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The second international conference of the Nobel Women's Initiative took place in Guatemala, May 10-12, 2009. Four female Nobel Peace Laureates gathered with 135 women activists and policy makers from 24 countries to discuss ways to "Redefine Democracy for Peace Justice and Equality”. openDemocracy was there to explore the major themes and record events in articles, a multi-authored blog and podcasts.

We are grateful to the Barrow Cadbury Trust and The Tides Foundation for their financial support which made this project possible.

For our coverage of the first Nobel Women’s Initiative conference “Women Redefining Peace in the Middle East and Beyond” in Ireland in 2007, click here. Rapporteurs blogged the discussions and we podcast the meeting daily. Shirin Ebadi, Isabel Hilton, Ann Carr and Nadwa Sarandah explored the major themes in an article series.

Resist-Reclaim-Restore: Militarism No More

Reflecting on the human and financial costs of militarism in terms of the prospects for democracy, sustainable living and peace presents a bleak picture, argues Kavita Ramdas. It is against this background that the real worth of the Nobel Women's Initiative shines through.
Reflecting on the human and financial costs of militarism in terms of the prospects for democracy, sustainable living and peace presents a bleak picture, argues Kavita Ramdas. It is against this background that the real worth of the Nobel Women's Initiative shines through.

We are visible

Katana Gégé Bukuru spoke to Isabel Hilton at the Nobel Women's Initiative gathering in Antigua about her work for women's human rights and the search for durable peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Violence targets the weakest

We have found that the primary cause of all the violence and submission which women undergo is discrimination, and it is this which makes us more vulnerable than the others. Lucie Minzigama spoke to Isabel Hilton at the Nobel Women's initiative gathering in Guatemala about her work in Burundi working for women and children's human rights

Who are the criminals?

On her way home to Northern Ireland from the Nobel Women’s conference in Guatemala, Laureate Mairead Maguire was detained by the USA Homeland Security Immigration. She was held for two hours, during which she was questioned, fingerprinted and photographed. This resulted in her missing her flight. She was released upon the actions of the Nobel Women’s Initiatives representatives’ who insisted on her immediate release. The following are Mairead's words.

Laureate Mairead Maguire: building 'deep democracy'

Laureate Mairead Maguire spoke to Jane Gabriel about a new politic she sees arising: one in which ‘deep democracy’ is built by people, one to one, and demanding that the money be taken out of militarism.

The great African housewife

I am back from Guatemala, from this exciting, spiritually-connected gathering: a great dance, party, food, and robust conversations at an invigorating meeting. It’s so exciting that I keep smiling to myself remembering the energy in the room, the sisterhood, the fact that as women race, colour, region, affinity, language never matter. For us it was about how to make a difference and truly redefine “Democracy”. As I transit in Texas, my realities hit again and I leave dreamland.

Puddles in Kyrgyzstan

I wrote a book in 2002, Kyrgyzstan Women in Transition, as a reaction to the various interpretations foreigners made of what was going in my country at the time.

Hope's reflections

Many of us travelled on the same flight from Houston to La Aurora International Airport. Our entry into Guatemala was grand. We were welcomed by Erin Allison and the other organisers.

There was a comfortable minibus waiting to take us to our hotel, Casa Santa Domingo in Antigua city. Six of us, an ‘assorted' group of sisters, enjoyed the unknown landscape, and each other's company.  A few of the sisters already knew each other but the others were meeting for the first time. We easily fell into a conversation that took us from the personal introduction to the introduction of our organisations. We shared our hopes and excitement for the conference and located ourselves in it. Before we went to our different rooms, we agreed to meet at the end of day two, go into town and explore pubs, restaurants, the remarkable history of Antigua; its taste, texture and smell.

Flying with Hope


This presentation is based on an imagined airplane conversation  between Hope Chigudu, other sisters and a man (fellow passenger) who introduced himself as Tino. 

To know that we are not alone

Every woman at the NWI gathering in Antigua had a way of redefining democracy - from writing the new Ecuadorian constitution to include the rights of nature, to fighting for a place at the negotiating table of the peace talks in Sudan. Jane Gabriel listened to three days of stories,debate and plans for the future.

This conflict can be resolved

At the Nobel Women's Initiative, Rosemary Bechler had the pleasure of meeting Galia Golan, a contributor to the openDemocracy debate on UN Resolution 1325. The Israeli peace activist told her why, despite the fact that the war on Gaza has alienated her from her government and fellow-countrymen as never before, she believes that the time has come for a solution.

