What’s wrong with a democratic world with justice, equality, development and peace?

As Cora Weiss reflects on the Beijing ’95 conference on women her dream is that we do not make war safe for women, but that we make women safe by ending the scourge of war
Cora Weiss
24 February 2010
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My most vivid recollection of the 4th World Conference on Women where 15 years ago nearly 30,000 women gathered in China is of nine refugee Tibetan women. The International Campaign for Tibet sent Reed Brody, a human rights lawyer, to support the women who, out of hundreds who applied, were granted visas and also permitted to hold an officially approved event at the NGO Forum. They were constantly harassed by Chinese police. Frightened, but determined, Brody helped them agree to a silent demonstration at the gates to the Forum in Hairou. They made gags of the yellow silk scarves that were gifts from China to all the participants, and stood in the rain with tears flowing, locked hand in hand while cameras broadcast their message around the world on the plight of Tibet.

Tibetan Women

Civil society women gathered and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ as these brave women, who had never engaged in such activity before, feared arrest. They were the first exiled Tibetans to demonstrate inside China. Looking for a safe space, Brody, now counsel with Human Rights Watch, brought them to the Peace Tent and simply said “protect them”. My first such experience.

This popular non-governmental – though I prefer to say civil society – forum, called for looking at the world through women’s eyes. The UN Conference theme ‘Equality, Development and Peace’ and delegate’s deliberations resulted in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA).

While Peace was one of the three official legs, the Platform for Action devoted only one of the 12 critical areas of concern to women and armed conflict. It states that “peace is inextricably linked to equality and development” (the other two legs) and called “for equal access and full participation of women in power structures, and increasing the participation of women in decision making”. Education for a culture of peace was considered necessary, and it recognized that women’s NGOs have called for a reduction in military spending. But as Felicity Hill wrote to me, “it was a standalone recognition of women and war issues, with no analysis of the scourge of wars and threat of nuclear weapons poised on hair trigger alert.”

Hill, now Australia Sen. S. Ludlam’s assistant, has done a close reading of documents emerging from the 1975 (Mexico), 1980 (Copenhagen) and 1985 (Nairobi) World Women’s Conferences and finds the Beijing Platform “just not as strong as the previous documents which were more assertive of women as part of the solution, through an analysis of international relations, rather than women as problem, women as victim in armed conflict”.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this year is convened for a review and appraisal of the Beijing Platform for Action. At an initial meeting held on February 18th, the NGO Committee on the Status of Women (NGO CSW), in collaboration with the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), brought five women speakers and Canadian Ambassador Stephen Lewis to a so-called roundtable for an hour and a half, expecting to engage the several hundred women in the audience in a dialogue. At the meeting, woman speaker after speaker gave statistical reports on how many more, or less, women are literate today, or poorer, or more or less educated. The quantity never gave way to quality, so we don’t know if women or girls are learning about gender equality, human rights, social and economic justice, non-violence, or whatever else it will take to make a culture of peace.

Not one speaker referred to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325) the 10-year-old, civil-society-driven landmark law that calls for women’s participation at all levels of decision making, prevention of armed violence and protection of women during conflict. Nor was SCR 1820 on Women, Peace and Security and sexual abuse mentioned. No one spoke of the massive consequences of war, or the fact that war is not women’s history, as Virginia Woolf taught us. No one spoke of the obscenity of diverting desperately needed resources for women’s development to war and the arms trade. Not one woman called for women to be at every table where the fate of humanity is at stake, as Bella Abzug preached at Beijing.

Only Stephen Lewis insisted that women and children are not one word, as the Beijing Platform would suggest. Women need their own agency, children have one, UNICEF, he declared. “Modest, only infinitesimal, progress has been made since Beijing”, he said with honesty, and called for the emergence, at last, of the international agency for women, GEAR - not as a catalytic advisory body, but as an operational body working on the ground with adequate funding. “The UN represents all member states, but if it can’t represent 52% of the world’s people it shouldn’t be in business.” The struggle for gender equality is the most important struggle in the world today”, he bellowed to the applause of the crowd. Lewis was Canada’s ambassador to the UN and former deputy chief of UNICEF. He now heads the Stephen Lewis Foundation focused on treatment and eradication of HIV/Aids.

In Hairou, when the French tested nuclear bombs in the Pacific, killing fish on which islanders were dependent, causing radioactivity that left women, men and children disfigured and with unbearable cancers, women immediately formed an anti-nuclear protest, which Chinese police tried to prevent and then silence and disperse.

In 1995 UNESCO issued a statement on Women’s Contribution to a Culture of Peace. Nothing in this year’s CSW looks as if it will refer to the Peace leg of the BPfA.

