Magda Zenon is a life-long peace and human rights activist and now focuses on gender violence and women’s participation and the integration of the gender perspective in the peace process. She is a founding member of Hands Across the Divide, Cyprus’s first women’s organisation and has spent the last 4 years hosting her own online radio programme, aiming to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Her projects discuss a range of issues, including gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive rights, trafficking, women and peace and women’s participation in decision-making. We spoke with her to find out more about her goals and hear her thoughts on the current position of women in business and politics.
Can you tell us a bit about your most recent focuses/projects?
I have hosted a weekly women’s forum called kaleid’HER’scope on an internet-based radio station called MYCYRadio for over five years that covers a variety of issues related to women’s lives. Being an active member of the women’s peacebuilding movement based in Cyprus, I realized that the peace discourse in Cyprus was stuck; I therefore began using this show to broaden the focus of the dialogues by speaking with international women peacebuilders who, in addition to helping me fine-tune my own thoughts, also contributed greatly to reframing the local discussions. Through this came my dream about creating a global online network – so the one project I am working on is a website or online portal to store the conversations I have already had with women peace builders and those I will continue to have and to promote them as an easy-to-access archive of HERstories from around the world.
The second is to do outreach in Cyprus and connect to more women beyond the capital city and open up their storytelling horizons by drawing alignments to other, related women’s issues. In so doing, a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of peace can be created, one that moves the discourse beyond the mainstream patriarchal discussion of security – that speaks only of military strength and borders – to a concept of peace that includes a more holistic sense of personal safety, education, employment, property rights and sexual identity, to name a few of the pieces of the puzzle that make up the big picture called “human peace and security.” Showing the inter-relationships and dependencies on the peace process of all these human rights issues will surely help create a stronger lobby for an inclusive sustainable Cyprus solution.
You’re very well informed in the politics behind feminism and peace building, but these topics can be intimidating for people to start looking into. What tips would you give to those feeling confused, but eager to learn more?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to anyone you feel may be able to answer your questions or not – you will be surprised by how keen most people are to talk and share information … and read, read, read or listen, listen, listen to information available online!
What role do you see feminism and feminist education playing in today’s peace building movements, and what do you think negotiation tables stand to gain from the presence of women?
According to the Laurel Stone study of 156 peace agreements, controlling for other variables, Quantitative Analysis of Women’s participation in Peace Processes in Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes, Annex II of 2015, when women are included in peace processes there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years, and a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years. It is, therefore, my belief that peace education and feminism should be playing a much more significant role in today’s peace building movement. The more one listens to and includes the thoughts and concerns of 50% of the population in the peace process, in other words, the more you include women, the more you find out about what peace and security means to them, and the more you realize it is not just armies and borders that keep a community and its population safe. It is the concept that each and every woman, elderly person or child also needs to feel safe as they go about their daily lives. So, my body, my children, my parents, my job, my home, my neighbourhood also need to be safe. To date, these issues are not being sufficiently addressed or taken seriously enough at the negotiating table, not just in Cyprus, but all over the world.
Also, the more diverse the team at the peace negotiating table, the more all the different groups within a society will perhaps feel that their needs and aspirations are being represented, and as a consequence, will be more likely to support the policies that are developed.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that women have told you to forget about gender equality and to focus on ‘larger problems’ (solving inequalities between nations, for example). With the rising interest in gender inequalities and feminism, why do you think there are still so many women who don’t see them as something worth addressing?
Because patriarchy has done such a good job of dominating the public discourse, the result is that many women still don’t see gender as one of the levels of the fundamental principle of equality but rather they see it as something marginal and incidental.
Often too this is related to an ‘illusion’ of equality – in Cyprus, for example, we have many live-in domestic helpers who enable the female of the household to confidently join the labour force, yet the rights of these same domestic workers, who are mostly women, are conveniently forgotten, they are, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Do you think that the #metoo movement made enough difference to the way that women are regarded in business?
Five months of #metoo cannot undo the centuries of patriarchal abuse of power; we have just touched the tip of the iceberg as regards sexual harassment. Courage and hard work will now be needed to dig deeper and try to redress the structural inequalities that have allowed such profound and long-lasting violations to take place. The #metoo campaign certainly brought the conversation about this form of gender-based violence into the open, but we still need to better understand and be informed about what it means, its impact and about accountability – and this applies to both men and women. We also really need to listen to all the stories coming out now with honesty and empathy – it is quite devastating to listen to woman after woman coming forward with her story and admitting to the fact that it took so long to speak out because she knew she would not be believed, she knew she would be ‘crushed’, she had witnessed others being crushed yet she had to live with the damage it had done to her life over the years …we still have a long hard journey ahead of us.
Is there anything in terms of activism, feminism or peace building that you’re tired of speaking about?
I wish I did not need to repeat as often as I do that the principle of equality includes race, gender, religion, economic status, educational level, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and is fundamental for a peaceful, just, dynamic, sustainable world and thus gender is not a separate issue but rather one of the principles upon which peace and sustainability is based.
And the phrase I am most tired of hearing is ‘there aren’t any qualified women’ when all-male panels are questioned, when high-level government positions become available or when a head of state appoints a new Cabinet/Ministerial Council. Have you noticed how this expression has never ever been used when referring to men? It is assumed that simply by being born men, they are qualified …
With all the different topics that you work on in mind, what changes would you most like to see take place in the next year?
All gender-based violence (GBV) affects the health of the person, their immediate family, their productivity, their intra personal relationships and it costs the EU €226 billion annually according to EIGE. I would like that more countries took the issue of the prevention of GBV more seriously with, for example, better trained officers at central points in key institutions such as at police stations, hospital staff, teachers, in combination with more effective legislation and an efficient judiciary.
The other change I would most like to see is the inclusion of women in all discussions in the ongoing conflicts around the world including in Cyprus. During conflict women continue to be the ones that bear the burden of keeping their family and themselves safe, of providing food and shelter for their children and for elderly parents while on the move, of having their bodies violated often repeatedly and in so many different horrible ways; they surely better understand the devastation of war especially on families and communities and yet no-one is bringing their voices, their experiences, their perceptions and their needs to the table, to the conversation about what is required to ensure a better chance at peace.
Sarah Mackenzie is travel writer and marketing professional based in Edinburgh, Scotland. With 39 countries under her belt, her personal work focuses on vegan budget travel, alongside eco and women’s awareness topics. She also writes for online interview magazine 5minuteswith.