17 December 2005

The hand that rocks the cradle

By Marguerite Finn

Christmas shoppers in Norwich yesterday may have been intrigued by the notice over the Charity Market Stall on Hay Hill: it read simply: 'WILPF'.

Those venturing closer would have discovered that the stall was in aid of an organisation that celebrated its 90th birthday this year - the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

WILPF is the oldest women's peace organisation in the world. It was established in 1915 when more than 1000 women from all over the world met at an International Congress at The Hague to protest against the First World War, to suggest ways to end it and how to prevent future wars. Back in 1558, John Knox might have railed against such a "Monstrous Regiment of Women" - as he did against the most powerful women of his day. Happily, by 1915 attitudes were beginning to change, albeit slowly !

Many of the organisers of the Women's Congress at The Hague were also prominent in the International Suffrage Alliance and saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the wider struggle for peace. So this feisty crew issued resolutions, sent delegations to 14 countries and met with President Wilson, who apparently said that their resolutions were by far the best for peace and promptly borrowed some of them for his own subsequent proposals !

This was the birth of WILPF. There are now branches in 37countries across the world. There may be one in Norwich in 2006. Why do we need a 'women only' organisation? Well, I am sure that it will have been obvious to readers, sitting around the meal table in each and every Norfolk home, that there definitely is a male and a female way of looking at things. If both points of view are taken into account when tackling a problem a more equitable solution is likely to be achieved.
Unfortunately, women are too often excluded from the decision-making process in many societies. It was ever thus. But in 2000, Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab, Namibia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, "Women are half of every community - are they therefore, not also half of every solution?" It is a question that needs answering for, despite all their peacebuilding efforts, women are rarely present at the peace table.

Gender parity is at the core of WILPF's work, which aims to:
  • Bring together women worldwide to study, make known and help abolish the causes and legitimisation of war.
  • To work toward world peace; total and universal disarmament; the abolition of violence;
  • To strengthen the United Nations (UN) system and the implementation of international law;
  • To establish political and social equity, economic equity and co-operation among all people;
  • To promote environmentally sustainable development.
WILPF has been successful on many fronts. It has achieved consultative status with several UN agencies. It played a leading role in drafting UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which was adopted in 2000 and which emphasises the need to consult women at all decision-making levels in conflict resolution and post-conflict peace processes. It also highlights the need to protect women and girls in armed conflict from gender-based violence including rape.

WILPF recognises that there is a gender dimension to trade issues too. Last month, in New York, the United Nations envoy dealing with the world's poorest countries called for solutions to the problems faced by women who increasingly bear the burden of what he called "the feminisation of poverty". These women have little representation in negotiations and, as small farmers and traders, they are the first to be driven out of business. The breakdown of family life and social structures forces them to become migrant workers or prostitutes in order to provide for their families.

WILPF rejects the idea that "the free market", whose rules are largely determined by multinational corporations, is the only model of economic globalisation. WILPF calls instead for an approach to trade and development that better serves the needs of all social and cultural groups while respecting their fundamental rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Women's leadership role is most visible within their communities; it is here that they organise to end conflict and build the skills necessary for peacebuilding and reconstruction. Visualise half a dozen purposeful women trudging on foot from embassy to embassy in London in May, disarming diplomats with their arguments for nuclear non-proliferation. Twelve visits - twelve presentations of irrefutable feminine logic !

WILPF's great strength is that it addresses a broad range of contemporary human rights issues with both practical and policy-directed approaches, at local, national and international levels of decision making.