Women, War and Peace: An Interview with Pamela Hogan

October 11, 2011

bosnian women
Bosnian women bury their sons and husbands at Srebrenica, site of the worst massacre on European soil since World War II. Photo by Kate Holt.

Amnesty’s Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group member Alisa Roadcup was fortunate to sit down with Pamela Hogan, Co-Creator of Women, War & Peace, a bold new five-part PBS television series challenging the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain.  The first part of the documentary airs Tuesday, October 11, on PBS.

1. Tell me about your initial idea for this project.  Why “Women, War and Peace” and why now?

It’s hard to remember back that far!  My partners Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and I had a fateful lunch at which we realized we’d all been noticing the same trend in war reporting: a focus on the men and the guns, and a dearth of stories about the women and families who are disproportionately targeted in today’s conflict zones—but seldom covered in news reports. We’d all individually witnessed this blind spot in the coverage of conflict, and we agreed that the gap between what’s reported and what’s occurring on the ground was enormous. Women, War & Peace was born!

 2. Why do you think documentary film, specifically, can serve as a powerful medium to ignite social change? 

Documentary film has the power to bring the work of individuals to life in a way that policy reports and court documents, and even the printed word, doesn’t have.  One of the lead funders of Women, War & Peace said it so well: “We’ve been writing reports on these issues for years but in your films the women jump off the screen and people feel an emotional connection and really get the urgency.” Documentary storytelling is a visceral medium, and when the lights go up audiences often feel a call to action.

3. Tell me about a portrayal of women in war captured in “Women, War and Peace” that somehow plays against type or was unconventional.

So often women living in war zones are portrayed as victims.   Big mistake.

In The War We Are Living, two Colombian women – Clemencia Carabali and Francia Marquez – brave constant death threats to prevent their communities from being forced off of the gold-rich lands their ancestors have lived on for generations.  In Peace Unveiled, Afghan women are excluded from the international conference where President Karzai first suggests negotiating with the Taliban – so they crash the event anyway.  In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, ordinary Liberian women who are sick and tired of 14 years of war stand up to President Charles Taylor and the warlords.  In I Came to Testify, sixteen women from a village in Bosnia take the witness stand in the first trial ever to focus exclusively on sexual violence in wartime – and the landmark judgment establishes wartime rape and sexual slavery as a crime against humanity.

All of these women are taking personal risks, risks that jeopardize not only themselves but also their children and extended families.  All of them make me ask myself, could I summon the courage to make that choice if I were in their place? Given the stereotype that women targeted by war are victims; they most certainly break the mold.  These women are revolutionaries!

4. As human rights activists, what can we do to spread the message that violence against women in conflict has to end? 

What a great question.  That is exactly what we are asking people to do: spread the message. I think human rights activists and advocates are crucial members of the Women, War & Peace audience. As broadcast journalists, one of our responsibilities is to investigate and uncover stories that may otherwise go unnoticed and to seek to give them a national and global platform through film and television and the web. The human rights activist community can broaden that platform, ensuring that the world hears these stories not only on their televisions and in their living rooms—not only on PBS—but also from the mouths of those working in the field and on the ground. One first step in ending violence against women is turning the world’s eye on this violence–growing the number of people who can bear witness to instances in which rape, attack, intimidation, and assassination of women is used as a deliberate tactic of war. The activist community can help us accomplish that.

 5. What does the public need to know about rape as a weapon of war in conflict?  What broader issues of structural violence need to come to light in order for the world to be safer for women?

The fact that rape is increasingly used as a weapon of war in conflict is something that people are starting to understand.  The ongoing horrific extent of rape in the Congo conflict alone has brought this to the forefront of public awareness.  The gaping challenge is that serious consequences for wartime rape have not yet been established. Our film, I Came to Testify, tells the story of a precedent-setting case in an international court of law.  But the vast majority of prosecution for wartime rapes falls to national courts, which have lagged far behind.  Most rapists in war zones walk free.

In 2009 the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution [UNSCR 1888] mandating peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict, and Margot Wallstrom was named to the new post of Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict last year.  There is pressure on the U.N. to go further, and to even consider imposing sanctions on countries where violence against women is used as a weapon of war.  So far that has not happened but many believe it could put teeth in the enforcement of UNSCR 1888.

6. Why should men care about Women, War and Peace?

Of course men should care. And many do. Men and women leading side-by-side in reconciliation and rebuilding is the only way to create a whole peace. But I couldn’t possibly answer this question better than Matt Damon, who narrated I Came to Testify.

7. You directed Episode 1: “I Came To Testify” the story of how a group of 16 women imprisoned by Serb-led forces in the Bosnian town of Foca broke history’s great silence – and stepped forward to take the witness stand in an international court of law.  Of all the varying geographic regions covered in this documentary, why did you choose to produce the Bosnia story?  Did you have a personal connection to the country or the conflict?

I’ve always been intrigued by law and seriously considered becoming a lawyer at one point.  International criminal courts are in their infancy, so it’s critical that we watch them closely and learn from their successes and their failures.  That said, what really pulled me into producing this film was something I saw in a report that fell on my desk one morning.  It was the first-ever study, years in the making, of the Bosnian women who had witnessed at the Hague Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  Halfway through the document I learned that in the first weeks of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s the entire town of Foca basically became a crime scene.  Once a place where Bosniaks (Muslims) and Serbs (Christians) lived harmoniously, during the war Bosniak women were imprisoned by Serb soldiers for months on end in public buildings like sports halls and high schools, and subjected to torture and mass rape.  According to this report, when the Hague Tribunal was established to bring war criminals to justice, an unusual partnership developed between the female prosecutors and investigators assigned to the Foca case and the women survivors of that horrific experience.  I was fascinated to learn more, and the more I learned the more convinced I was that it was an important story that needed to be told.

8. You’ve mentioned that Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn have claimed that Women’s Rights are this century’s Civil Rights movement.  Do you think this is true?  If so, what does this mean for the next generation? 

I do, and this idea was profoundly affirmed this week when the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and to pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

The Nobel committee’s statement that “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society” is in perfect synchronicity with the gauntlet Kristof and WuDunn have thrown down, and touches the very heart of Women, War & Peace.

Leymah Gbowee’s leadership has been a central inspiration for Women, War & Peace and she is featured in our films “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “War Redefined.”

9.  If there were one take-away you’d like everyone to come away with, what would it be?

Our first hope is that Women, War & Peace starts a conversation.  After millennia of disproportionate attention paid to men in conflicts we know that these five films spotlighting women’s experiences in war and peace are just a beginning.  We hope that it is the trigger for a whole new dialogue and for more films, articles, and stories that look at conflict through women’s eyes. In the long run, our greatest hope is that the series will actually change policy and legislation and inspire the kind of successes embodied by Nobel Laureates Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf and Karman.