Women activist for peace – WILPF Centennial

“We women, in International Congress assembled, protest against the madness and the horror of war, involving as it does a reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has laboured through centuries to build up.” That is how the declaration of the first conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1915 in The Hague.

The painful part is that their statement is still so relevant. But the resolutions are also inspiringly relevant and up to date. What to think of:  “This  International  Congress  of  Women  declares  it  to  be  essential,  both  nationally  and    internationally  to  put   into  practice  the  principle  that  women  should  share  all  civil    and  political  rights  and  responsibilities  on  the  same  terms  as  men.”  Over the last 15 years the UN Security Council has reaffirmed so many times that women have to be involved in peace negotiations but with less than 4% women at the negotiation tables they remain sidelined, see also the facts and figures on women and peace and security

Our foremothers saw private profits as an important hindrance to disarmament: “The  International  Congress  of  Women,  advocating  universal  disarmament  and   realizing  that  it  can  only  be  secured  by  international  agreement,  urges,  as  a  step  to   this  end,  that  all  countries  should,  by  such  an  international  agreement,  take  over  the   manufacture  of  arms  and  munitions  of  war  and  should  control  all  international   traffic  in  the  same.    It  sees  in  the  private  profits  accruing  from  the  great  armament   factories  a  powerful  hindrance  to  the  abolition  of  war.”

While (further) nationalization of arms production does not seem a viable nor sufficient solution to achieve progress in disarmament these days, it is clear that the political economy of the production of arms continues leads to ever growing volume of deadly weapons being traded. And the developed countries of the North (including Russia) are the top producers (and exporters) as evidenced in the data from SIPRI 

Tomorrow, one hundred years after Aletta Jacobs and her sisters met in The Hague, a new conference, the WILPF Centennial Conference will start. I am truly excited (and honored) to be part of it.

Going back a hundred years …..

This is the trunk of a tree that is over 200 years old. It can be found in a forest near Louvain, Belgium. I ran into it during a hike last week. It is not only massive and majestic but somehow I find it peaceful.

Enjoying the early spring sun, I realised that the tree must have sprouted around the time of the battle of  Waterloo (1815) and survived two world wars.  Indeed, it had a quite respectable age already a hundred years ago, in 1915 when in The Hague  a massive group of women met to strategise for peace and women’s rights.

The International Congress of Women, later Women’s International league of Peace and Freedom,  convened more than 1,200 delegates from 12 countries. These included Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the United States, countries at different sides of a war that was at that very same time soaking Belgian soil with the blood of teenage soldiers in the second battle of Ypres that claimed over 100.000 casualties in a few weeks.

This year, in the same week, 100 years later WILPF, the organisationfounded at that conference will meet again in The Hague.  While violent conflict (continues) to hold the world in its grip the members of WILPF will meet at a Centennial Congress.  After the Congress, at the Women’s Power to Stop War Conference, 27-29 April in The Hague, nearly thousand men and women will engage, exchange and talk about peace and freedom.  A brief on the conference website sets the tone: “The WILPF 2015 Conference is therefore all about truly establishing the principles of sustainable peacebuilding and exploring the root causes of conflict, as our foremothers did in 1915. This means approaching peacebuilding from a holistic perspective, taking human rights, disarmament, social and economic justice and the environment into account, while challenging the dominant militaristic narrative of ‘more guns = more security’, which only reinforces militarism, patriarchy, exclusion and inequality as the root causes of conflict.”

I am very excited – and honoured – to be part of the WILPF delegation to the congress and I look forward to participate in the conference.  We will of course celebrate the work and progress made over time. Our fore-mothers fought hard and successfully to secure democratic rights for women. But WILPF leaders already 100 years ago understood that peace needs more than voting and democracy: it needs justice, something that even in exemplary democracies we struggle for today.

In advocating for justice WILPF has always been very much about the power of facts and information. Two current WILPF programmes illustrate this very well: check out PeaceWomen on the role of women in conflict and peace, and  Reaching Critical Will on disarmament.  If you are more in general interested in what WILPF has been doing, consult the WILPF Anniversary Atlas

Going back a hundred years. So much effort, for such a long time. Indeed it needs a lot of inspiration to balance the frustration. Pessimism or even cynicism seems inescapable: consider the bombing currently going on in the Middle East this very day, did we really make much progress beyond Ypres?

