. One lady who gained great respect from me was Annie Nushann. Annie spoke emotionally about how in Liberia, the police take no action against sexual assault and rape reports in towns and cities. With passion, she told how she was sick of this happening, so she and a group of women in her community moved to bring the perpetrators to justice, to stop sexual assault being a weapon of war. From these interviews, I couldn’t control the tears welling in my eyes, admiring the efforts of these women to bring peace to the world.
Before the conference, I had no idea the extremities of the world around me. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to learn from these women. I have realized that not enough teens know about the troubles across the world or the Troubles in Northern Ireland. These women have given me the inspiration to contribute to change by spreading the word of what is really happening. As Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum said during the conference, “Talk to our youth about what we do. We have to pay attention to and inspire the next generation.”
Cross-posted from the Nobel Women's Initiative Women Beyond War & Militarism conference blog.