Notes from the Executive Producers

By Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker

Photo credit: Andrew Fredericks

We’ve been asked, how did the idea for Women, War & Peace start? As usual the answer is — over lunch.

In 2007, while overseeing the international current affairs series Wide Angle for PBS in New York City, Pam produced an interview with Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International. Zainab’s book, “The Other Side of War,” vividly portrays what she describes as the unreported “backlines” of war, where women keep life going in the harshest of circumstances. For Pam it was a profound paradigm shift. In Wide Angle’s seven seasons on air, the war stories always seemed to focus on the men and the guns. “Who’s doing the documentary about the other side of war?” she asked Zainab, certain that such a film must be in the works. “No one” was the reply. “We have to do something about that,” said Pam.

At that moment, Abby and Gini were in an editing room across town working on “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” the story of how a group of Liberian women came together to bring peace to their country after years of war. As Gini and Abby looked for archival footage to tell the women’s story, they found it was surprisingly scarce. Yet clearly if they had been making a film about combat, or warlords, or even about the heroics of the journalists themselves, there would have been no shortage of videotape. Despite the fact that every eyewitness to the events confirmed that what the women had done was transformative, it appeared that journalists and their crews weren’t interested, or the footage resulting from those days was not deemed important enough to archive.

A few weeks later, Abby, Gini and Pam met for lunch. As we recounted our strikingly similar experiences the conversation became electric and within minutes we were finishing each other’s sentences. We all agreed that the need to address the media’s blind spot in reporting on the momentous change in women’s roles in conflict was great, the gap was enormous, and the opportunity to do something together was compelling. We knew we were on to something – and Women, War & Peace was born.

From the onset, we knew that “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” would be one of five films in the series. The question immediately became: what other stories should we tell? All of us had been deeply moved by the U.N. testimony of Patrick Cammaert, a former commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces, when he observed from his own experience in multiple war zones that: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.” So, we decided to focus on the period in which that has happened — the last 20 years, where frontlines have disappeared and civilians have become primary targets.

The women who were targeted in Bosnia’s 1990s war immediately came to mind. They, along with women who survived Rwanda’s genocide, were the first women ever not only to testify at an international tribunal about what happened to women in war, but also to successfully demand the prosecution of perpetrators of systematic rape. Due to their willingness to step forward and take the witness stand, rape began to be seen as a war crime rather than an inevitable byproduct of conflict. When Pam began delving into the transcripts from The Hague she came upon an extraordinary trial focusing exclusively on war crimes against women in a small town in southeastern Bosnia, and the second film, “I Came to Testify,” began to take shape.

As we were in the midst of discussing Bosnia, Gini heard a report on the radio about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledging four Afghan women who had pushed their way into a meeting in London. The international community had convened there to lay the groundwork that would determine the fate of Afghanistan, yet not a single Afghan woman had been invited to the meeting. During the conference, it was announced that peace talks with the Taliban were on the horizon. As the appearance of the four meeting-crashers clearly showed, Afghan women wanted to make sure they were at the table. We decided to find out who these women were and follow them. Our third film, “Peace Unveiled,” was born.

We knew that another under-reported issue is that today’s conflicts are uprooting millions of civilians — the largest number in history — and turning them into refugees within their own countries. The majority are women and those who depend upon them for nourishment and keeping families together. At that moment, Abby got an e-mail about death threats against a Colombian human rights lawyer who was working with two Afro-Colombian women to stop the seizure of their community’s gold-rich land. A showdown was imminent: they were vowing to fight to the death not to become part of Colombia’s nearly 4.5 million people displaced in a war that the country’s gold rush is re-igniting. Production on “The War We Are Living,” our fourth film, swung into gear.

With production on four hours now underway, we decided to round out the series with an hour that would rigorously explore the themes and ideas that had emerged from our global research on women and conflict. We were back full circle to inviting Zainab Salbi to participate alongside a chorus of leading experts, political leaders, and war survivors to probe the impact of today’s wars on women in conflict zones around the world, and the often unseen role they are playing to change the rules of engagement.