But count on WILPF women to be tenacious. In 1915 the conference venue – The Netherlands – was neutral in the war, but you can imagine how the powers of 1915 felt about American women and British women meeting German women. Actually the boat with the American delegation – see picture – was held up a few days by the Royal Navy in the Channel.  Doing nothing is not an option while small successes can be a big source inspiration.Tenacity combines well with inspiration. After the congress and conference I hope to share some of the stories and inspiration!


Conflicts and states that (do not) work for women

FRIDE just published a working paper on its research into the integration of gender concerns into post-conflict state building. Let’s hope that the people who seek to influence from the outside that what is currently happening in Tunis, Egypt and Libya, will manage to read these mere 19 – highly readable – pages  full of sensible recommendations.

The paper draws on lessons learned in Kosovo, Guatemala, Sudan, Sierra Leona and Burundi.  It looks at women’s involvement in  politics of state building and at the process of building state structures that actually promote women’s rights. Clare Castillo of FRIDE author of the working paper does not deny there are tensions, dilemma’s  and trade-offs. To name a few:

  • It seems quite logical to negotiate peace with those who have the arms to threaten peace, but if you need a quick solution and have a genuine opportunity to end bloodshed, why should you actually involve powerless groups like women?
  • Should donors take over funding of  the usually under-resourced, powerless national gender equality institutions when national governments withdraw funding, or should they leave them to be and fund civil society organizations that promote the interest of women?
  • “Traditional authorities”, involved in upholding ” customary law”,   may seem to be a stabilizing factor in a situation of conflict (also called more ” grounded legitimacy”).  Unfortunately that customary law also has a tendency to deny women their (human) rights.  So, how hybrid should you aim for?

The paper takes a position and makes clear recommendations about the first two. Regarding the latter, it provides no solution but some solid recommendations.

The general conclusion of the paper is that significant gains were made thanks to external actors (donors) and that the donors also missed opportunities.  Let’s highlight some other recommendations to avoid that.

Although women are rarely a short-term threat to security, one has to support them to be able to influence the (peace) settlement and be involved in the negotiations to at least incorporate some fundamental rights for women.  It is critical women are able to influence the development of new constitutions and funding women’s organizations may help in that process.  But this is by no means sufficient because the inclusion and exclusion, the power relations are being negotiated long after.

Quota for women in parliaments are quite useful, the research reaffirms, it is equally important to remove more structural barriers for women’s participation. These barriers relate to skills, cost, violence and stigma.  Also, most western donors hesitate to work with political parties (all parties) but that is an important omission, so is working with and training on gender for men in politics, according to Castillejo : “In all five countries political parties emerged as the greatest barrier to women’s participation in post-conflict politics.” Al Jazeera reports that in Tunisia equal numbers of men and women will be on the ballots for the Constitutional Assembly

The paper does not solve the dilemmas between endogenous state building (drawing on ” traditional authorities”  and ” customary law” ) and normative agendas on women’s rights. And such dilemma’s are never simple as the paper illustrates For example,  granting women ” modern” inheritance rights in Burundi, which they do not have according to customary law, has an array of long- and short-term implications:  it may increase pressure on land in Burundi, but it may also decrease birth rates.  The paper strongly recommends that donors make sure they understand the implications of what they support. And to understand they need to engage with a range ow women’s organizations.

The paper addresses several other issues. For example in Security Sector Reform, according to the paper, donors focus too much on recruitment and service delivery: important but unsustainable changes if women are not becoming involved in decision-making. And it shows: while it is rampant, the new draft Kosovo Security Strategy to date, does not mention domestic violence as a problem (Castillejo, 2011:13).

Interestingly, the paper observes that – maybe with the exception of Sierra Leone – the civic activism of women has had far more influence on changing attitudes in society that politics or institutions has had ( and has).  At the same time it also observes that  funding mechanisms do not usually allow civil society organizations to develop and project their own,  long-term agenda, because donor horizons are short and their funding is project based. Rarely do they give long-term core-funding. Also there is a tendency to fund organizations representing the elites.  Which brings us to the final set of recommendations to donors that deal with their support of civil society organizations:

  • look beyond your usual – élite – partner group
  • listen to a range of women’s voices, behind the contradictions are real women’s interests
  • give grants for core funding
  • fund and help develop leadership skills
  • support their campaigns, you can have real impact.
Indeed, food for thought.
You can download the paper and hear Clare Castillejo herself on the FRIDE website, right here