Saturday, April 18, 2015

Cynthia Cockburn - Women's power to stop war: Hubris or hope? (2014) // Aisling Swaine: Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war

Cynthia Cockburn explores the roots of the women's peace movement and its aim not just to outlaw war, but to root out its causes. 

Today, 28 April, ninety-nine years ago, was the sixth day of the Second Battle of Ypres, one of the First World War's most futile and costly engagements. Chlorine gas, a new weapon of choice, was seeping over the trenches. The battle would end in stalemate, leaving 105,000 dead and wounded men. On that day, a mere hundred miles north of the battlefield, at The Hague, in neutral Netherlands, more than a thousand women assembled to talk peace. They travelled there from twelve countries, on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the conflict, drawn by a belief that women could achieve something male leaders were unwilling or unable to do: stop the carnage. When the congress ended, they despatched women envoys to heads of state in belligerent and neutral countries, urging them to initiate a peace commission. In vain. The war continued for another three years until 37 million men, women and children had died..

The organization emerging from the Hague Congress called itself the International Women's Committee for Permanent Peace. A few years on, it would be renamed the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and establish an office in Geneva. So, today, we of WILPF are mourning the victims of Ypres and simultaneously marking our 99th birthday. As we do so, and prepare for our centenary a year hence, we are rolling out a world-wide mobilization under the bold banner-headline: Women's Power to Stop War.

Bold… but also bald. The slogan stops people in their tracks, we find. They pause and puzzle over it. Are WILPF making a statement of fact here, or is this mere aspiration? The story of the Hague Congress hardly inspires confidence in women's power to stop war. Besides, the very fact that we have a centenary to 'celebrate', that we have had wars to contest throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, suggests not power but impotence.

If we really mean women have the power to stop war, in what does that ability reside? why has it been ineffective till now? how may we believe in it?  Recently I was invited to sketch out the first draft of a new Manifesto for WILPF. It will be debated in the organization throughout this year, and a final version issued at our centenary Congress a year from now, when we shall once more assemble in The Hague. To prepare for this daunting writing job (or to put it off a little longer?) I sat down, as is my wont, to read.  Setting aside for the moment women's failure in 1915 to achieve a peace initiative and end the war, I took from my shelf some books about women's activism in the preceding period, in the early 20th and late 19th century.

What they reminded me was that the concern with 'peace' of many of our fore-runners emerged from, or combined with, engagement in other social movements. They did not limit themselves to the injunction 'thou shalt not kill', but addressed injustice, inequality, exploitation and unfreedom, laying the groundwork for a women's peace movement in the 20th century that would understand these wrongs as presaging violence, and indeed as of themselves violent. Women's campaigning tended to be joined-up, holistic.

The rapid urbanization of Britain, the USA and other industrializing societies in the latter part of the 19th century had brought widespread, and highly visible, suffering to the poor. Exploitative conditions of labour, together with appalling housing conditions, lack of sanitation and consequent disease experienced by the growing industrial workforce and their families gave rise to socialist and social reform movements. Many women gave their energies to humanitarian philanthropic work. Others were active in the anti-slavery movement. And some joined campaigns against war - the Crimean war, the American civil war, the Franco-Prussian war, the Boer war.

Middle class women's exposure to the oppression of others heightened consciousness of their own oppression as women. The more involved they became in social and charitable projects, the more they felt the injustice of their inferiorisation by the confident public men who led these institutions. (For decades after their foundation in 1816 the Peace Societies did not allow women members to speak at meetings. It would be 73 years before the men agreed to accept a woman on the national committee.) 

Unlike male pacifists, then, whether secular or religious, women were liable to note the gender implications of war. Had not Mary Wollstonecraft, first and boldest of feminist writers, stated emphatically way back in 1792 that militarism threatened women by reinforcing masculine habits of authority and hierarchy? She wrote, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 'Every corps is a chain of despots…submitting and tyrannizing without exercising their reason'. The failure of successive Reform Acts to accord women the vote led to a surging suffrage movement, at its height just before the outbreak of World War I... 
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CYNTHIA COCKBURN: “Don’t talk to me about war. My life’s a battlefield.”

AISLING SWAINE: Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war
Sexualized violence is an issue of security.  It is also an issue of women’s equality and rights. It's imperative that we use the traction generated by UN Security Council resolutions to move forward.

“I make myself stiff as stone, shut my eyes, concentrate on my body’s veto, my inner No.” The words of a 34-year old woman who tries to find ways to cope with “the unbridled raping sprees” that she and thousands of women experienced during the Russian occupation of Berlin, in 1945.  Documented in her anonymously authored diary, A Woman in Berlin, these words could be those of the many women today who are also caught up in wars that are not of their making.

These events in 1945 are neatly book-ended by two significant moments that mark the passage of a one hundred year-period of women’s global activism on peace and security. At  one end, is the 1915 International Congress of Women, which we commemorate this week in the Hague. This Congress brought together over 1,300 women from twelve different countries, to collectively respond to the events of World War I. Through a resolution adopted at the Congress, they expressed a stand in favour of peace and a transformation to modes of international relations away from options centred on masculinist belligerence. 

At the other end of this period, are the events of this year.  We mark 15 years since transnational women’s activism once again brought global attention to issues of peace and security from women’s stand-point. This time, women’s efforts prompted the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000 by the UN Security Council.  Their efforts drew the attention of this body to concerns specific to women in the contexts of war and peacebuilding.  Between 2000 and 2015, six further resolutions have been passed by the Council. Remarkably, the issue of “women, peace and security” has also become a bi-annual item on the agenda of the world’s foremost security body.

Alongside the demand to bring an end to World War I, the resolution adopted by the 1915 International Congress protested “vehemently” against “the horrible violation of women which attends all war.” At the time of the Congress, who could have imagined the proliferation of small arms, the use of armed technologies, and the ideologies of violent extremism and associated violence that women (and men) experience in wars today? And who also could have imagined the architecture of multilateralism that has been established out of the events of World War II?  The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And yet, wars continue, and in today’s version of the “modern warfare” noted at the Congress a century ago, women’s bodies are still horribly violated.

What has happened in this one hundred year period, in which the mid-way point of World War II defines much of our contemporary modes of multilateral relations, and the standards of rights that we attempt to uphold?  Where has our understanding of women’s lives, war contexts and associated “horrible violations” evolved to? .. read more: