"Look at the children and grandchildren, your own and everyone else’s. They deserve a sane and safe world to live in, and it's our job to give it to them!"
At 82, Cora Weiss has been active for more than half a century, and in some of our age’s most important causes. She was an early member and later national leader of Women Strike for Peace, which helped end nuclear testing in the atmosphere, and in 2000, worked on drafting the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which called for the participation of women at all levels of government and in the prevention of violent conflict, and the protection of women and girls in situations where armed conflict occurs. She has won a variety of awards, including several Nobel peace prize nominations.
You say fights to end gender violence or rape in war can’t succeed without addressing the issue of war itself. Can you explain?
I say that you can’t pluck rape out of war and let the war go on, and that I want to abolish war, not make it safe for women. That’s because sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum. The quest for peace is holistic—you can’t solve only one problem, and think things will be all right. A campaign to stop sexual abuse does not address the culture of violence that makes sexual abuse possible. It does not address environmental damage—which leads to economic problems, which causes desperation, which causes war, and more violence. It does not address climate change, which will beget still more violence, as people try to escape its horrors. Economic inequality breeds violence. Gender discrimination breeds violence. Hunger breeds violence. That is why I’m devoted to the Global Campaign for Peace Education, which came out of the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference in May 1999, the biggest peace conference in history. We need to go from a culture of violence to a culture of peace. And you can't do that without education.
What is a culture of peace? How will peace education get us there?
A culture of peace comes when people of the world understand its problems and also have the skills to resolve conflict constructively. Peace education means teaching for democracy, for and about human rights, gender equality, disarmament, sustainable development, traditional peace practices. It's done within civil society, by teachers and community leaders whether in formal or informal settings. It is not a mass movement yet, but it will catch on. It has to. We have no alternative.
Over a lifetime of activism, who have been your heroes?
My mother, a Russian immigrant raised in a poor extended family who became the valedictorian of her class at New York University. The year I got my bachelor’s degree, she got her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia. I loved Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a role model for women, and also for decency and justice. There’s also Bertha von Suttner, the Austrian woman who answered an ad from Alfred Nobel, became his housekeeper, then friend, and told him to put the profits from his dynamite invention into a peace prize. Von Suttner wrote an influential anti-war novel, and in 1905, she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. For the sake of gender balance, let me add Martin Luther King, Kofi Annan, and Pope Francis—though for his policies on peace, not reproduction.
With war raging in so many places, it’s hard not to be discouraged. How have you stayed strong and committed over time?
All you have to do is look at the children and grandchildren, your own and everyone else’s. They deserve a sane and safe world to live in, and it's our job to give it to them! I have hope because there are many reasons to feel hopeful. Because thousands of Palestinian and Israeli women marched together for peace just a few weeks ago. Because women peace educators in Colombia are teaching reconciliation in 12 schools in former FARC territory; because the country’s first peace agreement – tragically voted down by less than one percent – contained provisions for gender equity and reproductive rights. Because in the Philippines, women work to support the peace agreement between the Moro Liberation Front and the government. The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a coalition of civil society organizations in 25 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America—most of them, conflict-affected – helps women learn how to participate in decision making, to promote gender equality and prevent violence. They have created a Cora Weiss Fellowship to train young women, which absolutely knocks me out. Everywhere, there are pockets of decency, people who won’t stop, efforts that have to be supported and spread. If you lose sight of that, you might as well not get up in the morning.
Read more about Cora Weiss in When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right, a collection of 28 essay about women peacemakers and feminists by women they've inspired.