by Binalakshmi Nepram Mentschel
– India –
Our world is hovering at the edge of an abyss, driven there by man’s unreason. One crisis is cresting on top of another… The sinister developments in the advance towards the brink of disaster all interact, worsened by the calamitous threat – namely the arms race and militarization. These essentially ethical problems of wars, weapons, and tools of violence have existed since time immemorial, but in the present era they have been deeply aggravated and will continue to be aggravated if a halt is not called for. – Nobel Peace Laureate Alva Myrdal
A major source of devastation, human suffering and poverty, war affects all aspects of economic, social and political life. And over time, the nature of warfare itself has changed – it is no longer soldiers who suffer the largest number of casualties, but civilians. In World War I, just 14 percent of deaths were civilian; today, that number has risen to over 75 percent. The nature of the battlefield has changed as well – no longer fought in remote battlefields between armies, wars now rage in our homes, schools, our communities and increasingly on women’s bodies.
May 24th is celebrated globally as International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. This article was written in honor of the many women who have campaigned tirelessly for global peace.
Historical Perspective on Women’s Peace Movements
For the first time in history, on April 28, 1915, the International Congress for Women – a group of 1,200 women from warring and neutral countries that later became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) – protested against World War I at The Hague in the Netherlands. Their historic meeting thus began a century in which women’s organizations and movements mobilized in support of peace and disarmament.
Later during the Cold War, women lobbied against arms stockpiling and the possible use of nuclear weapons. After a conference in 1959 on the “Responsibility of Women in the Atomic Age,” the newly formed European Movement of Women Against Nuclear Disarmament and other women’s groups embarked on massive education and petition campaigns. A few years later in 1961, WILPF pioneered the US/Soviet women’s seminars to help break Cold War barriers. In 1964, a movement called Women Strike for Peace was started in America while women from all over the world converged on a NATO conference in the Netherlands to demonstrate against its plans to establish a multilateral nuclear force. Five years later, WILPF sponsored an international conference on ending chemical and biological warfare.
During the 1980s, the women of Greenham Common in England inspired the world with their opposition to nuclear weapons and bases by leaving their homes and dedicating themselves to peace – just as men have done for centuries to fight wars.
In the 1990s women continued the anti-war movement as mothers in both Macedonia and Chechnya. Dedicated to the prevention of gun deaths and injuries, the Million Mom March was founded in 1999 in the United States to support both the victims and survivors of gun violence.
In the Pacific region, women have organized against nuclear testing; in Japan, women set up a peace camp at the base of Mount Fuji. Women’s groups in African countries like Angola, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia and Niger have also advocated for peace and reconstruction in their countries.
Why are women asking for disarmament?
One of the most compelling factors in the mobilization of women to form their own peace organizations is their role as mothers. Time and time again, women have organized themselves to protect their children: the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina protested the “disappearance” of their children during the reign of a tyrannical military dictatorship; the Meira Paibis challenged the proliferation of armed conflict in the northeastern region of Manipur in India. In Sri Lanka, a group of more than 2,000 women from across the island, both directly and indirectly affected by the war, formed the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) – their sons and husbands either missing/missing in action, killed, or disabled due to the conflict.
A key factor to understanding why women have formed organizations specifically in favor of disarmament is the connection many women have made between gender equality and peace. The 1915 meeting of women in The Hague concluded that permanent peace could be built only on the basis of equal rights (including equal rights between women and men), justice within and between national independence and freedom. Women have linked various forms of violence – such as human rights violations, violence against women, and structural violence in economic disparities – to the violence seen during wars. Through this perspective it becomes clear that disarmament relates not only to all forms of violence but also to the creation of a culture of peace, which can be perpetuated just as easily from generation to generation.
An individual’s decision to disarm is influenced by the perception of personal and economic security. This makes disarmament an ever-evolving process that is dependent on myriad factors such as crime levels, economic opportunities, the state’s ability to protect its citizens and the degree to which gun possession is legitimized in society.
Unsurprisingly, men have traditionally been associated with the use, ownership and promotion of small arms, as they are overwhelmingly the owners and users of guns. They are also the primary victims of gun violence.
The security implications for women, while perhaps not comparable to those faced directly by men in battle, are also enormous. When guns flow freely in communities, and are not removed once a conflict ends, women run the risk of not only facing lethal domestic violence, but becoming more vulnerable as they manage their daily workload; women are typically the most burdened with caring for those who have been injured or disabled by gunfire.
Women, Peace & Security
Evidence shows that women’s views towards weapons are much different than those of men. Inherent in this difference is an opportunity for peacemakers to carefully nurture and promote more women’s participation in disarmament processes. According to the United Nations Development Programme:
“In sensitisation campaigns, disarmament should be separated from military disarmament and women should be the priority target audience because they know the negative side of guns, unlike male users who tend to focus on the upside of gun ownership. So when community disarmament and rebuilding strategies are planned, women are better targets.”
Adopted in October 2000, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security specifically mentions the need to incorporate gender perspectives in all areas of peace support operations, including disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation initiatives. This resolution was a monumental and historical turning point in acknowledging women’s direct contribution to disarmament. The resolution codified in international law a tradition of women actively advocating for peace and disarmament at every level of decision–making.
A year later in 2001, the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs, along with the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and the Advancement for Women of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs issued a special collection of briefing notes entitled, “Gender Perspectives on Disarmament.” In addition, Reaching Critical Will, a project of WILPF’s UN office, has monitored disarmament at the UN since 1999 and continues to play an important role in the collection and distribution of vital information from UN meetings on disarmament.
In 1998, UNDP and UNIFEM developed a 4-year pilot project aimed at increasing women’s role in the Weapons for Development Programme. Implemented in the Albanian districts of Gramsch, Elbasan and Diber, it found that women’s support for the project contributed to its success as their involvement led to increased weapons collection. Albanian women who had no prior knowledge of gun related issues started understanding the complexities of disarmament. As a result, participating women were able to effectively advocate with local authorities, including police and others.
According to disarmament expert, Dr. Vanessa Farr, “Women felt that their participation in the family decision–making process had been improved because their preparation [in the pilot project] gave them a more authoritative opinion in family and community security decisions.” It became clear that through their involvement, women started understanding disarmament from a more comprehensive perspective, one that would allow their communities to make political, social and economic progress, and not just as a means for reducing criminality and armed violence.
On International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, we salute the extraordinary courage of the women across the world who have dedicated their lives to peace.
– Bina’s article was originally published on May 24, 2007 but is just as relevant today as it was a year ago. Here at The WIP, we celebrate women’s roles as peacemakers and catalysts for global change. – Ed
About the Author
Ms. Binalakshmi Nepram Mentschel is presently Oxfam GB’s Consultant on Control Arms and the Arms Trade Treaty. She is also the founding Secretary General of the New Delhi based Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI) and of the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network (MWGSN) based in the Indo-Burma border state of Manipur.
She has published several articles and papers in both national and international journals on issues relating to armed violence, small arms proliferation, peace processes, women and peace building. She is the founding editor of Borderlines, a journal on northeastern India and has authored two books: South Asia’s Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s Northeast (Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 2002) and a historical fiction based on Manipur entitled Meckley (Virgo Publications, New Delhi, 2004). Binalakshmi was awarded a Ploughshares Fellowship in 2004 to work on small arms mitigation in northeastern India and the 2006 WISCOMP Scholar of Peace for her work on women and disarmament issues.