Laureate Jody Williams: telling it like it is

Jody Williams speaks frankly to Jane Gabriel about the impact that being a Nobel Peace Laureate has on her life - both personally and politically.

The barbarian phase

“I am reflecting on experiences in Sri Lanka of working with women involved in conflict situations at a time when the situation in Sri Lanka is perhaps the worst it has ever been in thirty years of a very protracted and bitter civil war.”

Sunila Abeysekera is Executive Director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch – a Sri Lankan feminist activist and human rights defender who has worked on issues of women’s rights and human rights in the Asia Pacific region and globally for thirty years and more.

For democracy to flourish, it has to be a culture as well as a process

Behind the high walls of a hotel in Antigua, the tranquil colonial capital of Guatemala, as the more than 100 women participants moved into the third day of “redefining democracy” some 40 miles away in the modern capital Guatemala City, democracy did a little redefining of its own. It was precipitated by an event unusual even for Guatemala: the distribution at the funeral of a murder victim of a video in which the deceased, a respected lawyer, accused the president, his wife and his secretary of organising not only his own murder – he was shot on the streets of Guatemala City while riding his bicycle on Sunday - but the murders earlier in the year of two of his clients.

Obstacles to the progress of Human Rights in the World

Sixty years ago, in the hopes of creating a better world, world thinkers came together to devise international standards for how we should live and governments committed to uphold and guarantee the rights and freedoms set out in these standards for the people of their nations.

Redefining democracy: conference declaration

Declaration of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference on
Women Redefining Democracy
Antigua, Guatemala, May 10-12, 2009

The priveleged ones

It’s Time to Return to the Hotel Brochure

Day Three. One of the plenary speakers, I can’t remember who it was, told the delegates, ‘We are the privileged ones’. People nodded and you could see that this struck a chord. I have been wondering exactly what it meant. The most obvious reading belongs to the same family as the jesting remark made by Jane Austen’s Elizabeth when she suggests that she fell in love with Darcy when she first saw his lavish ancestral home, Pemberley.

Another morning in Antigua

It's hard to believe it's the third and final day of the conference. In a way, it seems like we just arrived. In another, it feels like we've been here for weeks, if not longer. We've come to expect conversations across meals and coffee breaks that span region, sector, discipline, and point of view.

We are the ones

All events of this kind have their own shape and dynamics. If Day One was an eager and passionate Tatiana’s letter, not to Onegin, but to an already cynical yet surely reclaimable democracy – we seem to have collectively matured overnight. There are three major themes to this great day’s proceedings: lessons from some extraordinary women who have run for and held political office, strategic thinking from women reporting unforgettably from the front line of war-torn societies, and the sliding into place of the last gargantuan building block for our overhaul of democracy – the battle for women’s human rights.

The neglected story of war

When men have done making war on each other and on each other’s women, many return to home to make war on their own. Aftermath is the neglected story of war: what happens to the guerrilla fighter after he lays down his gun? Or to the former soldiers with stories of horrors never told, men cast adrift from the companionship of shared military experience, alone with unspoken memories?

The evidence is that many come home to act out their nightmares through violence against women.

The trouble with elections

Monday's program was full of provocative and interesting discussions by women working for rights and democracy in repressive and violent contexts.  Upcoming elections in both Sudan and Burma will present opportunities for democratic transformation, but also significant challenges.

In Sudan, the first general election since 1984 will be held in 2010.  There have been significant problems with the census, specifically that many displaced and refugee Darfuris were not counted. 

Yes we can

STEPS is a women’s organization founded in 1991 and registered under the Tamil Nadu Societies Act 1975, based in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, to work on the empowerment of all poor women, and particularly Muslim women in the region. It aims to bring about a change in the dominant perception – including among Muslim women themselves – about the rights of women in Islam. It believes that interpretation of the Qu’ran through a patriarchal lens resulted in discrimination against the women of the community and forced them to lead subjugated lives in a way that is not sanctioned in Islam.

Democracy then women's rights?

On Sunday, the presenter from Palestine made an impassioned speech, arguing that feminists in Palestine should be primarily part of the struggle against Israeli imperialism, rather than focusing on patriarchy within their own culture.

In a further discussion on challenges to democracy in national contexts, participants from Mexico, and myself from Canada, discussed the pressure on feminists not to “divide” the progressive forces in society, but instead, to work as united movements, men and women.

