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World Courts of Women: against war, for peace

At the World Court of Women meeting held in Bangalore witnesses to violence and injustice highlighted political lessons and resistance, asking that we all take responsibility to oppose the unending wars against women.

"Lights slips into every place
where the women were killed,
the houses, the streets, the doorways
light traces the blood stains
light pours into the wells
where they threw the bodies
light seeks out the places where sound was silenced."

These words, from the Palestinian poet Lisa Suhair Majaj, introduced the most recent session of the World Court of Women held in Bangalore, in November 2015. Under the title "Against War, For Peace", the Court was hosted by Mount Carmel College and Vimochana Women's Rights Forum, which works on a range of issues from domestic, sexual and dowry violence, to communities and human rights. 

The Court was held in conjunction with the international gathering of Women in Black( WiB) , an international network founded in Jerusalem in 1987 to oppose war, occupation and violence. A thousand students joined WiB to listen to testimonies that focussed on war as genocide, wars without borders, wars against civilizations, and wars against women. The final session spoke of building resistance, peace and justice in a "gathering of spirit". 

Millions of women and girls are killed, brutalised and intimidated into silence every year. The World Court of Women has held over 30 sessions since 1992, hearing from survivors of violence, conflict and war from around the world.  By focussing on the voices, experiences and resistance of women ignored and marginalised by mainstream politics, different kinds of peace-building and solutions are emerging from these hearings.

Along with Lisa Majaj, I was one of eight jurors chosen from India, the Middle East and Europe. Corinne Kumar of Vimochana, the initiator of the Courts of Women, asked us to "listen actively", reflect at the end on what we had heard, and look to the future. The Bangalore session extended from early morning to late evening, with harrowing testimonies interlaced with expressive dance, poetry and short films. In expressing the anger and pain of their direct personal suffering, many of the witnesses highlighted political lessons and resistance, demanding that we all take responsibility to oppose these unending wars on women.

Some women shared their names, like Iraqi academic Eman Khammas. She spoke first of the struggle to keep going through Saddam Hussein's years of brutal dictatorship, and then of the greater calamity that blighted life in Iraq due to the disastrous US-UK invasion of 2003.  Dr Khammas spoke of the impact of war, as towns and communities in Iraq were wiped out "first by the US-led occupation and now by the sectarian militia".  People who had nowhere else to go continue to face "human rights violations on a daily basis".  Others, like Eman, were forced to flee with their families. With her PhD and academic and human rights credentials, she was luckier than most; which made it even more shocking to hear her stories of daily poverty and humiliations as a refugee in Europe, where she and her family are often feared as terrorists and resented for the needs that they have.

Some speakers requested anonymity. In testimonies on different aspects of Afghan resistance we heard from women who ran community projects, such as the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC), and who managed - at least for now - to work openly with international organisations. And we heard from Afghan activists connected with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) whose lives are daily threatened because of their work for women's rights and protection. Despite seeing their mentors and friends assassinated, these women continue to resist the layers of oppression inflicted and sustained by misogynist patriarchal traditions, and successive wars perpetrated by Russians, Americans, British, Taliban and other armed men.

Lives that had seemed distant came close as listeners grappled with our own relative privileges and responsibilities.  Here we confronted our countries' roles in cultural and ethnic genocides, including mass unemployment and eradication of livelihoods as people have been cleared out of the way so that big dams, nuclear power projects, agribusinesses, and mass production from electronic goods to cheap clothes can be taken forward in the name of "development".   We listened to testimonies about everyday violence in poor communities living on the margins of society, where girls and women are routinely sold, bought, violated and murdered.

Women from South Asia spoke of struggles against violence and erasure in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nagaland and communities across the region. Some arise from conflicts over land, resources, religion or political dominance, often across borders artificially imposed by imperialist leaders and administrators in the recent past. Others have their pernicious roots in historical, systematized, cultural prejudices and traditions. Ruth Manorama, for example, told of the layers of overlapping oppression suffered by Dalit women from the so-called "Untouchable" caste in India, who are struggling for rights and education. Our hearts went out to the women as they relived the abuse they had suffered in marriages that poverty, tradition and misogyny trapped them into as young children. One after another their heads raised and voices strengthened as they told of their efforts to escape and gain education and independence.

