23 September 2006

Shall there be womanly times?

By Marguerite Finn

Shall there be womanly times or shall we die? / Are there men unafraid of gentleness? / Can we have strength without aggression, / Without disgust, / Strength to bring feeling to the intellect? / Shall we change or shall we die? (Ian Mc Ewan)
I recently watched a quiet revolution in progress in the leafy confines of Greenwich University. For five days in September the UK section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) hosted the WILPF International Executive Meeting (8-12 September 2006).

But this was no ordinary meeting – there were over a hundred women from 25 different countries, covering all five continents. Not the Rev John Knox's 'monstrous regiment of women' - but modern peace activists from across the globe, some of whom had personally encountered degrees of state oppression. The International Vice-President from Sri Lanka had even received death threats. Yet, undeterred, they had made their way to London in one great coming together of women power.

A vital part of the meeting was the International Seminar entitled - Women's Unfinished Agenda -where the keynote speaker was a WILPF International Vice President, Annelise Ebbe, from Denmark. Annelise spoke of the need to change the patriarchal nature of our society, to eliminate gender-based violence and to move from the militaristic culture of war to a culture of peace.

WILPF members from Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, who managed to overcome all manner of obstacles to get to the meeting in Greenwich, heartily endorsed these sentiments - they appeared together on the platform to tell their harrowing stories and to appeal to WILPF members and to the whole of civil society to do something to bring about peace in the Middle East - an appeal WILPF members and civil society at large cannot afford to ignore.

The audience heard at first hand about the situation in Lebanon, where more than 1,000 people were killed (more than 35pc of them innocent women and children) and where more will die from the unexploded cluster bombs that mercilessly rained down on their villages and fields.

The head of an Israeli Defence Force unit told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that Israel fired more than a million cluster bombs in Lebanon. He said: "What we did was insane and monstrous; we covered entire towns in cluster bombs". His admission is somewhat at odds with the statement of Israeli Ambassador, Arkady Milman, which "Reports of the Israeli army using cluster munitions is an obvious propaganda of Hezbollah and other organizations who do not know what is actually going on."

This remote continuation of the war after the 'ceasefire', means that the casualty figures will rise sharply next month as Lebanese villagers begin to gather in the harvest, picking olives from trees whose leaves and branches hide bombs that explode at the smallest movement – leaving the farmers on the horns of a deadly dilemma: whether to risk collecting the harvest, on which they depend, or leaving the olives to rot in the fields – a dilemma of which the military planners in Israel would have been well aware.

By inconceivably bad timing there has been a decrease in funding for land-mine clearance. This was revealed in a report recently published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – even though more land was de-mined in 2005 than ever before!

WILPF members also heard about the intolerable situation in Gaza and the increasingly harsh discriminatory legislation and conditions now being imposed on Arab citizens of Israel. One heartening thing was the report from the Israeli WILPF section outlining their work with other joint Palestinian-Israeli women's groups to highlight the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. The meeting also heard about the on-going work of WILPF in Africa, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Scandinavia, Europe and elsewhere – and of new branches opening up, like the one in Norwich.

Greenwich University Campus fairly buzzed with the sound of women working together for peace, economic justice and human rights: decisions were taken, resolutions passed, future plans made - Neil Diamond would have called it A Beautiful Noise!

In 2000, WILPF – with other NGOs - pressed the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1325: Women, Peace and Security. Today WILPF women continue to work for the participation of women in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.

We cannot afford to fail, otherwise we will have failed as human beings and we will not be able to live with ourselves as a species; so, following Ian Mc Ewan’s words: "There will be womanly times – we will not die".