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Changing the world through feminist peace work

11.06.2019, International Board meeting

What exactly is "feminist peace work"? In which regions of the world does the word "feminism" have to be used strategically to avoid triggering hostility and prejudice? What does the future hold for the Peace Tables and what are some of the projects PWAG is planning? In May, the International Board discussed these issues in depth and laid down guidelines for the future.

The first day of the meeting started with a look into the past. The historical origins of PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG) built the foundations of this feminist peace organisation and point the way towards the future. "When we started to build the 1000 PeaceWomen network, we wanted governments to learn from the PeaceWomen’s work. We wanted to change the world and create new, dignified ways of living”, said Co-President Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, in her introduction.

More nationalism and patriarchialism 

Then as now, PWAG wants to create a peaceful society, where women can exercise and enjoy equal rights. This was confirmed in the board meeting discussions between 12 and 14 May 2019 in Bern. However, since the nomination of the 1000 PeaceWomen 14 years ago, the world has not stood still. From today's perspective, and following some positive developments, many setbacks can be observed, both in increasingly nationalistic and patriarchal countries such as Brazil or India, as well as in key policy instruments.   

The most recent example is the weakening of the latest UN Security Council resolution that specifically targets perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict. Under pressure from the USA, China and Russia, the call for an international monitoring body for the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence was dropped in April 2019. The USA objected to wordings regarding sexual health and reproductive rights, which in their view supported abortion. Those passages were adopted after being reworded.  

A continuum of violence

Today, gender researchers such as Nadje Al-Ali speak about a continuum of violence that begins on different levels before a war or armed conflict erupts and continues after the end of the war, whether at home or on the international stage. Peace is not a guarantee of security.  

According to board member Cécile Mukarubuga from Rwanda, violence against women is a huge problem. In particular, when women see themselves as victims, internalise that role and take on the burden of shame. Civil society solutions, she said, focus on the symptoms of violence and not enough on women's agency.  

This is where PWAG comes in: projects such as the Peace Tables create spaces where women can share opinions and experiences and give them the capacity to challenge policies in their countries. In this way, PeaceWomen can demand accountability of the decision-makers. "Our network is a good basis for strengthening women's agency," says Cécile Mukarubuga.  

Feminist peace work’s points of intersection

Today, feminist peace work must focus on several topics: racism and post-colonialism, religious, ethnic or political affiliation, economic class and sexual orientation. What is known today as "intersectionality" has always been a cornerstone of women's peace work, says board member Margo Okazawa-Rey.

The "matrix of resistance" also includes militarism, neo-liberalism and transnational corporations. The fact that women head the top five arms manufacturers in the USA shows that a self-determined woman who knows and demands her rights can be far from being a peace-promoting feminist. Movements must always deal with contradictions and changed circumstances to prevent collapse, Okazawa-Rey says. This also applies to the feminist movement.  

Feminist peace work aims to build a "culture of peace" and is constantly expanding. The PWAG board agrees that toda, the fight against environmental degradation and climate change is also a part of feminist peace work.  

Not just one feminism

"There is no such thing as one feminism," says Kamla Bhasin, PWAG co-president. Feminism is always dependent on the context in which it acts and is lived. PWAG will continue to make visible the network’s feminist peace work. This remains its mission, even if country- and culture-specific adaptations are necessary.  

In order to carry the feminist peace work messages out into the world, the word "feminism" need not be always be used. In China, for instance, there is no word for feminism, and PeaceWomen instead speak of "anti-patriarchalism". In India, Kamla Bhasin uses the term only in a political context. She argues that anyone who recognises that patriarchal discrimination against women exists and does something about it is a feminist.  

A glimpse into PWAG’s future

A significant part of the board meeting was dedicated to the future. The deepening of women's Peace Tables in the context of conflict transformation in Colombia, Nepal and the Philippines will remain the focus of the Peace Table programme until 2021. Regional Peace Tables, such as those first held in South Asia in 2018, are at the planning stage. 

In addition, the so-called "enabling spaces", i.e. the promotion of civil-society space, are another important strand of PWAG’s work. Together with partner organisations, PWAG creates these spaces where women can share their experiences and opinions in a protected environment. The Board discussed possible locations for these meetings, for example in Burundi, where elections will take place in 2020.  

Developing the 1000 PeaceWomen network was also a topic at the board meeting. Under the name "Feminists Connecting for Peace", the network will be updated, expanded and made accessible to a broader public, thereby strengthening the horizontal exchange of experience and expertise between PeaceWomen. Existing structures allow the updated biographies of the original 1000 PeaceWomen to be made available via an Internet tool; new PeaceWomen can be added in the same way.  This is one important step to making the PeaceWomen’s work visible worldwide.