No woman’s body should be a battlefield

25 years after Women in Black was founded by Israeli and Palestinian women working together for peace, Sue Finch and Liz Khan report from the International Women in Black meeting in Uruguay on how the movement has grown into a world-wide network speaking truth to power

Sue Finch Liz Khan
30 September 2013
Black and white photo of women dressed in black with signs surrounding a monument

Women in Blank in London. Photo: Cynthia CockburnA woman dies from violence in the home every four days in Uruguay. That is about the same number as die in the UK, but as Uruguay's population is only 3 million compared with a UK population of 62 million, it amounts to 20 times the UK rate.

Violence against women in the home was one of the key themes discussed at the 16th international Women in Black network meeting in Montevideo in August - where women from sixteen countries shared their work opposing violence, injustice, war, and militarism. 

Women in Black, a world-wide movement of feminists committed to peace with justice, started in January 1988, a month after the first Palestinian intifada, when Israeli and Palestinian women held weekly vigils together to oppose the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel. It has spread to become an international network of women, dressed in black, opposing occupation, war and violence. International meetings are held every two years in a different country – this year in Uruguay, the last one in Colombia, and the next planned in India for 2015.

The key themes for the 2013 meeting were violence in the home, at work, on the streets, in war and by UN ‘peace-keeping’ missions. Some women (particularly from Europe) questioned whether violence in the home should be considered as equally important as armed conflict, but after difficult discussions we agreed that both had to be addressed as part of a continuum of patriarchal violence. One of the Uruguayan meeting organisers, herself tortured and jailed for four years as part of the Tupamaro resistance to the former dictatorship of Jorge Pacheco Arejo, connected the extraordinarily high incidence of violence against women in Uruguay with the high levels of beatings, rape, murder, and torture under the military dictatorship: “This country is not at war now, but the war continues, with the oppression of women and poor people” (Ana Valdés). 

Women from Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uruguay talked at the meeting about actions they organise around violence against women and children in the home, and showed amazing films, including ’Memoria para la vida’ from Colombia about their truth and memory commission and peace process, and ’Ni una muerte indiferente’ from Uruguay.

We were taken to see one of nine ’communas de mujer’ in Montevideo – women’s centres with legal and counselling support set up by ’Women’s Councils’. All of us took part in a vigil with street theatre showing an indigenous woman beaten and others protecting her outside the Town Hall, while a powerful Uruguayan Women in Black film about violence against women was projected onto a huge building opposite.

Ana Olivera, the Mayor of Montevideo (the first woman to become Mayor in Uruguay) spoke at the meeting and press conference: ”We can proudly say that we are pioneers in relation to women and peace, creating 0800 (a special free phone number) to denounce domestic violence, and creating ’Women’s Councils’ in most areas of Montevideo as a tool to support women in their neighbourhoods”. She had just achieved the designation of Montevideo as a ’Peace City’ by the Hiroshima based Council of Cities for Peace.

Viviana Muñoz from Chile  told us that sexual and reproductive rights were the key issue for them, and in Santiago they have been organizing ’Pussy Riot’- style naked protests for autonomy over their own bodies, and set up a 24-hour abortion hotline. ’There is a war against women and we provide the information to give women energy to fight back’, she says. Ten thousand people had come to their last demonstration. Many of the Chilean women who came to Montevideo for the conference were on trial at home for ’crimes against family order, public morality and moral order’, the law that criminalises abortion in Chile, for providing women with ’morning after’ pills and information.

Therèse and Solange from the Hopital de la Fondation Pazi in the Democratic Republic of Congo talked about rape as a weapon and strategy of war. At least 8 million people have died in the wars for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rich resources, and massive and public rapes, torture, and sexual slavery have accompanied the fighting.  The women who travelled to Montevideo from the Congo said the hospital cared for 40,000 rape victims and their children, using a holistic approach – medical, psychosocial, legal, economic. They described the effects of rape: loss of individual and communal identity, loss of social cohesion, and thousands of unwanted children. Women were infected with HIV and sterility, as well as shame. The Congolese women called for an International Tribunal into war crimes, and an end to impunity for rapists – including those wearing ’blue helmets’ who are employed in UN Peace-keeping missions.

Other women discussed their work with survivors of conflict. For instance, women from Serbia are working with survivors of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, recording their testimonies. Armenian women have been using flashmobs in support of non-violent conflict resolution. In Italy and Spain, women are demonstrating against US military bases and challenging NATO and the militarisation of everyday life. Women from Belgium, the UK and other NATO countries spoke of the threat of NATO extending its activities to South America. Palestinian and Israeli women described their struggle to end the occupation of Palestine, and called for support through boycott, divestment and sanctions. Margaret Kuhlen – one of two women from the USA – described how she stands alone in a weekly silent vigil in Santa Fe, and the powerful impact this has on passers-by.

Nora Morales, from the Madres de La Plaza de Mayo, talked about the 5000 people still missing in Argentina following the repression that started in 1975, by the Argentian Army, trained by the US military at the School of the Americas. Her son and grandson (who would be 38 now) were among the disappeared. Many of these children were given by the government to military families. The Mothers of May have been fighting to find their children and grandchildren ever since.

Corinne Kumar, founder and international co-ordinator of World Courts of Women,  led a workshop about the 40 'courts of women' they have initiated with partner organisations around the world since 1992, including courts in 2011 about the 25,000 women killed in dowry-burnings each year in India.  ”My dream is that violence against women becomes unthinkable”, she said. ”Violence is intensifying against women – it is always seen as personal, domestic, insignificant. We want to make this violence visible. . .  Justice has traditionally been about revenge – we look at the possibility of healing. The courts of women are ethical courts, telling truth to power, and also to the patriarchy.”  The Courts of Women began in Asia through the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, who together with several other women’s rights groups across the Asia and the Pacific held nine Courts in the region; El Taller International, a sister organisation based in Tunisia has taken these Courts to the other regions of the world- Africa, Arab, Central and Latin America, and now the US. The Courts of Women are public hearings: the Court is used in a symbolic way. In the Courts, the voices of the victims/ survivors are listened to. Women bring their personal testimonies of violence to the Court: name the crimes, seeking redress, and reparation.

Each of us at this memorable 'encuentro' shared actions that made sense in our local contexts; together we made it clear that the international Women in Black network challenges the whole continuum of patriarchal violence.

Women in Black in London continues its 20th year of weekly vigils, on Wednesdays from 6 – 7 pm  around the Edith Cavell statue in St Martin’s Place WC2 (near Trafalgar Square). We recently took part in a successful blockade of Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Burghfield in Berkshire, as part of two weeks of nonviolent opposition to the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system, and plan to be back there on November 10th – Remembrance Sunday. All women are welcome!


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