On Dr Scilla Elworthy’s work desk at her home in Oxford, UK, there stands a framed photo of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion, or the Chinese adaptation of the Sanskrit Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas.
As a goddess, Guan Yin is the pinnacle of mercy, kindness and love, and as a Bodhisattva, she represents one who has earned moksha (release from the cycles of birth and death) and is destined to become a Buddha, but has forgone the bliss of nirvana and instead takes birth time and again with a vow to lead all the rest of humanity to the Truth.
“Guan Yin is my guide. I am attracted to Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism. I strongly believe we are all interconnected, and that our thoughts are very powerful,” says Scilla, the youthful 77-year-old peace builder and author of The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War (2017), which, in the words of Nobel Peace Laureate and civil-rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “demonstrates – steadily and sensibly – how anyone can develop this inner power to build their own personal contribution to the future, and to a world that works for all.”
It was a similar motivation that led Scilla to set up The Oxford Research Group (ORG) almost 40 years ago to facilitate effective dialogue between nuclear decision-makers and nuclear disarmament activists. The result was path-breaking work for which Scilla and ORG were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, 1989 and 1991.
Scilla was also the force behind Peace Direct, a nonprofit launched in 2002 to fund, promote and learn from local peace-builders in conflict areas. In 2003, she received the Niwano Peace Prize in Tokyo for promoting nonviolent methods of resolving conflict.
Born in 1943 in the town of Galashiels in Scotland as the youngest of five siblings, Scilla was energetic and outspoken as a little girl. Two incidents stand out for her from childhood. The first was when, at 11, she decided to shoot at the nest of a bird in the woods near her home.
“My four elder brothers had taught me to use the shotgun, and I remember how the shells of the egg, the embryo, and the sky-blue feathers of the mother bird fell on me… I was so shocked by the violence I was capable of even as a child that I kept the gun away. That’s when I knew that violence was unacceptable,” she says.
Scilla narrated the second episode, which happened when she was 13, in her TED talk that has garnered over 1.4 million views: “It was 1956. I was watching a grainy old black-and-white television, and I saw these visuals of Soviet tanks crushing young people in Budapest. I ran up to my room and began packing my bags. When my mother asked me what I was doing, I said, ‘I am going to Budapest, there’s something horrible happening there and I have go to!’ though I had no idea where Budapest was.”
Scilla’s mother managed to handle the situation and encouraged Scilla’s education in the direction of social sciences.
After completing higher studies at Trinity College, Dublin, Scilla had an eventful youth: she got a pilot’s licence, married, moved to South Africa, had a daughter, and became an advocate for racial equality.
Her approach was always action-oriented – from founding the first multi-racial theatre in South Africa, to setting up a minority-rights group in France to writing a report on female genital mutilation that led the World Health Organization to launch a campaign to eradicate the practice.
Everywhere Scilla went, she noticed that women are underrepresented but very powerful at the grassroots. This observation led her to launch Rising Women Rising World in 2013. “The intention was to identify women who had sufficiently strong biographies so that they could be in positions of decision-making, and to get them into round-tables where peace agreements were being drawn up,” says Scilla.
Research has found that when women are part of the peace negotiation between warring parties, the agreement lasts decades longer, and yet only a tiny percentage of peace treaties are drawn up with women negotiators or signatories in the room.
Scilla believes women make better peace negotiators than men because – unlike men in positions of authority who bargain for maximum assets or profit from the ‘deal’ – women represent those who are suffering the trauma of war and negotiate for their care and compensation. “Feminine intelligence is all that is needed to break the cycle of violence,” she says.
Scilla launched her initiative FemmeQ to awaken this feminine intelligence in both men and women because she believed that was the only way to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals. She has been conducting workshops and train-the-trainer sessions for the past few years.On January 2, 2020, she awoke with a strong feeling that “something big and threatening was coming towards us.” Getting into action, she decided to put down all her learnings of the past 50 years of peace-work into a small book, The Mighty Heart (2020).
She also developed workshops based on the concepts in the book. “There is a time in our lives when we are faced with a crisis. That’s when we have to develop a mighty heart to be able to take a stand and have a courageous conversation, and to do it in a way that doesn’t provoke more antagonism,” she says, adding,
“Growing a mighty heart means you are giving of your skills instead of trying to take what you can in terms of profit.” She urges people to spend at least 20 minutes a day on inner work to develop peace and calm within themselves. “Those who have faced their own fear and inner critic are the ones who can develop presence in a crisis,” she says.
In 2016, Scilla met the Dalai Lama at a conference in Brussels. After listening to her speak about the outlines of her new book – why war continues, how peace can be built, what it will cost, and who can do it – he stood up and announced to the packed hall: “We need individuals like Dr Elworthy to start to the work of preventing war. This has been my personal dream for many years.”
That book, The Business Plan for Peace (2017), is now a full-time project and Scilla is putting her vision into action once again, working with governments and organisations around the world.
Having visited India in 1997 to unsuccessfully negotiate disarmament with the country’s leaders, Scilla doesn’t hold out too much hope on the governments of India and Pakistan being able to arrive at any sort of peace agreement in the near future. Instead, she hopes enough youth on both sides will stand up for an end to conflict.
“If the aim is the prevention of armed violence, then it doesn’t matter what weaponry or how many soldiers you have. What matters is how many capable young people are available and motivated to make this happen – youth and women with a sense of fearlessness and independence,” she says.
She goes on with a word of caution: “Of course, sometimes, when you take a stance for nonviolence and peace, you can be vulnerable. But be unafraid. The heart is much stronger than the mind if you give it half a chance.”
She points towards Gandhi’s moral courage in standing up to an empire, and says there are still lessons from his life that can be relevant today, the most important of which is to work for a greater cause. “The highest attribute of a human being is to be in service,” she avers.
That sounds like something a Bodhisattva would say.
Hear Dr Scilla Elworthy speak at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women on January 16. Schedule and registration here.First published in eShe’s January 2021 issue