March 8th, International Women’s Day, around which the CSW is convened, started in 1910 to devote one day to the demands of women for equality and combine their gender-specific struggles with the struggle for world peace. This year, Women for Women International will host a Bridge campaign demanding an end to war and asking women and men to get together on bridges around the world to say, NO! to war and YES! to peace and hope. But this comes from civil society, not from the UN, not even its women’s commission despite the UN Charter which calls for an end to the scourge of war.

On the official CSW interactive panels, the topic “From conflict and war to peace-building and reconstruction: making women’s experiences count” was originally part of the program. Why was it taken out? DAW does not seem to have an answer. However, from conversations with two missions, I learned that there's a feeling among member states that CSW should address other issues. They think that the time to address SCR 1325 and other women's peace and security issues is in October, reports Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, International Coordinator of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.

Mavic (who is also co-chair of the NGO CSW) still has some hope because while Beijing 95’ had only one section on women and armed conflict, she says “since then we have the May 2000 Windhoek Declaration and Namibia Plan of Action on ‘Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in Peace Support Operations’ and the October 2000 groundbreaking, unanimously-adopted SCR 1325 on Women Peace and Security”. These were followed by three more Security Council resolutions on women peace and security. However, Mavic adds, “the talk is not matched with the walk. There is a huge gap between international law and member state implementation. Most of the work making a difference in the lives of women is being done at the local level by civil society organizations. There are only 18 National Action Plans for SCR 1325 so far. This highlights the need to push for greater accountability at this CSW, not just for the Beijing Platform, but for SCR 1325 and CEDAW and all other women’s human rights and peace instruments.” Mavic also wants to see the immediate appointment, as does the European Union, of a new Under-Secretary General for the new UN Women’s Agency, GEAR, and calls on the new Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom “to engage women’s organizations in a robust dialogue.” That is what she hopes the 54th CSW will produce.

Sayre Sheldon, the President Emerita of WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions) recalls the “peace tent with ever changing demonstrations of the costs of war for women and the ways they had developed for opposing it….the contrasts between the Forum and the official conference in Beijing: hot, crowded tents vs. large air-conditioned halls, women heads of families vs. Heads of state, many of them men, passionate voices vs. official language”

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls from Fiji’s femLinkPacific remembers their consultations with women from rural communities: “Their voices were loud and clear endorsing the need… for an end to violence not just by governments, but community and faith based groups as well.”

NGO CSW co-chair Roz Harris, a member of the US staff at San Francisco in 1945, was optimistic, saying that when women gathered in Mexico the general view was that we were demanding our rights. By Beijing women were talking about what they were doing. And Afaf Mafouz, another co-chair, said that the impact of these international conferences is to challenge governments.

Susan Davis worked with Bella Abzug in WEDO (Women’s Environmental and Development Organization) and was at Beijing. Bella said of the Platform of Action, “we’ve got the words, now we need the music. And the music is action.” Bella, she reminds us, was not content that women stay within the CSW arena, preferring to see the whole problem. Susan is now the President of BRAC USA, a microfinance organization that started in Bangladesh, working to reduce poverty and empower women and girls in Asia, Africa and Haiti. Davis says, she is “not sure that the CSW can come up with anything that matters…it doesn’t have power over resource flows. CSW delegates represent governments not set up to address all issues on the global agenda through this one arena. But I would love to see the CSW decide to model gender-balanced decision making and show the world the difference it can make on reaching decisions on anything urgent- the economy, real conflicts now raging, climate change, etc….We need to change our strategies and tactics. Women need to increase economic and political power to change our gender’s subordinated social position.”

I used to say, women, women everywhere, but not enough in power. And now, with tea party women claiming space, I say it takes more than ovaries. We need progressive women, women who support gender equality, peace, development and justice. We need more women in the UN like Helen Clark the new head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Michele Bachelet now in Haiti for UNIFEM, and Margot Wallstrom, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

We need women with courage to call for alternatives to war, to call for reallocation of the trillions now wasted on wars and an out of control arms trade, for the abolition of nuclear weapons, women who will welcome our sons raised by feminist mothers, so women and men will work together for a future where poverty will no longer be tolerated, where illiteracy will be unheard of, where women and men will have equal access to fair employment, and everyone will enjoy health care.

There is too much at stake. Oceans are rising, cancers are spreading, people are trafficked and in slavery, rape is the cheapest weapon of war, women are seen as victims, not resolvers and initiators and peace makers. It does not have to be this way. What would be wrong with a democratic world with justice, equality, development and peace?

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