Merlie “Milet” Mendoza knelt and prayed. A peace builder in Mindanao, the southern islands of the Philippines plagued by longstanding conflicts among Catho-lics, Muslims and indigenous people, Milet prayed the rosary daily. This time she felt the presence of Mary by her side and, on her other side, her friend and colleague, Rey Roda, a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Father Rey had been murdered 18 months earlier while conducting peace-building work. Milet felt Mary and Father Rey holding her hands. She also felt the butt of a gun forcing her head forward, toward the machete poised to behead her.
Kidnapped by the Abu Sayeff terrorist group, Milet was imprisoned for 61 days in a 4-foot by 4-foot cell, isolated from her co-worker, who had also been captured, deprived of the basics of life, beaten and taken on forced marches through the forest. One of her 18-year-old captors warned her: “You may see us as young but we are used to beheading Christians. Sympathy and compassion are the first virtues we rid ourselves of.”
Instead of a desire for vengeance or violence, Milet felt empathy. “What monster have we made of this young man?” she wondered. Throughout her captivity, prayer sustained her, and remembrances of every good deed done for her throughout her life. Milet vowed never to lose respect for the many Muslims who treated her like family. “Because of them I am a better Christian,” she said. In Milet’s dreams, Father Rey and Mary visited her, reassured her and led her to Mass, where she joined hands with her friends from the Oblates and her peace-building colleagues.
In the seconds before what she thought would be her execution, a movie played in Milet’s mind. It was not her life flashing before her eyes, but the centuries of violence and injustice done by the invading Catholics to the Moro and indigenous people who had lived in the Philippines for centuries before colonial conquest. Her mouth was bound by masking tape to stifle her screams. But she was moved to try to speak a few words: “On behalf of the sins of all the Christians, I ask for forgiveness for the harms done to the people of Mindanao.” She survived the ordeal and was released.
Mendoza, who was later honored as a Kroc Institute of Peace 2010 Women PeaceMaker, by the University of San Diego, is one of many women on the front lines of building peace. Vaiba Flomo mobilized women to bring peace to war-torn Liberia, as portrayed in the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Sarah Lochodo, an African chief from Kenya, works to reconcile warring pastoralists and farmers. These women put their lives on the line to work for peace. Yet too often women are excluded from official peace processes and from international and institutional support.
A U.N. report, to be delivered to the secretary general this month and highlighted at the University of San Diego’s conference “Precarious Progress,” notes that since 1992 only 2.5 percent of the peace signatories who were involved in the 24 U.N.-sponsored peace processes were women.
Exclusion of women from the peace table has consequences. Though rape is used systematically as a tool of war, only 18 of 300 peace accords since 1989 mentioned sexual-based violence in the conflicts. Of the international monies budgeted for post-conflict reconstruction, less than 2.9 percent are directed toward women’s needs. Less than 29 cents out of every $10 budgeted for post-conflict reconstruction goes to women.
This sets up a perverse incentive system. Male combatants who commit human-rights abuses are given a seat at the peace table and are offered financial incentives to demobilize and disarm and are given jobs to reintegrate them into society. Their female victims are offered nothing.
This culture of impunity invites more violence against women and girls. Several U.N. Security Council resolutions were supposed to change this, but too little implementation has been done.
This month, on the 10-year anniversary of Resolution 1325, nongovernmental organizations are pressuring the United Nations and member states to include women in peace and security processes. Sustainable peace cannot be built while excluding a majority of the population. It is time women had seats at the peace table.