#MoreWomenMorePeace: Jody Williams

Published 20 September 2017 in:

Jody Williams. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

There is an important story about women, peace and security that needs to be told.
We are putting the spotlight on women who have paved the way – the bold and the brave – and we know there are and can be many more of them.
We are pushing for #MoreWomenMorePeace.

She played a key role in the fight to ban the much-feared landmines. And she succeeded! The same year that the ban was adopted, 1997, Jody Williams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But her path towards the Nobel Prize was by no means a straight one.

Today, peace activist Jody Williams is a highly respected person and has been named one of the world’s 100 most powerful women by Forbes Magazine. But as a young student she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She was so lost that she did not even attend her own graduation at university back in Vermont in 1972, something which she herself admitted when speaking to students at the same university.

Williams continued her studies and then moved to Mexico, where she worked as a teacher, although she was still unsure about her choices in life. But a flyer she was handed in the undergound in Washington DC would change everything – a flyer with the words: “El Salvador – Another Vietnam?”

The civil war in El Salvador began in earnest in 1981, and during the 12 years of bloody armed conflict, the United States supported the military dictatorship, a regime that committed gross abuses against the civilian population.

The message on the flyer triggered the start of Jody Williams’ life as a political activist. She started getting involved in various humanitarian projects alongside her regular work, and eventually she became a full-time activist. Landmines were a constant threat to the civilian population during the civil war in El Salvador, not least for many children. To help the children who had lost limbs after treading on landmines, Williams organised a network of hospitals in the US which provided the children with free health care.

But it was her work on establishing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) that would result in her receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. What began as a small project involving Williams herself and six NGOs quickly grew throughout the early 1990s.

Just a few years later, in 1997, the campaign was supported by 1 000 organisations from 60 countries. The ICBL received extra support after a few years with the involvement of Princess Diana. Princess Diana’s walk through an active minefield in Angola attracted a great deal of attention in January 1997, at a time when the country was recovering from a brutal civil war.

A few months after Princess Diana’s walk through the minefield, the goal that Williams had been striving for was achieved: in the September of that year, 120 countries signed an international treaty banning the use, new production, sale and storage of landmines. To top off her achievements, Jody Williams and the ICBL were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following month.

The signing of the treaty was a milestone, but the battle against landmines is not over yet. Even today, 35 countries have still not signed the treaty, including Russia, China, Egypt and the US, Williams’ own country.

In 1998, Williams finished working as coordinator for ICBL, but she continues to help the organisation in its campaign work. Her strong commitment to peace is also evident in other ways – she was a vocal critic of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. She currently also writes articles for the international press and is a strong advocate of the role of women in peace-building. In 2006, the Nobel Women’s Initiative was established. It was spearheaded by Williams and brings together six women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. The aim is to highlight women at grassroots level around the world who are working for peace, justice and gender equality.

The question is: where does Jody Williams get all her apparently endless energy from? Perhaps at least part of the answer can be found in the speech she gave to students at the university back home in Vermont in 1998:

“The only thing I do know is that I still, every single day of my life, get up with joy and excitement and wonder about what am I going to do today that’s going to make a difference.

“I firmly believe that people make the most important contribution in the world that they can make… if it brings them joy every day… Have the courage to try to figure out what brings you joy so through your joy you can bring it to everybody else…”

Or as she so rightly points out in her memoirs published in 2013:
“The only real limitations we face are those we put on ourselves.”