The Pedal for Peace group in Kumlinge, Finland.
September 21st marks International Peace Day, however often when our world leaders talk of peace it’s in the sense of ending a war or conflict. But peace is so much more than the absence of violence. Rather it’s an environment that allows us and our societies to function and develop non-violently within a framework of human rights and equality.
Every community has people engaged in supporting this work, and if we take the time to observe just who carries out the majority of this work you’ll likely see that it is women. Here in Donegal, the last census showed, women carried out over 60 per cent of the unpaid/voluntary work within our community. Globally, when it comes to ending violence, research also shows including local women in a peace process increases the chance of violence ending by 24 per cent. Yet despite this research, women find it challenging to gain a seat or have their voices heard in peace negotiations.
Many women don’t even recognise their work as contributing to peace, viewing it just as part of what they do. It’s for these reasons that I’ve come to view women as the silent backbone of peace, who need to be recognised, valued and supported for the work they do.
In August I joined the ‘Pedal for Peace’ project, an initiative which brought together women from 15 countries, including Colombia, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Portugal, France, UK, Ireland, Georgia, Armenia, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Estonia and Finland, to circle around the demilitarised Åland Islands in the Baltic sea and discuss peace issues.
I’d previously been asked if I’d be interested in joining, to which my first thought was are women even interested in biking and how on earth are you logistically or feasibility going to get 50 women on bikes across islands and run workshops. Followed by a joking response of ‘biking is for losers’, how incorrect would this turn out to be!
Over six days, I watched a group of culturally and globally diverse women proudly don their safety helmets and purple/pink hi-vis vests, to take on this project challenge. It was an experience that displayed women’s determination, leadership, friendship, empathy, compassion, courage and vision - leadership qualities our world is deeply crying out for right now.
Solidarity and self-care are vital aspects of peace work, and over the days, participants shared their experiences of life and work in some of the most challenging of environments. Like Sara, a lawyer from Columbia who shared the methods she uses to support reconciliation in her country, highlighting the impact of the 50-long year conflict on women. And Kety from Georgia, who spoke about the importance of personal development as a means of achieving peace.
Riikka Jalonen, the director of the Finnish peace organisation Rauhankasvatus instituutti who organized Pedal for Peace, said, “I believe in the power of women. I wanted to create an inspiring and safe space for women to reconnect with themselves and with other women working on topics in this world that tells us that peace is not possible and we are naive.”
“But we are not. We are the best chance this world has to change for the better. I knew it would be challenging to bike and catch all the ferries in time and so on, but I also had faith that overcoming the logistical challenges and breathing the fresh air and seeing the blue sea and green fields together would make us stronger and remind us why we do what we do in our communities.”
This sentiment was shared by fellow participant Hadid Razan from Jordan, who said, “What we can learn from this experience, is that despite all differences between us, from language, culture, faith, sexual orientation, interests, we all managed to collaborate with harmony and overcome all these. not only that, we didn't even acknowledge them.
“We were united for one purpose; peace. we were there alone together, we laughed, cried, cooked, cleaned, napped, cycled, and we explored our differences. That's the power of women, the power of simplicity, the power of understanding, the power to make good things great.”
Pedal for Peace offered a great learning and motivation space, as Oichi Ora from Romania reflected: “‘Go, see, learn, act’ remains for me the quote of my experience. We all face hard times, but united the power grows and we overcome obstacles easier. Knowing that there are other strong, powerful woman having the same aim as you do is an amazing feeling.”
And Nutsa Goguadze from Georgia, who said, “One thing I learned is that we all face more or less the same problems in terms of peacebuilding, all over the world. And the main thing to tackle them is to act, to move, in any possible way. Each move, each act, each pedal matters.”
I’ve such admiration for all the women who took part in the pedal for peace project, especially considering some women took on the challenge with limited riding experience. For me this group is now a new network of women changemakers, who show others that they are not alone and that there are women all around the world leading actions to create meaningful change.