Melinda Simmons is the Director of Implementation for the Cross Government Funds at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
1. Tell us a bit about your background and what you do – what bought you to peacebuilding?
I used to work in business. I was in marketing and advertising. I travelled to countries newly emerged from conflict, or from closed regimes, who were looking to build a stronger economic future. But in walking around with local people and talking to them about what they could charge for their products, it became clear to me, that the introduction of the kinds of businesses I was representing – huge, multinational corporations, offering high end products – ran a higher risk of deepening inequality and risking social division and conflict. Particularly if the economic benefit of those companies was not handled by governments in an inclusive way. So, I studied for an MA degree at night school, and as soon as I graduated, I quit my job, took a 50% pay cut and went to work for a peacebuilding NGO (International Alert!!) before joining government.
2. Through your work, what actions have/will you be taking to help women play a bigger role in building peace?
The Funds I oversee put the inclusion of women at the heart of what they do. The activities we support are not just about protecting women and girls, but also about empowering them. When I travel to see the work we are supporting (I’ve now been to 10 countries for the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund), I always ask how the programmes are gender sensitive. Often I find that programmes specifically designed to assist women and girls are really good. But other programmes – economic reform, or security training, or political governance – don’t take account of the impact of change on women. I highlight this whenever I travel.
3. What change would you like to see for women in 2018?
I want more and more women to feel they can speak up and tell us what they are thinking. Whether it is about fears they are harbouring, or ideas they have for change. At the same time, I want men to be listening, and providing concrete support for those ideas.
4. Can you give us an example of a time when women got involved in building peace and it made a big impact?
The thing is, women are always involved in building peace. Whether it is in their communities, their families, or in a public, political role. And often those successes start in communities. The challenge is working out how to elevate those efforts to become part of a country’s bigger story. In Mombasa, I saw a group of mothers sitting together with youth leaders, local police and imams in an informal settlement, talking about how families could work together in communities to dissuade young men from being recruited and joining Al Shabaab. The police were there to talk about punitive measures. The imams talked about preaching against hatred. The mums talked about food, love, jobs and respect.
5. Can you name a woman peacebuilder that everyone should know about, who has inspired you? And why?
All women peacebuilders inspire me. All their stories are extraordinary. If I had to highlight one, it would be Leijla Damon. She was born in Bosnia to a woman who had been raped in the conflict and her mother rejected her. As a teenager, she was a founder member of War Child’s Youth Engagement Panel. I heard her speak when I was part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s campaign on the prevention of sexual violence and I was deeply moved by her focus on, and commitment to, reconciliation. And by her mature and empathetic thoughts on her mother’s experience.
6. How have you been changed personally by your work?
I’m an eternal optimist. You need to be if you work in any way in peacebuilding. But I think working in peacebuilding has taught me enormous amounts about overcoming your own ideas and preconceptions about people.
Bottom line: if you want peace you have to find ways to talk with, and listen to, everyone concerned in achieving a lasting peace. Including people you may disagree with profoundly.
Including people who may only know how to fight, not how to talk. Including people whose values may be totally at variance with your own.