December 22, 2017 | Swanee Hunt

As a year of shocks draws to an end, we must rise to the occasion. I’ve been holding tight to many things I’m thankful for: friends, family, food, post-genocidal reunification, legislated criminal justice reform….


Our Inclusive Security team has been contributing to Rwanda’s future through relationships with scores of women with whom we’ve worked since 2000 – only six years after the catastrophe that wiped out 10 percent of the population of this small African country. (The equivalent of 32,000,000 Americans slaughtered in three months, by their neighbors.)

Those dauntless women are alongside more than a thousand members of our Women Waging Peace Network, all from war zones, who have created a global space for female parliamentarians, military officers, government ministers, heads of major NGOs, human rights icons, and more. Last month we announced the Network’s new base within the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, at the University of San Diego.

On stage in San Diego with a trio of outstanding leaders: Rosa Emilia Salamanca of Colombia, Visaka Dharmadasa of Sri Lanka, and Hamsatu Allamin of Nigeria.

There is more news than room to share: New research is now showing that when women are significantly involved in a peace process, it holds together much, much longer. It made sense that the Departments of State and Defense, White House, USAID, and others created a plan to advance women as essential to stopping conflict. Following suit, this fall legislators passed a law requiring all relevant parts of the government to report regularly to Congress.

On a parallel track, I’ve been on the road speaking about Rwandan Women Rising (Duke University Press). This unintentional longitudinal study (!) was 17 years in the making; the result was a ring-side seat as the influence of women steadily grew. Today they are 64 percent of the parliament – ten points ahead of the next in line, and 44 percentage points ahead of the United States.

The book has piqued the interest of a number of institutions: Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana was on-stage with me at the Library of Congress; former US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power interviewed me before a robust audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Chantal Kayitesi, co-founder of a group of widows who became a powerful force in the society, has been at my side — a real honor.  Two major NPR programs (KQED’s Forum and WETA’s 1A), two World Affairs Councils, the BBC’s Newsday, the Boston Globe, the World Policy Journal… Each has opened an opportunity to describe how, when chaos cracked open the misogynistic Rwandan culture, women surged into the breach.


Today’s political chaos, similarly, is cracking open American culture. Along with the massive increase in women’s leadership in civil society movements (public education, health care, sexual violence, and immigration reform, to name a few), American women are surging into the political breach. EMILY’s List, the Democratic women’s political assistance group, reports that the number of women who’ve sought information about running for office has soared. By that I mean that the year before our presidential election debacle, the number interested in running was 1,000. This year it’s 25,000.

Of course there are hundreds of leaders we could name, but one I admire most is a brilliant Massachusetts State Senator, Sonia Chang-Díaz. After 14 hours of debate, at 1:30 in the morning, she and her colleagues passed a breakthrough bill to reform the criminal justice system. In her words, “it’s about racial disparities, undoubtedly. And it’s about reducing our high costs from mass incarceration, for sure. But it is also about finally ending a vicious cycle of intergenerational harm.”

Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz brings the voices of her district into the debate.

The current system exacts a heavy toll on entire communities. In Massachusetts, black and Latino people, fewer than one fifth of the population, are excessively, unjustly punished, making up 75% of those who get mandatory minimum drug sentences. (In Rwanda the punishment would likely be community service.)

The quintupling of the state’s jailed population hasn’t put a dent in the drug trade. In fact, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that crime dropped faster in states where incarceration rates declined. In Massachusetts, it costs about $53,000 each year to lock up one inmate. These policies,” Sonia says, “so expensive in dollars and human lives, have little to show for themselves in terms of safety outcomes. Saying ‘we’re getting tough on those drug dealers’ feels good politically, but it does nothing to solve the actual problem.” The bill will, I hope, land on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk in early 2018.

As partisan as I am, I’m delighted that the difference women make in politics isn’t limited to the Democratic Party. There are many energetic, wise, considerate, smart women in Republican ranks, although at only eight percent of their party’s congressional caucus, they have a very tough row to hoe. I may disagree with many fundamentals of their strategies, but there certainly are times our goals align. Compared to Republican congressmen, women sponsor many more bills across the aisle, and they’re out in front when it comes to supporting families and protecting the environment.

Despite rampant discrimination, widespread rape, and deadly hardship, women are indeed rising. The US is not the leader. In fact, our country is taking a lesson from a nation of about 10 million in the heart of Africa.

Let’s make that our holiday wish, with all our hearts. ‘Tis the season to be humble.