While English isn’t her first language, sociology graduate student Saori Takahashi moved from Japan to Washington, D.C., to complete her master’s at American University. “It’s definitely harder to be abroad without having a 100 percent grasp of the language, but I want to keep challenging myself by visiting new places,” she says.
She followed that mantra during the summer of 2011, which she spent as an intern with the United Nations Development Programme Action for Cooperation and Trust (UNDP-ACT) in Cyprus. The initiative seeks to facilitate reconciliation between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots following a 1974 conflict when Greek Cypriot nationalists staged a coup against Cypriot president and archbishop Makarios III. This led to the establishment of a separate Turkish Cypriot community in the north, which is recognized only by Turkey.
Takahashi interviewed UN workers, as well as nonprofit partners and scholars in Cyprus regarding the most effective processes in the various stages of UNDP-ACT peace projects since its instatement in 2005. “The island of Cyprus is ethnically divided, and UNDP-ACT is working on building the communities’ capacity to increase shared experiences and harmony between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities,” she explains. “People are becoming less interested in peace-building efforts. UNDP-ACT is trying to help alleviate the apathetic social condition through civic programs that engage the Cypriot people.”
Takahashi focused on gender perspectives within negotiations and peace building. “I found that a lot of women were not fully satisfied with the degree of women’s inclusion and gender consciousness in peace negotiations on the island,” she says. “Patriarchal perspectives still dominate the negotiation process.”
In 2004, Cyprus joined the European Union, and with that came new regulations that guaranteed certain protections of women’s rights. “Technically speaking, however, I personally feel that structural and systematic subordination of women is still prevalent in Cyprus,” says Takahashi. “Even though women’s rights are protected by law, there are certain things that become normative in society, and women’s rights and their perspectives are still often ignored.”
The internship triggered a new interest in the study of gender inclusion in peace negotiation for Takahashi, and she hopes to follow that interest once she graduates. “I don’t want to limit the possibilities, but I know that I’m interested in solving problems and helping others by sharing best practices,” she says. “The experience I had in Cyprus was really eye-opening.”
As for where she’ll be, she’s not picky about that either. “While I’d be fine with working in Japan or the U.S., I’d go anywhere,” says Takahashi. “Limiting yourself to one or two places in the world also means limiting your opportunity to grow and learn.”