Creators of Peace Circles empower women to engage in their communities, discovers Mary Lean.
Eight women sit around a table in a kitchen in Oxford. We were born in five countries, on four continents: our ages range from 26 to 61. Four of us have children at primary school: our weekly meetings have been timed to fit into the precious three-hour window when the two youngest are at nursery. Over eight weeks, we share our stories and the challenges of our daily lives, and explore what it takes to create peace in our homes and communities.
Our Creators of Peace (CoP) Circle is one of hundreds which have taken place in the last ten years. They are the main tool of IofC’s Creators of Peace programme, launched in the 1990s on the inspiration of Anna Abdallah Msekwa, a Tanzanian women’s leader and cabinet minister. She challenged women to ‘create peace wherever we are, in our hearts, our homes, our workplace and our community. We all pretend that someone else is the stumbling block. Could that someone be myself?’
Some peace circles take place over weekends; others, like ours, as a series of weekly meetings. They enable women (and occasionally men) to meet across racial, social and age divides and to engage with each other and the world around them. Usually, the process is transformative; sometimes it leads to common action in the community. Already this year, Barbados and Zimbabwe have been added to the list of over 40 countries where CoP circles have taken place. Participants in a peace circle in a poor high-density suburb of Gweru, Zimbabwe, in March were so hungry that the organisers ran out of food. One woman, whose husband was unemployed, asked, ‘How can I have peace when my children are unable to go to school because we cannot pay the fees?’ By the end of the circle she had joined up with another woman with the same problem, and the other participants were planning to raise money for them to start a secondhand goods business.
Iman al Ghafari, a teacher from Syria, encountered Creators of Peace while she was living in Canada. On her return to Damascus, she began to run circles in the shelters for those who have lost their homes in the fighting. It’s not been easy. ‘People don’t want to listen to anything other than revenge,’ she says. ‘Every time the violence escalates, they come to tell me that this proves that peace is impossible.’
For women like Hasnaa, whose husband was killed by a rocket in the street in Damascus, the circles have been a source of healing and empowerment. ‘All I felt was pain, anger and sadness until the day when I attended a CoP Circle,’ she says. The circle broke through her helplessness ‘I’ve learned about forgiveness and how I need to put a limit to my pain so it doesn’t control my life any more. I want to help other women who went through the same situation to be stronger.’
Sixty peace circles have taken place in Kenya, some of them in intercommunal flashpoints such as Baringo County where clashes over cattle rustling, grazing and water have cost lives. Eighty-one women from different sides of this conflict have taken part in peace circles since August; and in May they came together in an emotional reconciliation meeting. In Burundi, some 20 peace circles have taken place and include training with alternative food and sanitation technologies.
And in Britain? London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bradford and Oxford have all had peace circles – in some cases several. Eighteen months after the one in my kitchen, we are still meeting regularly. Mary Zacaroli, a writer, campaigner and mother, says, ‘I met some extraordinary women. Some had come from outside the UK and had difficult, sometimes traumatic backgrounds. Others were just living with the usual stuff that life throws at you. I learnt that peace is not flabby or wishywashy. It’s muscular and assertive and messy.’