Nobel Laureate Betty Williams reflects on a lifetime of work for peace and children’s rights

By Elaine Tucci February 2014

Peace Activists Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976

Peace Activists Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976

Betty Williams was drawn into the public arena in 1976 after witnessing the death of three children in her hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland. The children were hit by a car whose driver, a young member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was fatally shot by British authorities. Williams was driving in her car with one of her children when she heard gunfire. She turned the corner to her street, saw the three Maguire children and rushed to help. This is how the path of a lifelong changemaker and peace activist begins.

Within two days of the tragic event, Williams had obtained 6,000 signatures on a petition for peace and gained media attention. Together with Mairead Corrigan, the sister of Anne Maguire, the mother of the three children killed, she co-founded Women for Peace.

The two organized a peace march to the graves of the children, which was attended by 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women – the peaceful march was disrupted by members of the IRA, who accused them of being “dupes of the British”. The following week, Williams and Corrigan again led a march – this time with 35,000 participants.

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for their peace work dedicated to promoting a peaceful resolution to the ongoing violence between the  Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Ms. Williams recently visited Denver, CO to raise support for the PeaceJam Foundation, a global leader in developing young leaders and engaging them in their local and global communities.

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in Northern Ireland

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in Northern Ireland

At the time of the incident that spurred her lifelong peace work, Betty Williams was working as a receptionist, was married and raising her two children.


“When the peace movement began in Northern Ireland, what did we know about peace marches and peace rallies? Nothing, absolutely nothing, I remember calling the rally and asking ‘what do I do?’, and then I went to the library and got several books by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I followed them to the T. And what Martin taught me from the grave was that when somebody’s injured in a rally, you pick them up and keep on marching because that person could be killed. He taught that everybody that does nonviolent work faces violence now and again, and through his work and teachings I learned what to do.”


She asserts, “Non-violence is the weapon of the strong, not the weak.”


She recalled, “My father- who I adored- he was one of these fabulous men you could hug all the time and tell all your troubles to. He would say, ‘I don’t care if you murdered someone, I hope you never do, but you can come home and tell me all about it.’ He was that kind of guy. So when we started work in Northern Ireland my father sat with me in the kitchen with a cup of tea and he said, ‘You know somethin darling? Do you know Northern Ireland has a problem for every solution?’”


“He was right. We had the worst unemployment problems in Western Europe; 14% unemployed, rising to 96% of our population in certain areas. That is social violence of the worst kind.  We had the worst housing conditions in Western Europe. We had 8-10 people living together in two bedroom houses with an outside toilet. We had to create jobs, we had to build houses, we had everything to do. If we left one problem unsolved and brushed it under the carpet it would come up and bite us on the backside.”

Ms. Williams asserts she learned the majority of peacebuilding work from her experience in Northern Ireland.

We were the blacks, we were Native America; we just had a different color. We were the underdog, we were the misunderstood.”

Betty Williams

Nobel Laureate Betty Williams

Ms. Williams reminds us just how challenging the work of grassroots peace building truly is.

“We had young men who took up guns for causes they believed in, until we were able to replace that gun with something else. You can’t go to a young man with a gun for a cause he believes in and say,’ do you mind, if you would just put down that gun and be a nice wee boy, your life’s gonna get better’. That’s bull-honky! You have got to replace that with something else. With our children it can be a pair of swimming pants, a tennis racket, a field to play in. We call these small things, but they are not small. These a huge things. You’ve got to have an alternative, a real alternative to violence.”

“Peace work is not easy. Nobody ever said it would be. Peace is not going to fall out of heaven. You can sing for it, you can pray for it , you can even dance for it, but it’s not going to fall out of heaven.  It’s got to be worked for every single day of our life. Worked for as hard as any army that would be put together.”

We need that nonviolent army; the army that says war is obsolete and we are going to make sure it becomes that way someday. As Carl Sandburg once said , ‘One day there will be a war and no one will come.’”

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Williams said,

“A deep sense of frustration at the mindless stupidity of the continuing violence was already evident before the tragic events of that sunny afternoon of August 10, 1976. But the deaths of those four young people in one terrible moment of violence caused that frustration to explode, and create the possibility of a real peace movement…As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother’s labor spurned”.

