by Hannah Rose
Can women’s voices be heard above the din of war? Silly question, really. It’s not how loud we shout, but what we do with our words that count. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) takes this tenet seriously – they’re feminist wordsmiths with a long history of using international legal and political frameworks to bring female voices into the peace process. And WILPF is coming to Norwich. The new WILPF branch will be the eighth such establishment in the UK, and will be formalised at their AGM on the 16th April 2016.
WILPF is the oldest women’s peace organisation in the world. It was founded in 1915 when twelve hundred women from across the globe attended the International Congress of Women at the Hague and put peaceful negotiation for Europe at the heart of the global conversation. Aletta Jacobs, a member of a Dutch suffragist movement, led the gathering. “We grieve for many brave young men who have lost their lives on the battlefield before attaining their full manhood,” she said in her address. “We mourn with the poor mothers bereft of their sons…and we feel that we can no longer endure in this twentieth century of civilization, a government which tolerates brute force as the only solution of international disputes.” This group of mothers, daughters, workers, trade unionists and suffragettes, whom Churchill famously described as “these dangerous women”, believed peace and war were more urgent matters than king and country. Last year WILPF made a centenary film—These Dangerous Women—which is a re-enactment of the women’s journey to The Hague.
I attended the first WILPF-Norwich connect session on the 2nd April at the Friends Meeting House, and was fascinated to learn how being part of a local branch would connect me to thousands of other WILPF women across the world, from the Polynesian town of Faaone to New York City. The meeting was run by life-long peace activists Sheila Triggs (UK WILPF membership secretary) and Claire Colleen, with speaker Marie Lyse Numuhoza, a peace-activist who is also a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. They explained WILPF’s work and how it functions, as well as sharing inspiring stories and knowledge.
From them I learnt that WILPF operates at both a national and international level with an integrative approach between five key areas: the disarmament programme, human rights, crisis response, women peace and security, and environment and militarism. Local and national action is then channelled through each ‘stream’. Current campaigns include the Trident nuclear missile renewal under WILPF’s disarmament programme (also known as Reaching Critical Will), which investigates the gendered dimension of the impact of weapons. WILPF is currently advocating for the involvement of Syrian women in the peace talks in Geneva, and establishes partnerships with sister organisations such as Voices of African Women (or VoAW), who work with women from Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea as well as other African nations.
There is a growing population of African refugees in Norwich from places such as the DRC and Uganda—many of whom are women with children. I worked with some of these families in 2010 with the Gateway Protection Programme, and African women are still vastly underrepresented in Norwich. I’d like to see WILPF advocating on behalf of, and with, these groups of women—for their needs, safety and empowerment.
Women and war have a brutal relationship: more often it’s women who bear the biggest burden of war, as widows, single mothers, and victims of sexual violence.
I’ve been asked before why women’s peace organisations single out female voices (although WILPF does have male members). Why not include men? Surely there’s strength in numbers? But it’s not about excluding men. Women and war have a brutal relationship: more often it’s women who bear the biggest burden of war, as widows, single mothers, and victims of sexual violence. War operates by disempowering and subjugating, and a global united female voice helps represent those women who are currently indentured by the conflict going on around them. An allied female voice does not seek to represent women only, far from it, but advocates on behalf of all groups who are unable to represent themselves in peace negotiations, such as children and the elderly.
My own introduction to non-violent women’s protesting was as a small child at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, protesting with my family at the gates of the Aldermaston nuclear weapon’s base. The only violence witnessed that day came from the police, who charged across the mud on horses and dragged my peace-loving grandmother away. She returned home after a night in the cells and continued to campaign for peace and disarmament for another twenty years. Later, as a writer and researcher on Liberia and its civil war, I learned of Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Gbowee, who shared the 2011 Nobel peace prize with Liberia’s female president, helped stage continuous all-women peace protests and extracted a promise from Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana. Liberian women were instrumental in bringing a peace deal to West Africa, ending almost twenty years of horrific violence and exploitation.
A WILPF presence will strengthen these voices
What will a local WILPF branch bring to Norwich? There is already a solid network of progressive and grassroots organisations that campaign for social justice in our little city. From the Norwich Peace Camp, to We Are Norwich – Against Fascism and Racism, as well as a strong feminist political presence with the Women’s Equality Party Norwich branch and the Norwich Feminist Network. A WILPF presence will strengthen these voices; WILPF’s historical success as a non-violent advocate for peace is evidence of the change that can be affected through dialogue and negotiation. I’d also like to see a WILPF presence at public City and County Council meetings, where a more radical and feminist perspective is offered. WILPF also has an impressive catalogue of campaign resources available to everyone, and the more local people who have access to these tools of the peace trade, the stronger Norwich will be in asserting and maintaining its image and integrity as a progressive, peaceful and dynamic city.
Women use gender as a way of asserting dominance in the male-dominated political arena by upsetting the status quo of who and what is allowed within the parameters of a peace dialogue. We bring unheard voices, knowledge, and a fresh perspective. After all, it’s easy to accept the status quo when we don’t have the words—or the women—to challenge it.