Two Rider Global Studies majors had a unique opportunity to deepen their understanding about the role of women in politics, diplomacy and the peace process when they participated in the Summer School on Transitional Justice at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland in June.
Josephine Boyle ’15 and Rachel Safer ’16 were two of just three undergraduate students worldwide to attend the weeklong residential course, sponsored by the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute (TJI). This year’s program was entitled “Peace Negotiations, Peace Mediation and Influencing Implementation: Engaging Women and Gender.”
The TJI Summer School program focused on the identification, training and presence of women and gendered perspectives in peace negotiations, peace mediation and ongoing post-conflict implementation, according to the TJI website. Participants had access to the unique skills of the Summer School faculty, which included Monica McWilliams, a professor of Women’s Studies and Social Policy at the University of Ulster.
McWilliams was a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), a political party that declined to take any position on the country’s principal unionist/nationalist dispute. Through her membership in the NIWC, McWilliams – representing south Belfast – earned a seat at the multi-party negotiations that led to the intergovernmental Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.
It was actually McWilliams’ weeklong residency at Rider this past winter, as a guest of the Global Studies program, that planted the seeds for Boyle and Safer to attend the TJI Summer School.
“I remember Monica had talked about starting a women’s coalition party in time to be elected to the peace talks in Northern Ireland,” said Boyle, a resident of Pleasant Valley, N.Y., who minors in Italian and English Literature. “And I was just so impressed because you can talk about wanting to do something, and be interested in peace and civil rights, but here was someone who had actually done something.”
Just four of the women involved in the program came from the United States, according to Safer, a triple major in Global Studies, Political Science and American Studies from Avon, Conn. Residents of the Philippines, Sweden, Iceland, Colombia and Afghanistan, among other countries, rounded out the Summer School roster, she said.
The international mix of students and instructors helped fuel a diverse exchange of ideas, Boyle maintained.
“The lectures and discussions were fascinating, especially because of the rest of the people participating in the program,” she said. “A lot of the people there worked for international NGOs (non-governmental organizations), women’s advocacy groups, the U.N. or different governments and came from all around the world. Just being able to hear about their experiences was interesting and inspiring, especially since they were all so kind and willing to talk.”
Though the students examined the peace process through the lens of worldwide issues, the local example of Northern Ireland made for a tangible study in the possibilities of effective diplomacy – as well as the issues that necessitated it.
“I expected it to be more like London, but once we got there, I saw it was so different,” Safer said. “It struck me to see a European nation with modern troubles that date back a century or more.”
Safer was particularly affected by the politically charged murals that appear on many homes and businesses in Northern Ireland. These bold partisan works clearly declare sides in the nation’s “troubles,” between the primarily Protestant unionists who sought to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic Irish nationalists, or Republicans, who would prefer to join the nation of Ireland.
“We went around by bus to see the murals, and we were told the story of what was going on,” she recalled. “You really see what the mentality was (prior to the Good Friday Peace Agreement). Some of the older murals are really violent, but they’ve kept them up as part of their heritage.”
“They really drove home the idea that Belfast was a complicated city that had seen years of conflict and was still a part of a peace process,” Boyle added. “The peace walls were a stark reminder that other areas of the world have gone through horrible conflicts and that Belfast, even years after the Good Friday Agreements, still has an element of fear and distrust in certain areas.”
Safer and Boyle also agreed that the G-8 Summit took place at the same time as the Summer School on Transitional Justice, which added an element of international political interest to their experience, and even inspired similar activities.
“I really enjoyed the night when (the Institute) held its Alternate G8 talks, and we got to hear from some of the participants in the program about their work and experiences,” Boyle said. “Specifically, some topics stood out, such as was the briefing on Afghanistan and the model peace talks we held, in which we each pretended to be a different group involved in the peace process.”
Safer, who had never previously been to Europe, was grateful for her experience on a number of levels.
“Together, the travel aspect, along with being able to participate in the (Summer School) program was a great experience,” she said. Boyle agreed.
“I think any experience with a program like that, in which I really learned so much,” she explained, “is helpful in a major (like Global Studies) because it helps give things you’re learning focus and grounds them in a larger reality.”