Big chain hotels in major cities can throw up some unusual bed fellows. This morning at the Novotel in The Hague, Netherlands, the lift was full of grim-faced men all heading off to the 9th annual Global Refining and Petrochemical Summit at the convention centre next door. The oil refinery business isn’t doing so well because of industry over-capacity and environmental costs, so they were there to work out how to make more money.
By the evening, in the ebb and flow of arrivals and departures, a group of cheerful British women filled the hotel foyer. They were floristry students on a study tour, in Holland to visit the tulip fields, observe flower auctions, visit growers and learn more about flower arrangement.
Although neither group would have known it, they both had links to another gathering, just down the road at The Hague’s famous Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice. Members of the world’s oldest international women’s peace movement were meeting there to mark their organisation’s centenary.
On April 28, 1915, 1,136 women met in The Hague in an International Women’s Congress to try to bring the First World War to a halt. It was a war that was fuelled by competing imperialist ambitions for oil, a war best remembered now through the symbol of one flower, the red poppy of Flanders’ fields.
The women who met in 1915 failed in their objective. On the very day they met, just 104 miles to the south, 122,000 men died or were wounded on the sixth day of the Second Battle of Ypres, when a chemical weapon, chlorine gas, was used for the first time in history. In total, 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died during the conflict. Several empires collapsed and the victors put in place a new world order which is still playing out in pulsating circles of war and violence.
But if the warmongers have kept going, so have the women peace-makers. The women of 1915 created the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), where this week and next their successors from 36 countries are finalising a new manifesto against war for the 21st century.
Major John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields, the poem that gives the red poppy its iconic power, after the death of a friend in the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2, just days after the women’s 1915 Congress. In the final verse he urges:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The women of 2015 and of the intervening years have taken up the quarrel and are holding high the torch, keeping faith with their foremothers. One delegate this week in The Hague is Robin Lloyd, whose grandmother Lola Maverick Lloyd was one of the Americans present in 1915. Down the generations and across the globe, the foe is militarism, militarisation and war itself, and the torch illuminates a vision of the impossibility of peace without the full participation of women in the exercise of power.
WILPF has deep roots in the 19th century movements for equal political rights and social justice. Helen Kay, WILPF’s historian, records that the 1915 congress was originally intended to be an international meeting in Berlin devoted solely to women’s suffrage. With the outbreak of war it was cancelled. When it was re-convened in the Netherlands, a neutral country, attendance was contingent on commitment to two things: votes for women and the resolution of conflict through peaceful means. Men in power were alarmed and women’s patriotism, as they defined it, was called into question. The 180 British women who applied for passports in order to be able to attend were called ‘these dangerous women’ by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Only 24 were allowed to travel and only three managed to get to The Hague. Some of the German women attending were imprisoned on their return home.
This time, the constraints on women attending their Hague meeting are not so very different. Ten women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, half of their delegation, were refused visas and one of the key figures in the organisation, Joy Onyesoh of Nigeria, well travelled in Europe, may not get to the Netherlands. She should be in The Hague now and is due to act as a lead facilitator for WILPF next week, but her visa application has been blocked.
Despite such perennial limitations and the power of the war-mongers, the mood of many of the women is upbeat, their long history and wide-ranging connections, of both people and ideas, a source of inspiration and encouragement. A group from Australia has travelled from Istanbul to The Hague on a ‘peace train’, having meetings about peace-making along the way, mirroring the peace train that went from Scandinavia to Beijing in 1995 for the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. Gisele Noublanche, the 86 year old President of WILPF’s French section, who worked with children tortured during the Algerian war of independence from France (1954 – 62), asked what has kept her in the movement, says: ‘We must keep on resisting – that’s how we advance. Is there anything else to do? We love life and want it to continue the best it can be on this planet.’ Odile Hugonot Haber, a nurse from the US, was originally involved in the student and worker rebellions in Paris in 1968 then brought middle class doctors and nurses together with workers in a centre for activists in San Francisco before taking on the role of chair of WILPF US’s Middle East committee.
Although the century since WILPF’s founding has seen war, violence and conflict unimaginable even to those who witnessed the mechanised carnage and mass slaughter of 1914-18, women around the world continue to join the organisation. Cameroon is the latest country to be represented, being endorsed as a new section this week.
‘There is peace in Cameroon,’ says Nathalie Wokam Foko, a 42 year old who used to work in commerce and is now studying law to become a magistrate. ‘But the peace hides something. There is poverty. Our electoral system is not always good for everyone. And Boko Haram is coming. They are threatening our peace in the north and Seleka rebels from Central African Republic are in the east. There are internally displaced people.’ Wokam Foko says women in particular are victims in this scenario, so must organise as women. ‘We can’t get to conflict areas, so we must work together where we are and get involved in peace processes and negotiations’. Annie Matundu of WILPF’s Democratic Republic of Congo section, who helped the Cameroon women connect with the global movement, says: ‘Peace is in the middle of everything. Without peace nothing else works.’
In 1948 WILPF was one of the first civil society organisations to receive consultative status at the UN. Over 50 years later, in 2000, WILPF reached a key moment in its history when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, the international legal framework that addresses not only the inordinate impact of war on women, but also the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace.
Nevertheless, women continue to be excluded from participation in peace processes, as international talks about the war in Syria show, . And this very week, with a humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of desperate people dying in the Mediterranean Sea, the EU is being asked to consider military action, as the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi frames the problem as a ‘war’ with human traffickers.
The EU meets today (April 23) to discuss the crisis. Mr Renzi should perhaps have a word with someone from WILPF first, Gisele Noublanche, maybe, who says: ‘It is very important that women have a vision of a world that is demilitarised’. Men too, for that vision is in short supply, but without it the dying and horror will continue. As WILPF’s manifesto for the 21st century, to be launched next week says: ‘Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice….To pursue our task of ending war we have to be able to imagine peace.’ It really is time the women were heard and their vision shared.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Marion Bowman and Jennifer Allsopp are reporting for openDemocracy 50.50 from the WILPF centenary conference in the Hague April 22 - 29. Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War addressing feminist strategies to outlaw war and root out its causes.
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