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Peace of mind

If some of us had hoped to walk away with a global plan of action rather than a series of personal commitments stuck up on a board, well, we just may have forgotten that it's personal commitment that makes brave women stand up every day - Jenny Morgan reports from the closing session of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference

Jenny Morgan
26 May 2011

In the end it came down to the kind of things women's conferences do so well -- space for personal revelation; even more space for standing up to make the revelation and being unable to speak; tears; songs; hugs. The naive amongst us, who still hoped the afternoon's workshops might magically produce the one-page coherent call to arms that Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams reminded us yesterday was at the heart of the landmine ban campaign that she co-ordinated, were left feeling slightly unmoored (though perhaps it was only me).

In the end it came down to the kind of things women's conferences do so well -- space for personal revelation; even more space for standing up to make the revelation and being unable to speak; tears; songs; hugs. The naive amongst us, who still hoped the afternoon's workshops might magically produce the one-page coherent call to arms that Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams reminded us yesterday was at the heart of the landmine ban campaign that she co-ordinated, were left feeling slightly unmoored (though perhaps it was only me).

Women adding their personal commitment notes to a display board.
Conference delegates sharing their personal
commitments. Photo: Judy Rand

Maybe there'd been a warning sign at the end of the morning session, when Charlotte Bunch, the founding director of the US Centre for Women's Global Leadership, and a feminist activist for four decades, stood up to suggest what we needed to keep in mind in the workshops, as we discussed prevention, protection, justice and other areas of activity under the overarching theme, 'What would be the key elements of a successful global campaign to end sexual violence in conflict?'   Charlotte said, 'How can any campaign be in solidarity with work already being done internationally and locally; what could we do that would not be in competition with existing campaigns, but bring a new dimension?'

In the event, there was no single answer to that question, though many very good ideas emerged from the workshops. The justice group proposed an arrest campaign, with a Most Wanted poster.   They said decisions on how reparations were made needed to be survivor-led, which would also ensure they'd be delivered in a way that met women's needs. They said much greater attention needed to be given to the safety and security of victims and witnesses who give evidence in court. They said 'justice' needed to be looked at holistically -- if survivors can't return home, or have no livelihoods, then prosecutions are a very limited form of justice.

The group on support and services for survivors turned out to have focused on imagining a future five years from now that was much better than this one. This is a productive line of thought, of course, though not necessarily of much use to survivors in the here and now. But it is very useful to invert the present -- to imagine a world in which the shame and stigma of rape are felt by perpetrators, not by victims. Where husbands, fathers, brothers, pour shame on perpetrators and rally round the raped girl or woman, rather than treating her as the guilty party and throwing her out. Where the children of rape survivors aren't discriminated against. Where military forces guilty of mass rape are excluded from peace negotiations and denied any share of settlement spoils.

In fact the world of this conference is already different from the world twenty years ago. The woman who is the senior gender adviser to the Swedish armed forces is here. Senior women from the Norwegian ministries of foreign affairs and defence, with responsibility for programmes on women, peace and security, gender and equality are here. There are senior women here from ministries in Uganda and Canada with responsibility for women, development, peace and security. These posts did not exist twenty years ago. And if they exist now it's because of the speaking up, the crying and the hugging that have gone on all over the world since this latest phase of the women's movement burst out in the 1970s and pushed governments and international bodies to acknowledge that women's rights are human rights.

But this conference did say its goal was to define a new security for women and end sexual violence against women. The workshop on prevention and protection was full of good thinking about the need for adequate research to understand who is committing acts of sexual violence in conflict situations, and be better placed to recognise warning signs of future violence. Sarah Masters of the International Action Network on Small Arms said increased arms flows into an area were an obvious predictor of conflict to come and possible sexual violence against women. The Swedish and Norwegian representatives talked about the need to be able to have input into the operating procedures of forces going on mission to conflict countries. Charlotte Isaksson of the Swedish armed forces said that training alone was not enough; without specific operating procedures laying out how to protect women and children and deal with victims, people going on mission would simply buy into whatever was going on in the mission. Erin Williams, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, spoke about their interesting research into the behaviour of young men who understand gender-sensitive behaviour theoretically, but can't apply it when they're in a real life situation -- they can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk. Her organisation has been engaging young men in role-play, so they get practice in acting to defend women; 'not all men are perpetrators', she says, 'and if we paint them all with the same brush, they can feel alienated. We need to help them to be leaders and advocates for women's rights. In fact we'd like to see a global campaign against sexual violence in conflict by men -- fathers and brothers and husbands'.

It was Carol Cohn, director of the US consortium on gender, security and human rights, who related the discussion to the question of a global campaign. She said that the contexts in which sexual violence happened in war were all very different -- and that, she said, 'is what gives me pause about a global campaign -- because context matters. If mass rape is used as a cheap way to clear communities off land in order to get access to resources, for instance, then you have to have a campaign to prevent those resources getting to market. If an armed group commits mass rape in the weeks leading up to a peace negotiation in order to strengthen its position, then you have to prevent it taking a seat at the table. But who makes those decisions? We have to know why mass rape is being used, and we have to understand where the critical leverage points are. But that is not simple, and even with all the information, those campaigns are not simple.'

So although Jody Williams had inspired us all with her invocation of a one-page call to action and a transparent campaign networked across the world, we don't yet have that simple call. Maybe it will emerge in the next weeks or the next months; maybe the issue of sexual violence, because it's so intimately woven with issues of power and patriarchy, will always evade the one-page call. Shirin Ebadi made an extraordinary closing speech. She said, 'Since I was very young, I've always thought about death. We're all going to die, sooner or later. When a chair gets old, it's thrown out. Many people are like chairs -- their lives don't have any impact on the world. I've always thought I don't want to be like a chair; this was my reason for becoming an activist. I'm a lawyer; I've taught at university; and I write. But none of them give me the satisfaction I get from being an activist. When I'm among people, I listen to their stories and try to find solutions, and that makes me happy. The best bonus for an activist is a peaceful conscience. We activists don't need money and position, because we have peace of mind. And I wish peace of mind to you forever'.

So the women at this conference, most of whom appear to have chosen not to live their lives like old chairs, will undoubtedly keep talking and pushing and persuading and badgering and crying and hugging. And if some of us had hoped to walk away with a global plan of action rather than a series of personal commitments stuck up on a board, well, we just may have forgotten that it's personal commitment that makes brave women stand up every day.

 

To read openDemocracy's full coverage of the conference click here

 

 

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