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WOMEN FOR PEACE: Among Men of War, Women Stake Their Claim for Peace

August 27, 1995

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Casting off their role as victims of war, women are demanding a part in peacemaking in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. A key issue at the U.N. women’s conference in Beijing will be the effect of war on women.



Associated Press Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ As the sun beat down, 19 women dressed in black stood silently in Belgrade’s main square, holding signs demanding an end to the war in former Yugoslavia.

Serbs eating ice cream in nearby cafes and strolling by ignored them. A few men spat and shouted ``Traitors! Hookers!″

But political and sexist attacks have never deterred these Women in Black, members of a peace group with branches in 25 countries. Every week for nearly four years, they have protested in a lonely crusade against a war that has shattered many of their lives.

The most striking feature about the anti-war movement across former Yugoslavia is its almost total domination by women. Their numbers are small, but they reflect a growing trend around the world of women not only speaking out for peace, but actively trying to create it.

A growing number of women in countries from Angola and Russia to the Philippines and Nicaragua are organizing peacemaking groups, and scoring some notable successes.

Throughout history, women have rarely had a place in the councils that make war or negotiate peace. But they bear a great burden from war.

Several women’s peace campaigns, most of them unsuccessful, began in the 1970s.

The 1976 Nobel Peace Prize went to Betty Williams, a Protestant, and Mairead Corrigan, a Catholic, for their work in Northern Ireland, but there was no cease-fire until 1994.

After 18 years, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are still marching in Argentina to demand information about the fate of their children who disappeared during the military government’s 1970s ``dirty war″ against leftists and political dissidents.

What makes the new women’s peace movements different is that the focus has shifted from simply speaking out to getting actively involved in peacemaking.

One of the goals of the U.N. women’s conference Sept. 4-15 in Beijing is to give women a bigger role in peacemaking and government.

``So far, this century of violence has been run and led by men,″ said American peace activist Cora Weiss. ``And we don’t know if women would make a difference because we haven’t had a chance to be corrupted by power.″

During a 1992 civil war in Moldova, women on both sides convinced politicians to stop the fighting, succeeding where men had failed, said Ala Mindicanu, a 40-year-old member of Moldova’s parliament.

``Our sons, our husbands, our brothers were the soldiers so we had to do something to preserve their lives,″ she said. ``It is important for women from both sides of a war to establish contact and build bridges.″

At the African preparatory meeting for the Beijing conference, 15 women’s peace groups showed up from such war-ravaged lands as Sudan, Liberia, Mali, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi.

``They’re very young in terms of organization ... but I think women are tired of being victims of war,″ said Achola Pala Okeyo, chief of the Africa section of the U.N. Development Fund for Women. ``They want to be in the forefront of policymaking.″

Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace, based in Nairobi, is trying to show women how to help end a 12-year-old civil war that has killed 1.3 million people, said Rebecca J. Okwaci, one of the group’s 12 members.

The group includes representatives of Sudan’s two main rebel factions.

``It is sensitizing the community,″ Okwaci said. ``It’s a process that will take long, but at least it’s a beginning.″

In Angola, wracked by 20 years of civil war, the Association of Friends of Angolan Women recently challenged both rebels and government by forming its own political party.

``It is the only way we, as women, can achieve something for ourselves in Angola,″ the group’s president, Aurora Verdades, was quoted as telling Angolan reporters.

Women in Black began in January 1988, at the start of the Palestinian uprising, when about 30 Israeli women gathered in the center of Jerusalem in silent protest, each carrying a sign saying ``Stop the Occupation.″

By the Gulf War in 1990-91, there were 30 vigils all over Israel.

Last December, a Women in Black conference in Israel drew 300 women from around the world.

``Women in Black have been the conscience of the peace movement in Israel,″ said Erella Shadmi, who teaches feminist theory at Ben Gurion University and Beit Berl College.

``They always reminded everyone there is occupation, the Palestinian people are oppressed, and we need peace in Israel. I think they’ve played a major part in influencing public opinion.″

In the war in Chechnya, the high profile of the Soldier’s Mothers Committee was important in turning Russian popular opinion against the invasion. Pictures of distraught Russian women searching for their sons had a powerful impact in Russia’s first televised war.

In Belgrade, Women in Black is working quietly, and sometimes secretly, with about 10 other women’s organizations and anti-war groups to promote tolerance and reconciliation among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

``At some future time, this trust between women in different war zones will work when there is peace,″ Nadezda Cetkovic, a philosophy professor who heads the SOS Hotline for women victims of male violence.

``It’s not the wives of men who hate each other. We’re women, working on the same goals and speaking the same language,″ she said.

``I’m certain war wouldn’t erupt if women had more power.″

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