By Grace Angwin
Angwin: Tell me a bit about your background and how you got to where you are today – what did you study? How did you get your foot in the door in the work you’ve done?
Sarah Boyd: More recently, I started to work for myself and started my own consultancy called The Gender Agency, and that work covers a range of different gender equality issues, policy program and advocacy issues, related to gender equality issues overseas. I’m also working with a group of consultants in the Athena Consortium, which focuses primarily on the role of women in peace processes and peace negotiations.
I started my studies in economics, and through my economics studies and arts degree, and studying Chinese, I was introduced to development studies. I ended up finishing my commerce and arts work and delved into postgraduate studies, both in development and gender studies, I guess it was a happy marriage between those two. Then I did my Masters, focused on gender peace and conflict work. I did a thesis on the role of women in the peace process in Nepal. Throughout that work, I began to gain different experience overseas, as a volunteer and in other paid roles in Nepal, in India, Tibet and South East Asia, in a range of difference capacities. All of that work was guided by exploring and wanting to learn about inequality and injustice, specifically as it related to gender inequalities and injustices, and what that looks like in different parts of the world. South East Asia and South Asia are closer to home in that regard, so that was where I grew to see some of those things. After that work, I had a number of unrelated roles at the University of Melbourne, and then moved to a job in AusAid’s gender equality policy section for nearly three years before I worked for AusAid in Paksitan after the humanitarian crisis response on 2010. After that experience I took some time to explore work for myself, and working with other people independently and some NGOs. I worked for OXFAM Australia, covering their Afghanistan and Pakistan program for a couple of years, just before I came to my work now.
So I’ve had some experience working with both government and nongovernment organisations, both in other countries and in Australia, I also have some intern experience with the UNHCR. So basically my summary of all of this work, in continuing to learn and explore this, I really think there is only value in working on every side of the fence.
Angwin: So you are working for the Australian Civilian Corps on gender in disaster management. Tell me a bit about this work.
Sarah Boyd: The Australian Civilian Corps was created a few years ago, in responding to different models to UK and Canada, where the government collects specialists in different areas that provide an additional resource to AUSAID, or NGOs that can provide support in post conflict and disaster and post disaster response. They provide particular technical expertise and I gained a place on that register that now has 500 members as of last year. My first deployment was in April 2014, a 3 week period on gender equality and disaster risk management in Timor Leste the aims of which were twofold. Firstly, working with a team of civilian disaster risk management specialists to make their work more responsive to gender equality issues, in disaster preparedness and response. Secondly providing advice to DFAT and the Australian Civilian core on how their work and deployments can better incorporate gender equality issues, through the whole life cycle from recruitment, to what their reporting looks like and what they’re actually measuring in their work and cooperation with partners. A lot of that work is really working with people and thinking: ‘What kind of questions I can be asking?’. Hopefully some of the recommendations and work can be taken forward.
Angwin: What does peace and security mean for women?
Sarah Boyd: That’s a really great question. Asking the question about what peace and security means for women who find themselves in situations where there is insecurity, and in situations where there is an absence of peace is the most important question when we talk about any of these issues. I read an article yesterday reporting on the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in London that reflected on this question, and that was exploring the issue of ministers talking at one table and having fringe events with advocacy organisations involved in this work, at a very grassroots level and the way that we have different discussions about security and what peace and security mean in different forums.
Thinking about some of the research in Nepal, asking these questions, where women and women’s groups have been involved in the peace process, and some in the armed conflict itself, and asking these questions about what those concepts mean. My summary and reflection from that experience and since then is that we can talk at a theoretical level about human security and different definitions of that, but it is really grounded in every day lived reality and what life looks like. So just as we, in our every day lives, don’t necessarily talk about the theories of peace and security, we still experience insecurity – why might we feel a threat to our physical security, late at night for example. We have to explain those terms in every day terms. The way that conflicts have changed at a household and a community level, and how these women could engage in their communities and in their household is very much in that every day sense.
It is actually the most critical question. Discussions in Australian civil society about the Australian government’s approach to women peace and security issues and its national action plan, the role of civil society in Australia too, are addressing this question. We can’t just talk about security in a very militaristic way, it is after all about human security at heart.
Angwin: What contribution does feminism and feminist scholarship make to peace and security studies?
Sarah Boyd: Also a really important question and this links very closely to what I just mentioned.
The contribution of feminist scholarship to this area in particular is grounding discussions about security and insecurity, and violence, peace and peace processes is in the everyday lived realities of people, which is not necessarily only about women, but ensuring that there is a perspective and a range of views reflected in that everyday reality. The reality of insecure environments is always different for men and women, and that story is very different in different places. I think that the real contribution at a conceptual level is ensuring that a human security lens is central to the way we talk about security, violence and peace.
Angwin: What do you think are the biggest obstacles that women face in obtaining peace and security?
Sarah Boyd: “Well, the starting point is what we mean by peace and by security…”
Angwin: Do you think we can find a balance between a universal and culturally relative view?
Sarah Boyd: The missing element in talking about peace and security is therefore, what causes that insecurity; is it violence, broadly defined, not only physical. Addressing the causes of violence and the causes of insecurity at a household level, a community level or in terms of international relations and geopolitics. Unless we address those causes, knowing that peace is more than an absence of violence, that is the only way that we get to obtaining peace and security. Addressing the causes of violence and insecurity sits alongside, not just the importance, but the inherent, critical role of having inclusive societies, and when we’re talking about peace and peace process in ending conflict, women’s roles and inclusive participation in those processes. Those two things go hand in hand, that is why there is an international agenda, not only in the UNSC (there are now seven UNSC resolutions on these topics) making the clear argument between those two things, that until we will never obtain peace and security at an international level until we address the causes of insecurity and critical to that is that everyone is part of that process. So that is not a simple story, that men create war and women create peace, but that those processes must be inclusive, and as we know currently they’re not.
