„Women joining the armed forces have not made armies less brutal“

Barbara Lochbihler at the Women's Conference on Beijing+20 in Cambodia
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Barbara Lochbihler at the Women's Conference on Beijing+20 in Cambodia

At the time of the Women‘s Conference in Beijing I was working in Geneva as the Secretary of the Women‘s International League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva (WILPF), and thus involved in all the preparatory work in the global NGO world regarding the Beijing Conference. WILPF is a very old organization that turned 100 this year. It works on antiwar and women‘s rights. Currently, I am a member of the  European Parliament where I work for the Green Party.

I will take you back 20 years and reflect on what our hopes and aspirations before, during and after Beijing were. This is complicated because rather than having a single issue agenda in Beijing, we had three pillars: equality, development and peace. As I was Secretary General of the Women‘s International League for Peace and Freedom WILPF in Geneva, I followed the peace agenda.

The peace agenda was based on an analysis that we had to disarm the world, and then take the money and resources to invest in life, rather than on war and destruction. It was carried by the hope that the world would come back to something more logical that serves
the people. During the Cold War the mainstream belief was that we have to have big armies, as the enemy is coming. As we were preparing for Beijing, European superpowers like France were testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific. We were strongly opposed to this,
as we were aware of the terrible consequences of nuclear weapons. The lessons learnt from the women in Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as from women in the Soviet Union who were experiencing miscarriages, were very present in our minds. The French government was denying that their testing had any consequences.

We from the WILPF group were very political in a classical terminology as we were radically left. When we brought up the issue at the Beijing World Conference we were told by other women‘s groups that it‘s too political. And then we said: everything is a women‘s issue. We want to democratize the UN Security Council, we want to have a share in the power and we want to have a separation of powers. We ended up appointing a resolution asking for a world without nuclear power and nuclear arms.

At the time of the Beijing Conference, the world was experiencing a great transformation: the Soviet Union dissolved in the Nineties, transforming the global world order, and ending the Cold War. In Eastern Europe, there were a lot of influential and strong socialist women‘s organizations. However, by the time of the Beijing Conference, the socialist structures were completely dissolved. This meant that many women from former socialist countries no longer participated in an organized fashion in the Beijing Conference.

One reason for organizing the WILPF peace train from Helsinki to Beijing was to visit the women and peace organizations in Eastern European countries such as the Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, former Yugoslavia and Kazakhstan. We did this to discuss with
the women what their aspirations for Beijing were, so that we could bring their demands to Beijing for them.

The women‘s peace train was a very challenging and demanding logistical task, and no one could imagine 200 women traveling alone in their own train. However, we managed at all the meeting points to discuss with women from former socialist countries. There was a lot of uncertainty for these women at that time, because during socialist times they had had the assurance of a workplace and basic health care, both of which dissolved with the destruction of the system. It was a completely different world for them.

We had two meetings in the Ukraine. When we look at the Ukraine today, we see an ongoing war, but back then the hopes of women were that they would be able to continue in advancing female empowerment. What I saw at the time was that women were highly educated in all subjects, not just subjects such as family and healthcare, but also natural sciences. However, because of the complete restructuring of  their societies, women were completely pushed back. Now they are trying to reshape their standing in society once again. One of the underlying problems of the peace train was that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

The other problem was that we were trying to discuss women‘s issues with relatively authoritarian governments as a feminist, western NGO. When we prepared to go to Beijing, the Chinese authorities distrusted our motives and almost denied us entry into China. On the one hand, they wanted to host the World Conference, on the other hand the Chinese wanted control over what was said. How can you control over 45,000 women in the biggest gathering of the world? You can‘t, but they still believed they could! So we had a whole NGO Forum, and they placed us outside of Beijing because they thought it would hinder us from going, but we went anyway and did not feel discouraged. At the NGO Forum we were in charge of a peace tent where we allowed women from oppressed areas to speak out, even if they said the opposite of what their governments were saying. The whole situation was tense, and the organizers did not even give us microphones for the peace tent, saying they were all broken. There was a constant surveillance of what the women did. If we had  discussed about women‘s rights and family and such issues, they would have left us alone, but peace was a political issue at the time.

The themes under the peace pillar also moved away from the focus being solely on disarmament, conflict resolution, and the opposition to nuclear warfare. A year before Beijing, there was the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. This was the first time that the issue of violence against women got public recognition. In 1994, the UN established a Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women. One of her first reports was on a peace issue: rapes in war and post-war times committed by the Japanese against the so-called ‚Comfort Women‘.  This development constituted a major step forward, from rape and domestic violence being social issues to these issues gaining  international attention. We demanded justice for the victims, help to overcome the trauma, no impunity for petrators, and that we have to do our utmost to prevent war and violent conflicts through active human rights work. Some years later, this led to the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Resolution 1325 deals with women involved in the peace agenda. Again disarmament, political solutions to armed conflicts and the involvement of women in peace negotiations were put on the agenda. Statistically, we now have more women in armies and peace keeping forces. Coming from a strict equality policy, this is progress. For me, personally, this is not progress at all. My demand is to dissolve the armies of the world, rather than making them women friendlier. Women joining the armed forces have not made armies less brutal.

Finally, before coming to this workshop, I looked up our demands at that time. We had our own declaration with twenty points because we were radical. For example, we wrote: „the explicit recognition and reaffirmation of the right of all women to control all aspects of their health in particular their own fertility, is basic to their empowerment“. At that time this little sentence was very radical, because there were organizations with very fundamentalist agendas like the Catholic Church, or the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation who, for  centuries, determined what is good for us, and decided we should not be in charge of our own bodies. If we see now what the Islamic State and Muslim extremists are saying, it is, at the core, the same message. We also said local, national, regional and global peace is attainable and inextricably linked to the advancement of women who are a fundamental force for leadership, conflict resolution and the promotion of lasting peace at all levels. If we are realistic, 20 years later, we didn‘t manage at all. Regarding the flourishing of civil society groups, women‘s groups and networks entering the political sphere, we have reached a lot.

I found a statement from the female leader Aung San Su Kyi who was part of the opposition in Myanmar at the time of the Beijing  Conference, and therefore under house arrest. Since she was not able to travel to the Conference herself, we managed to smuggle a video
statement of hers to Beijing. Today, she is a candidate for the next presidential elections in Myanmar. I will now read what she said: „For millennia, women have dedicated themselves, almost exclusively, to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young, and the old and striving for conditions of peace that favor life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women, but it is women and children who have always suffered the most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary, historical role imposed on us to sustain life in the context of the home and family, it is to apply in the world arena the wisdom and experience which has been gained in activities of peace over so many thousand years. If the peace dividend for human development offered at the end of the Cold War can be added to the universal benefits of the growing emancipation of women, spending less on the war toys of grown men and much more on the urgent needs of humanity as a whole, then the next millennium will be truly an age the likes of which human history has never seen“. Unfortunately, we know that despite the pledges of governments to invest in this peace dividend, the idea did not succeed. Instead we continue to spend a substantial amount of the financial and scientific resources of our societies on war instead of life.

This article first appeared in "We have come a long way...but there is still a long road ahead". Voices from Cambodia 20 years after the Beijing Conference (1995), published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia.