For Jody Williams, the road to the Nobel Peace Prize began when she fought back--literally, trying to beat up kids much older and bigger than her--against the injustice she saw her brother endure in their small, rural hometown, simply because he was born deaf. "That personal injustice that I saw early on grew into righteous anger at the many injustices in our world. It led me to the work I have done my whole life as an activist." This piece of history was one of many Williams shared with an audience during an interview at the Paley Media Center in New York on April 18th, 2013, for an event titled "She's Making Media: Jody Williams--Activism from Landmines to Killer Robots."
Williams, Co-Chair of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, was interviewed by the Campaign's Advisory Member, Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center.
Vacillating between sobering and side-splitting anecdotes, Williams and Mitchell covered a wide range of topics: Williams' early days in El Salvador, how she learned she was showing up in UN officials' nightmares, what it felt like to wait for a call from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and the ways in which she sabotaged her first and last interview for a desk job.
Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, for work on the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines that led to the Mine Ban Treaty--which has become one of the world's most successful human rights treaties. Asked by Mitchell about why the Campaign met with such success, Williams noted two factors--the strong commitment of thousands of grassroots activists across the world, and the ease with which the public could grasp the sheer cruelty of land mines as "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion."
The phone call that came in the middle of the night, informing Williams that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize, was not wholly unexpected. "The Campaign, we knew we were front runners--we had heard from some folks in Oslo that we might have a good shot. Still, it is hard to conceive that something like that would really happen." Williams was lying awake in bed in her home in rural Vermont, after celebrating her birthday with her friends and family the night before. "I knew that if I was a recipient of the Prize, they would call us around 3 a.m. The clock hit 3 a.m., then 3:10, then 3:20, and there was no call, so I figured that we hadn't won. Then, the phone rang, and it was a representative from Norwegian Television, who said 'I have been authorized to tell you that the Campaign, and Jody Williams, are the recipients of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.'" Without a radio or a television, Williams had to listen to the live announcement through a telephone connection of the Norwegian Television representative. "It was amazing," Williams said.
The Prize brought incredible opportunities to Williams, but she found it "difficult dealing with the expectations of being a Nobel Laureate. I had felt comfortable before with my responsibility as a grassroots activist, but I wasn't comfortable with the responsibility I felt as a Laureate." It wasn't until she banded together with the other living women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize that Williams began to make sense of how she could use the power of the Prize and share it with women around the world.
The idea for the Nobel Women's Initiative culminated over a ladies' tea in Kenya in 2004. "I was at a luncheon in Nairobi to honor the women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. And Shirin Ebadi, another Laureate, leaned over to me and said 'Jody, do you ever stop to think of the fact that there are seven of us women Peace Laureates alive today? There are, and shouldn't we all be doing something together to promote women's rights?' And we all talked about it right then and there, and made a pact to come together, to pool our influence and access to support women's rights. And we did--by founding the Nobel Women's Initiative in 2006."
One of the signature efforts of the Nobel Women's Initiative is the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, which unites activists across the globe to end rape in war. As Williams noted, "Rape doesn't just appear out of the ether. It happens because systems don't recognize the full rights of women, and, as such, then supports a continuum of violence against women and girls."
Williams knows first-hand the impact of rape. In her early days of activism, she served as a volunteer in El Salvador. On her day off, a man asked her out on a date to one of the best restaurants in the city. Bored, and looking forward to a good meal, Williams accepted the invitation. During dinner, the man started talking about his role in the death squads, and the human rights abuses he had committed. Williams began to fear for her own safety, and asked to be taken home. After saying good night, she sat down to read a book, when there was a knock at the door. Thinking it could only be a member of the hotel staff, as the hotel was a gated community and those without keys could not get in, she opened the door. The man who had taken her on a date forced himself into her room, and raped her. Williams talked about the scariest part of the experience for her, "The next day, I was going to a meeting in a different part of the city, and I wanted to walk, and this car pulls up alongside me, and it's the man who raped me, and he says, 'What a ride?' and then laughs and drives off. I knew then that he had targeted me, and was following me, and could really harm me."
It was years before Williams told anyone about the rape. "The first person I told was my husband. I think I felt like it was my fault, and I was embarrassed that I had mad the decision to go out with a man who was part of the death squads. But once I realized I could give other women strength, perhaps, by sharing my story, it became easier to talk about it in public."
Williams has also begun work on a new Campaign, this one to ban so-called "killer robots," machines that can be programmed to assassinate humans without the need for an actual person to press a button or pull a trigger. As Williams notes, "Killer robots don't need human beings. Once they are programmed and released, they will be able to select the target and kill all on their own."
With all she has seen and experienced, Mitchell asked Williams whether she is optimist or pessimistic about the world. "I believe in the power of people working together to change the world for the better for everybody. I believe it is possible, and that it can be done. I want people to know that activism isn't magic. It is not something that just important people do. It is a choice each and every one of us makes--to choose to participate and do something." Remembering what motivated her to chase after the older boys who were making fun of her brother, despite the fact that they were much older and bigger than her, Williams said "The work I did that day, and the work that I do in the world, is motivated by righteous indignation at injustice."