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Dolls for Change: Messages of Peace Cross Borders

Within three weeks, Harriet Johansson Otterloo’s “Dolls for Change” project had crossed borders. Groups from all corners picked up their sewing needles to craft colourful dolls, each bearing a small swatch of ribbon emblazoned with a message of peace.

Image credit: WILPF
WILPF International Secretariat
19 April 2018
Credits: Dolls4Change Facebook page

Within three weeks, Harriet Johansson Otterloo’s “Dolls for Change” project had crossed borders. Groups from all corners picked up their sewing needles to craft colourful dolls, each bearing a small swatch of ribbon emblazoned with a message of peace. The dolls had a long journey ahead of them — they would soon be sent to refugees in Jordan.

The project was initially pitched in 2014 as a Swedish initiative, but after enlisting the help of her grand-children to create a Dolls for Change Facebook page, international interest snowballed. Three years later, and Johansson is storing the dolls she receives at a friend’s house so that her flat isn’t overrun by boxes.

At the end of 2014, Johansson created the project, intending the dolls to end up in the hands of Swedish politicians. But, she says, after having received so much interest she wondered “why should you send all the dolls to politicians? They will not do anything with them.” Johansson decided to send the dolls instead to refugees, and they will soon be on their way to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

The project has successfully wrapped up, and Johansson was able to liaise with the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg to hold an exhibition in January 2018 featuring about 2,000 of the dolls.

The next phase, once the global submissions dwindle, is to tailor the project to the Swedish community to send dolls to politicians. Right now is an opportune moment, she explains, as Swedish general elections will be held in September 2018. Johansson frequently writes her governmental representatives, but finds her letters do not always receive response. Dolls sporting sashes with handwritten messages of peace can’t be ignored so easily.

Where to next? 

From the Dolls for Change exhibit at the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg.

Johansson is also in the process of organising a booklet of the dolls to be printed and at the advice of her friend, former WILPF International President Edith Ballantyne, Johansson intends for her grand-daughter to deliver this to national delegates of the United Nations when she visits New York in the summer.

The initiative, though intriguing without behest, was cultivated with concerted effort and networking on Johansson’s side. A lifelong activist, Johansson has accumulated a vast network of friends and partners in the peacebuilding community. With them, she organised a hit workshop in August 2017 at the Culture Festival of Gothenburg, and personally oversaw the day-to-day work of the initiative.

“Everywhere where people were curious, I went there,” says Johansson. She was the last to leave her workshop in Gothenburg: “it was so hard,” but an instant success. “We had a lot of materials, but at the end of the first day we ran out. I phoned my friends, they came with all their clothes, shirts, and materials.” The project requires only old clothes from around the house, explains Johansson, and a little initiative.

“I am brought up in one of the best societies in history, but we are losing it,” says Johansson, who fears a “silent society.”

“People don’t even vote anymore. I want to wake up the spirit that we had in the 40s and 70s society… to get people to come together and talk to each other. All this tech is wonderful, but you need to meet people. We must trust each other again,” she says.

People help craft the dolls at the Kulturkalaset festival. Credits: Dolls4Change Facebook page

Meet the dollmakers

Johansson has received dolls from people from three to 97, from Japan to South Africa. She says people can make dolls anywhere. As for the differences in age, “It was really fun because the children… write messages like ‘You are welcome to come to my birthday party.’ They did try to connect with children from the refugee camp.”

The value of Dolls for Change, aside from promoting an agenda of peace to politicians, is to show participant “did something with your hands. We must find a way to connect the brain with the hands and the heart.”

To sum up her motivations, Johansson echoes the words of Ballantyne: “It is not enough that we see each other on social media, we have to be out in the streets again.”

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WILPF International Secretariat

WILPF International Secretariat, with offices in Geneva and New York, liaises with the International Board and the National Sections and Groups for the implementation of WILPF International Programme, resolutions and policies as adopted by the International Congress. Under the direction of the Secretary-General, the Secretariat also provides support in areas of advocacy, communications, and financial operations.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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