Story 8: The Journey Of A Young Woman Making Peace


My name is Sharna. I have been involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) for 5 years. I co-founded the Young WILPF Network with three other young women and have been on a life-changing journey since then.

Like a lot of young women, I came to the feminist movement in a roundabout way. Though I remember being a passionate social justice advocate even as a young child, the world around me talked as if we had achieved gender equality, that I could do anything my brothers could do. I took this for granted. That part of the mission was done, and dusted.

It wasn’t until I had finished my Maters Degree in International Development, travelled throughout Asia, and tried to get a start on my career, that I learned some hard truths. I watched as my brothers’ rose quickly, while I hit one brick wall after another. I was smart, I was motivated, but I was young, I was a woman, and this meant I was a liability, not an investment.

Like lots of other young women who are disengaged with feminism, it took time and many hard blows to learn that I had been sold a lie. Gender equality was an illusion, and one deeply connected to the wider social, political and economical structures I thought I knew so much about.

And so, rejected for job after job, I made my own way – and eventually I found myself in the women’s peace movement.

I was doing some research on the gender and conflict for a short article I was writing for a youth publication. Trawling the Internet for resources, I came across WILPF, who I had seen before standing vigil every Sunday around the time of the anti-Iraq war protests. I decided to try and find them – and after some emails traversing the globe, I wound up around the corner from my house meeting with three other amazing young women who had just began to organize a Young WILPF network in Australia.

After joining with Young WILPF, I found an international network of women committed to disarmament, human rights and gender equality. To addressing the root causes of war and conflict, and placing the lives of women front and center. Women who did not treat my age as a liability, but welcomed me, and my contribution with open arms.

I dove straight in, and consumed as much experience as I could in the following years. I took part in the Australian civil society negotiations on the National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security. I interned at WILPF’s New York UN office, and learned just how hard women fight to get a foot in the door of these high level forums. I built relationships and collaborations with young women in the Pacific, and the Australian disarmament community.

Eventually, I ended up back in New York, this time as an Australian WILPF delegate for the Commission on the Status of Women. I was there to advocate for the inclusion of language on the arms trade, the right for women to participate in security decision-making and peace processes. While there, I was connected with a strong woman called Binalakshmi Nepram from the conflict affected Northeast of India who was there to advocate for these same objectives. Traveling alone on a small budget, I offered to help her set up a side event she had organised on the forthcoming Arms Trade Treaty. In a small room adjacent to the UN, this powerful woman had gathered a distinguished panel, including the incredibly down-to-earth Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams.

She talked about defacto military rule in her home state of Manipur- the flood of arms that intensified armed violence – and the strength of the women’s movement that stood with no more than a torch in the night, guarding the community from the wonton abuses of the notorious paramilitaries that occupy every corner of the state. Binalakshmi spoke with a calm intensity that left me desperate to learn more, and after a few months on was on a plane to New Delhi to lend my time to her organisation.

I spent several months working for her organisation, The Control Arms Foundation of India. While there I helped design the framework for livelihood projects that would assist women with training, and equipment like sewing machines and looms to help boost their incomes. Projects like these are common, and do great work, but as I would learn, there remained a massive gap in linking this good work with the market.

I didn’t realize the importance of these projects until I finally was able to travel to Manipur, and meet with the network of women there. I sat down to chat with one woman named Hebu (named changed for privacy reasons). She talked calmly and passionately about justice, and women’s rights, and I could see how the women gathered around her and listened to every word she spoke.

She’d lost her husband in a pointless encounter with an unnamed armed group, and been left with nothing – but she was far from resigned to her fate. The others talked of her running for political office, a suggestion she humbly nodded along with, but declined to elaborate.

Hebu was an obvious leader, and I asked her what inspired her. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but when she explained that it was gaining access to a small stipend income through her involvement with the organisation, I was taken aback. She weaved delicate traditional scarves, which sold poorly in the local market flooded with similar goods, but she received a stipend. This small income – simply being free from the burden of worrying there was food on the table – was all the support she needed to grow into the obvious leader she was.

Eventually my visa expired, and I wrapped up my work in New Delhi, and travelled back to Australia. In the following months, a Young WILPF colleague and a fellow activist from Delhi divined a new project. We would create a market solution for the livelihood projects I was working on – and take a whole new approach to peace activism.

And this is how the The Fabric Social was born. We are a social enterprise that provides intensive support for women weavers and tailors in conflict affected areas. Using a simple smart phone app as a business tool that links with an online store – we connect the women directly with international consumers. We take the time, and invest the resources need to support and scale these small projects, and do the hard work to get their products out of the conflict depressed economies to western consumers willing to pay a decent price for ethically produced fashion.

I am now living in Assam, India were we are building our pilot project. It is early days, but we have an incredible amount of support an expertise on hand in Australia and here in India. We are in this for the long term, and in it so that good projects don’t fail for lack of a market solution, and more women like Hebu have the small boost they need to be game changers in their communities.

Story: Sharna de Lacy is a 29 years old Australian peacebuilder. She has been involved in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) for 5 years, and is the co-founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise based in India that provides intensive support for women in conflict affected areas.

Artist: Marta Coll – “Tierra de Mujeres”

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