To borrow a phrase from Hague prosecutor Peggy Kuo, it’s our hope with this series to “shine a spotlight on women’s experience in war” so the full picture can be seen.


  1. Leigh Bennett says:

    I saw the first night of the Women, War & Peace series several weeks ago, and then watched the concluding chapter, last night 11/8. I was not able to see the intervening episodes, and will be looking for the rebroadcast.

    Unfortunately, the NY Times review had colored my expectations; I suppose there’s a reason ordinarily I never read the Times’ review ahead of a PBS show, but I’d just stumbled upon it, and was curious. As might be predicted, my dissatisfaction with the documentary matches one of the Times’, namely, that women are portrayed as victims of the wars men are making. As in so many situations, the truth is not so simplistic. Women are also the perpetrators of atrocities against other women, which is quite hard to comprehend, and which makes ultimate solutions to improving the lives of women around the world that much harder to formulate. Tragic example: Rwanda’s Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, now imprisoned for life, government minister who ordered rape & torture of other women.

    And just because the horrors happened long ago & far away in mysterious, darkest Africa, where most Americans will never venture, consider the parallel situation right here at home, with the women who ferociously battle to deprive other women of the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy, regardless of rape or incest (with no offer of help to care for the child whom they want someone else to bear). How many women are voting for that “personhood” travesty going on right now down South?

    Another example of the actual complexity of women’s role in war: the Arab women in Sudan/Darfur, if not maiming, torturing and killing their sisters themselves, then standing by, watching, singing traditional songs to encourage the men to visit these horrors on black Sudanese women.

    And consider the Congo, where it seems the devastating brutality gets more and more perverse by the moment. An article at msnbc.com (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20038999/ns/world_news-africa/t/un-congo-women-face-sexual-atrocities/) describes it thus, “Sexual atrocities in Congo’s volatile province of South Kivu extend ‘far beyond rape’ and include sexual slavery, forced incest and cannibalism.” While concerns about clean air, clean water, nourishing food, and reliable electricity, for example, are fundamental (and even noble, in this world where on average we tend not to think not too much beyond our own needs & wants), if you are going to discuss women and war, it ought to be clear how very messy and complex the problem really is.

    A few Nobel Laureates is a grand start, but there’s so much more to be done! We have to look squarely and unblinkingly at the challenge we face, take responsibility for the state of our world, start coming up with solutions, and not stop until the problems are solved. I think it’s very important that viewers are made fully aware of the ugly dimensions of the ongoing violent conflicts around the world, and are then offered something not found on the evening news: a full and diverse array of ways to get involved and make a difference, from the smallest, easiest act of caring, such as buying a U.S. Postal stamp bearing the image of one of these remarkable women (when it’s issued–or lobbying for its issuance, perhaps), to letter-writing, charitable contributions, or even travelling abroad for a first hand view of how women live in other cultures and conflict zones (as appropriate, obviously).

    I did think Women, War & Peace presented the issues with a soft-focus lens. But maybe I’m just a hard-edged New Yorker, not to mention: I attended an all-girls’ grammar school here in NYC (and boy-oh-boy was I mad at my parents for that! LOL) before going away to prep school, and from there went on to Wellesley (my grandmother was the class of 1919, and my mother absolutely refused to go, so it was up to me to make things right! LOL). The problem of discrimination, the issue of women’s rights, and the exhortation to be bold and excel and shine have been drummed into me since I was still watching Sesame Street. I’ve had years to develop a distinct perspective on the challenges we encounter as women, and I can be terrifically impatient, and vocal with said impatience, when others don’t see our predicament as clearly.

    I do appreciate all the work you did to bring this film to PBS, and I’m looking forward to more ground-breaking works in the future. Thank you! Leigh Dyer Bennett, NYC 10021

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