Angwin: I know you’ve done a lot of work in South East Asia, so what are the unique issues that women in South East Asia and South Asia face?
Sarah Boyd: An interesting question. The region itself is so diverse for so many reasons – ethnicity, caste, gender equality and gender justice in different countries (India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), women’s political participation, violence against women, legislative framework. From the outside, we often say ‘things work like this in South Asia’, but when you’re in that space it’s hard to generalise. Particularly when you’re talking about religion too, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist societies which are all vastly different.
I’ve found in that region, and I haven’t worked in every region of the world, but there’s something feisty about women in South Asia, and just extraordinarily strong minds and strong hearts I’ve found in a lot of my work that has been really inspirational. That’s been women who may not be literate, or have received a formal education, who may be extraordinary public speakers in rallying people towards educating women about their rights, female parliamentarians, just astounding and extraordinary. Their strength in the environment that they work in, facing a lot of risks in doing so, I’ve found really extraordinary, it’s not something I can really describe in words really, but there’s a power in the work that they do that I haven’t had the opportunity to experience elsewhere, as yet.
Angwin: What is the situation for women in Afghanistan? Has it improved since democracy was implemented in Afghanistan?
Sarah Boyd: This is a really complex question. Whilst I’ve worked on Afghanistan, I haven’t spent time working in the country. I’ve heard its an extraordinarily beautiful place.
Its a complex issue to understand from the outside with the kinds of images that we can see. There were quite famous images of women in the Kabul university in the 50s and 60s, and whilst people might comment on the kind of clothing they are wearing, there was this idea that there is the freedom of movement and no restrictions related to mobility, movement, education. Coming to today it is quite different. So obviously, the Taliban rule and the many different invasions and different ideologies that have ruled and have had influence in Afghanistan have had a huge impact, and the way that those have been played out on women’s bodies.
Are things better or worse? We can look at one proxy as elections, for instance in the current campaign and elections. One story I keep thinking about is from some friends working in Afghanistan working and training some of the collectors of ballots. The way that they spoke about defiance and the fact of turning up to vote as an act of defiance, refusing to feel insecure in lining up to vote. On the one hand we can say, ‘look at this progress’, in the percentage of female turnout and votes for female candidates, the number of female candidates. At the same time it’s important to remember the contexts in which that sits. The risks that anyone working on women’s rights (including male advocates of women’s rights), and women in positions of public power – policing, military, government, the risks they face in their every day life, the number of assassinations, just for being in those roles: thats the environment that still exists. If we’re talking about progress, we can look to the last few years but there is a long way to go, certainly in a very complex setting.
Angwin: How, in your opinion, does framework like the CSW documents help in situations like Afghanistan?
Sarah Boyd: A really good question. These frameworks are important in advocacy. Groups use those documents in their continued advocacy in their own governments to keep them to account. Where governments have agreed to certain things related to legislative framework, on unpaid care work, or relating to domestic violence or a whole range of things; where a government has agreed to that and has made commitments in international forums, the civil society can then pressure and work with governments to address those things. A context like Afghanistan is obviously much more difficult, yes. If we talk about Australian civil society and engagement with government, it looks very different to elsewhere. But they are still key documents and perhaps we are able to use them more in our every day work here, but they are still valuable tools.
Since Beijing as well, all of these different frameworks and agreements build on each other, and work together as a body of work and a body of commitments.
Angwin: What do you think of the #YesAllWomen campaign, and internet advocacy in general? Is it effective?
Sarah Boyd: Until a few months ago, I’d never really engaged in Twitter, for example. We now have hash tags on Facebook! Firstly, its quite extraordinary. On anything relating to women’s rights in particular, I’ve only seen in the last few years that these communication tools provide a different way for people to voice opinions, especially those who might otherwise not do so, in a low risk environment to say, ‘I actually have something to say on this, and it is relevant to me’. This is versus bigger campaigns where there is more energy required to be a part of something. People don’t have to invest so much in, for instance, writing a tweet. That connects to ‘is that effective?’. Feminism nowadays is quite different to what feminism was like for our parents, our grandmothers, the different ways that we’re able to communicate those things. Maybe because I work on these issues, but I feel like this is quite exciting. In everyday sexism too, social media is having an impact. There’s been some changes to some legislation in the UK recently relating to sexual harassment I think. I think they’re really positive tools.
Angwin: Finally, how do you see the role of groups like the Gender Agency which you founded or JERA International in the whole picture of fighting for gender equality?
Sarah Boyd: Another really good question. In fact for the Gender Agency, my partner and I, a man who has worked a lot on gender issues and humanitarian crisis for the last decade, are going to have a planning question about this very question. Primarily in creating that name as my own consultancy was practical on one hand, but on another hand we became quite excited about ‘oh wow, we can actually create something that people can engage in’. One method was starting a Facebook page. We realized that other people want to engage in these things too. The work that JERA does, particularly in the region, is very much about connecting global, regional, local process and about feeding different people’s realities into the conversation.
There’s so many different ways that organisations like JERA contribute in this field. One very clear way and what I’d like to build for the Gender Agency is the connecting element. You can forget that people don’t necessarily think about these things. Awareness and challenging perceptions that people have and exposing them to a range of issues that happen around the world can lead to all sorts of different sparks happening, and sharing of ideas. One thing that JERA does across business communities, across government, the private sector, is realizing that we are all on the same page, or getting to be on the same page in support of the work that we do. So playing that connecting role.
A very big thanks to Sarah for taking the time to talk to JERA!