Few of us had previously heard of how women's rights and conditions for the poor had deteriorated in Nepal, exacerbated by the recent earthquake. Radha Paudel gave testimony about the efforts of the Madhes Movement to get "meaningful dialogue" with the government about human rights abuses, and the corrupt practices that ensure the rich elites in and around Kathmandu obtain while the poor and hill people go hungry. Describing daily life contending with severe restrictions on access to necessities such as cooking gas, food and medicines, she spoke of empty markets and unemployed men taking their frustrations out through heightened levels of violence against women and children. Radha called the current situation in Nepal "bloodless genocide", but also described women's blood being spilled by "their" men, even if not by soldiers acting on behalf of governments and military commanders as in more overt wars.

In one of the filmed testimonies shown to the Court, an African child who looked about 11 years old spoke haltingly about being gang raped by armed men who swept through her village, killing her mother. Then she was raped again by UN soldiers who were supposed to have protected her.  he narrator said something about impunity - that the blue bereted rapists were protected from prosecution for crimes they committed while carrying out their "peacekeeping" duties.  As one of the jurors, I sat on the platform making notes on everything I heard. So many appalling, unbearable testimonies. I didn't allow myself to look away, but often found that I had covered my mouth and nose, holding my breath. The child stared into the camera with haunted eyes and said "they were very bad men."   

No-one was spared. The Court heard from women who had grown up feeling relatively secure and comfortable, till their lives were destroyed by armed men who wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of religious or ethnic purity. Our differences of age and background dissolved as so many women told how they were turned into refugees, widows, mothers of dead children, the raped and trafficked spoils of war. 

The roles of our own politicians and institutions also came under scrutiny, with recognition of the way in which armed masculinity perpetrates violence in pursuit of military-industrial power and profits that are frequently dressed in high-minded concepts we've been taught to venerate – like "development", "democracy", "freedom" and "security".  Indian and African testimonies particularly challenged assumptions about the desirability of colonialist, "Western" models of development that dispossess the majority, desecrate the environment, and devalue women and rural communities.  

Giving the jury's response to the evidence and arguments that we had heard on that long day in Bangalore, we first paid tribute to all the witnesses -  "the brave, brilliant, indomitable spirit of women… resisting the oppressors, violence, wars, environmental destruction and attacks on our lives, sexual identities and rights".  The jury recalled the capitalist, colonial and patriarchal roots of the pervasive "wars against women", and called on all - individually and collectively - to do whatever we could in our own lives to support each other, work beyond borders, expose the perpetrators of violence against women, and build peaceful, just alternatives with whatever resources we can bring together. 

The Court held "accountable those who own, control, run, enable, govern, manage, implement and benefit from all forms of violence".  It demanded an end to impunity for officials and military forces who harass and violate women, including so-called "peace-keepers" and the men who harm women while hiding behind progressive organisations, political parties and NGOs. Calling for the implementation of UN SCR 1325 (2000) and related resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, including UNSCR 2242 (2015), the Court highlighted the importance and all round benefits of enabling the full participation of independent, feminist women in all aspects of negotiations and peace-making. 

To build genuine structures for peace and security, the Court recognised the need to challenge and dismantle patriarchal assumptions and practices on personal as well as political levels.  Never easy, this means taking on friends and colleagues as well as exposing the hypocrisy of governments that point fingers at non-state terrorists and declare an unending "war on terrorism", while expanding military alliances like NATO and arming themselves with more bombs, guns, missiles, drones and all kinds of weapons "on land, in the air, the waters and even space… with thousands of nuclear weapons at the apex of the pyramid of patriarchal violence". 

The World Courts of Women are important platforms for restoring and amplifying voices that have been silenced by oppression, poverty, violence and denial of human rights and education.  Some of the stories are so terrible that it's hard not to feel despair and turn away.  But that would be a cop out. The purpose of the Courts is to enable us to learn about each other's experiences as a spur to collective action. Many of the participants in Bangalore joined in the Women in Black conference that was held over the next few days to discuss the issues in more detail and propose actions. On the last day we demonstrated at a major crossroads by a military barracks in the centre of Bangalore city, standing shoulder to shoulder with our banners and messages opposing violence against women in all its aspects.

The Court concluded: the "best way to bring justice to those who've testified… about so much loss is for us together to build a powerful global women's movement to transform this world…  to build better peace, justice, equality, environmental and human security, nurturing our Earth's precious resources in sustainable ways, sharing her fruits and putting the poor and needy first".  That future must start with this New Year.

About the author

Rebecca Johnson is director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, and a feminist peace activist. She is the Green Party spokesperson on security, peace and defence and serves with various nuclear and humanitarian organisations.

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