Asked about the role of women in peacebuilding she says, “If you want something done, give it to the women.”

In her Nobel speech she asserted, “The voice of women, the voice of those most closely involved in bringing forth new life, has not always been listened to when it pleaded and implored against the waste of life in war after war. The voice of women has a special role and a special soul force in the struggle for a nonviolent world.”

Williams recalled how her life unfolded after her work concluded in Northern Ireland.

“If you do your job properly, you’ll do yourself out of a job. But because of the peace movement I witnessed the death of three children, so people thought I was an expert on children. I wasn’t. Well, I was in a kind of way because I had my own children and I knew how smart these children were. They could outwit me, outfox me, outthink me and certainly outrun me! I knew how smart they were.”

Betty Williams now heads the Global Children’s Foundation and is the President of the World Centre of Compassion for Children International. She travels extensively around the world speaking out for peace and for improved conditions for children.

“My work has taken me to a lot of places and I have witnessed cruelty on children that should never be allowed. I have held little babies as they have died.”

em111313dMs. Williams has a clear notion of her role as a peace activist; to inspire others to action.

“My job is to tell you about them, I bring the story. Maybe you want to help; maybe you want to fix it. That’s your decision. I say if you can change one person’s mind, its huge when you can do that. One is a mighty number, when you get one person who says, ‘were gonna do this’, it’s a mighty number. When one stands up, when a flame is ignited, you know nothing is going to put this flame out. You know it will go on.”


She recounts a story from her work in Somalia


A Somali refugee with her malnourished child at Banadir hospital in south Mogadishu. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

A Somali refugee with her malnourished child at Banadir hospital in south Mogadishu. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

“In Somalia a woman had walked 200 kilometers. She started her journey off with twins; she was marching to get food for her children. On the way she had to make the decision which child she would allow to die because her breasts could not sustain both children. Can you imagine that? The strongest twin survived, and when the woman finally arrived in the village, the other baby died, and four days later I held her as she died.”

Ms. Williams is adamant that, “Any child who starves to death in our world; it’s an act of terrorism, a complete and utter act of terrorism.”

“On 9/11 when terrorists flew jets into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., killing thousands of people, 35,615 children in the world died from malnutrition – and no one said a word.”

“Apathy is the worst killer.”

As for her hopes and goals, she says “The only dream that I have is the dream of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children.”

Asked what allows her to go on each day for so many years, even when things get difficult, she is adamant, “Never give up.”

She admits she has often been called an “idealistic fool.” But then she is reminded why she continues with her passion for peace.

Nobel Laureate Betty Williams visits Standley Lake High School

Nobel Laureate Betty Williams visits Standley Lake High School

“I spent most of the day yesterday at Standley Lake High School knowing why I work for peace.”

Six years ago a small group of students and faculty at Standley Lake High School in Colorado formed “A Day Without Hate” in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The group decided that they would pick a day to have students wear white to take a step toward ending violence in schools. It soon caught on at Columbine High School, the scene of another one of the country’s deadliest school shootings, and other Colorado-area high schools before being incorporated by students in at least 12 states this year.

She continues, “We’re all human beings and we wonder if we’re doing the right things, but when I see the young ones, that to me is the stamp of approval because the young ones are going to change the world.”

Students participate in A Day Without Hate

Students participate in A Day Without Hate

Her encouragement to young people, “Move past the nay-sayers. Say, ‘You’re in my light, move over.’”



Betty Williams is also the Chair of Institute for Asian Democracy in Washington D.C. and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Nova Southeastern University. In 2006, Williams was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative along with sister Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu Tum. Six women representing North America and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa decided to bring together their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality. It is the goal of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to help strengthen work being done in support of women’s rights around the world.

The PeaceJam Foundation is the global leader in developing young leaders and engaging them in their local and global communities. This award-winning nonprofit is led by thirteen Nobel Peace Laureates who have nominated PeaceJam for the Nobel Peace Prize nine times. Google and other partners have recently joined with PeaceJam to launch “One Billion Acts of Peace” — an international global citizen’s movement led by thirteen Nobel Peace Laureates and designed to tackle the toughest issues facing humanity. Find Out More Here

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