The utopias that motivate us

Thomas Rainsborough was the highest ranking supporter of the Levellers in the New Model Army when he spoke in the Putney Debates in July 1647, and uttered the immortal words for British parliamentary democracy:

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under."

A new type of gender action watch

The first day of deliberations was Women’s Day in Guatemala, and participants at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference had awoken to the sound of firecrackers in Antigua celebrating the role of mothers and the sight of a local volcano erupting ash, apparently an every day occurrence. Naomi Tutu as the first moderator deftly appropriated the motherhood theme, which she said needed renovating, to give an undertaking on behalf of participants: we were going to be gestating a new definition of democracy capable of celebrating women’s achievements over recent months and years. Many of these definitions were offered during the next eight hours of discussion, though none perhaps so pithy as Mairead Maguire’s emphasis on ‘empowering people where they live – giving them dignity and hope’.

Gender and democracy: no shortcuts to power

Affirmative action is necessary, but insufficient, for building a sustained and representative female presence in politics, argues Anne Marie Goetz, and it can only be a temporary measure. So what will it take to build democracies free from gender bias?

Building democracy from the bottom up

In Day One’s morning conversation, we discussed the meaning of democracy from a feminist perspective - how it had been defined, traditionally, through a patriarchal lens, and how it could be redefined to be more encompassing, holistic, and deeply permeating not only the political sphere but the personal sphere of our lives. A sister from the Sudan remarked that while the conversation about democracy was interesting, that it would have no bearing on the reality of the women she worked with, who are more concerned with the day-to-day material struggles of their lives. How was such a lofty conversation meant to impact them in a way that would produce real results? How could they possibly be asked to focus on conversations, which largely seem theoretical, in a space where the achievement of democracy seemed like a long-lost hope?

Courting justice

What can a government do to harass women fighting for their rights when they are not breaking the law? In Iran, according to Shirin Ebadi, Nobel prize winner, lawyer and human rights defender, one answer is to use the power of the courts against them. The Iranian delegation to the second meeting of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which opened today in Guatemala, was meant to have five members. Two of them were prevented from leaving the country. Narges Mohammadi, spokesperson for the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights and an award-winning human rights defender in her thirties, and Soraya Arzizpanati, a Kurdish Iranian journalist active in the campaign to clear land mines in Iran, had passed through passport control at Tehran airport, their exit visas safely stamped in their passports, when they were called back by the police. Their passports were confiscated and they were notified that both were subject to court cases. They will now face charges in the revolutionary courts.

Engaging with Power

The night the SAS stormed the Iranian embassy in London, May 5th 1980 - a very wet bank holiday as it happened - I was entertaining the writer Marilyn French, who died last weekend, to a very expensive dinner in the Savoy. The choice of location was hers and the bill, fortunately, was picked up by my then employer, for whom I was to interview her.

It did not go particularly well. I was a big fan. Like many women of my generation, I had devoured The Women’s Room, French’s first novel. It read like a souped up fictional account of the insights that Betty Friedan had published in The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier. I was keen to meet the author.

Conference opening by Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Democracy in Palestine/Israel: a feminist fight

With the disintegration of the traditional Left in Israel, radical grassroots groups have became the only noticeable opponents of Israeli government policies, argues Naama Nagar, and strong amongst them are new feminist groups.

The dictatorship of the political majority

I would have come to Antigua to speak with you on this topic, because it concerns me greatly, but prior engagements have prevented me.

When I look at what is happening in Africa, I make the following observation: since the wind of democracy finally blew through the continent, after long dictatorships, elections were organized in several countries to elect leaders of the people. However, of the presidents elected democratically, some are killed before the end of their term of office, while others grant themselves life in office, and even manage to change the constitution, if necessary to keep power. Still others intimidate or terrorize their way into being the only candidate for their own succession. As for those who lose elections – instead of accepting the verdict of the ballot boxes, they take up arms to remain in power, or demand a power-sharing deal from those who won.

Can sexism co-exist with democracy?

As a staff member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the path to Guatemala for NWI’s 2nd International Conference - Women Redefining Democracy - began long before my colleague Liz Bernstein and I boarded a plane in Ottawa on Tuesday morning. It began in meetings, conference calls and concept note drafts, and culminated in the big questions and reflections about the conversations we’ll be having here in Guatemala.

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