Actor Kristen Bell is stepping into a new role off-screen: She’s now the first global advocate for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, a partnership between the United Nations and civil society that galvanizes funding to support women who prevent conflict, respond to crises and accelerate peace in their communities.
On Georgetown University’s new Seeking Peace podcast, a production of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Bell opened up to Ambassador Melanne Verveer about stepping into advocacy and why she thinks everyone should care about women on the other side of the world. (You can listen to the full interview on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.)
What is it that attracts you to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund?
I think I have a soft spot for the underdog. I mean, all the organizations that I’ve supported, what they have in common is that they lift people up who otherwise might be ignored or feel insignificant, and you know, with the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund—there are crises all over the world whether it’s war or conflict, humanitarian disasters or refugees fleeing persecution. But in every single one of those situations, there is often a woman standing nearby ready to help.
We have irrefutable evidence that when women are included, it accelerates peace-building, it improves humanitarian response and it helps the economies of these countries that have been in conflict recover faster. But despite this, less than one percent of international aid to countries in crisis is given to women’s organizations—and I just, I find that kind of unacceptable. I think women are more than one percent of the solution.
I was thinking about an experience I had one night in Afghanistan when I was meeting with a group of women and the first one said to me, through no malice: “Don’t look at us as victims. Look at us as the leaders that we are.” But I think in too many places we do look at women just as victims. And they are victimized, many of them. But they are doing such extraordinary work.
That is an incredibly powerful narrative. Just because you have been victimized does not mean you are a victim and to have someone who had the wherewithal to say that to you, and know their place and how firm their feet are on the ground, it’s incredible and it’s powerful. I come from a world of trying to make powerful storytelling and seeing the actual stories is paramount.
Many people might say, there so many challenges in the world today, so many challenges here at home. Why should we care about women in conflict areas? What difference does it make to us in our own lives?
We are a connected world. Conflict affects us all. I really believe that. You know, having become a mother five and a half years ago, every situation I saw I felt like it was happening to my child, whether it was a good situation or a bad situation. Even if you don’t have those maternal feelings, you as a logical person would recognize that conflict in the world affects our economy because it forces some people out of their homes, it creates environments ripe for human trafficking and drug production which affects the whole world, it influences global human rights. It just creates an unstable world.
And women are disproportionately affected by conflict. It hits them the hardest and I think that’s unfair and unacceptable. I think this is the time, the moment in history where we can’t look away, where we actually have an opportunity to face it, and one important way we can do that is by standing with women peace-builders and responders.
But people are leading their lives and they frankly find it hard to see how their life squares with the life of somebody say in Uganda or Colombia or one of the other countries the Fund targets. How do you think you can help traverse that gap in understanding and demonstrate why this is important to our lives?
Seeing similarities in someone else is really hard, and that’s not because people are born inherently evil, it is because our software is outdated. It’s because you know hundreds of years ago if we looked different and ran into each other in a field we’d probably kill each other because we’d be a threat to the other tribes. That at one point served us, evolutionarily. That’s no longer the case.
They’ve also proven that empathy-wise: you see one child suffering and your heart breaks. You see two, your heart breaks a little less. You see ten, your heart breaks a little less. A whole country? You just don’t even think about it because it’s too overwhelming.
I think first of all understanding our cognitive behaviors is really important. And I love that kind of stuff—and my husband is very into that because he studied anthropology. Knowing why we operate the way we do I think is first and foremost.
Maybe you could say a little bit about the Fund and what it will mean to those extraordinary women in the toughest places who are trying to make things better for other people.
The reason I chose the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund is because I also believe in math and logic and I have seen the people on the board come up with the absolute greatest statistical probability that this will become a success. Because it is proven that when you identify good solutions and innovative ideas from people that are experiencing the problem—not from someone who is hypothesizing what the problem feels like—you get behind those ideas not just with funding but with support systems, with capacity building, with advocacy. And then you take those ideas that work, and you share them so that other people can mimic them and emulate them.
You’re saving a whole step there. You’re saying: “By the way, this works in this country. Check it out take it. It’s free.”
You had mentioned your daughter, and I understand that the school that she goes to has an award called the Peace Builder Award?
I have two daughters and one that’s in school. You know, I feel like my goal in life now is to create a world where peace and equality are ubiquitous for them, where they don’t ever feel that challenge on their shoulders. At my daughter’s school they take social emotional learning and inclusion and diversity very seriously and they have awards in the hallway called the Peace Builder and there is a picture of the child and a little explanation: “I was a Peace Builder because I this week showed skills on the playground helping people be involved in the kickball game and you know have a good attitude even if they lost.” And it’s always really sweet for the parents to walk by and see these examples of children setting beautiful, kind behavioral patterns.
And it occurred to me earlier this year as I was dropping her off that I’m currently learning how to be a peace-builder through working with the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian fund, and she is simultaneously learning to be a peace-builder as a five-and-a-half-year-old girl in kindergarten, and that gave me like a lightning bolt of hope. Look how early this younger generation is starting to become familiar with the words peace-builder and peace-maker and conflict resolution. And with the younger generation starting so early, I do feel like we will get to a point where peace and equality are ubiquitous in their lifetime.