Women's Meeting at the WRI Council in Steinkimmen, Germany

The WRI Women's Working Group met on 7 August and again on 12 August last year during the WRI Council in Germany. The women came from Croatia, Ireland, France, Germany), India, the UK and US. The meeting began with older members pairing with newer members for introductions, and sharing some of the WWG's history. An update of developments since WRI's last triennial (in 1998 in Porec, Croatia) was given.

Two important issues on the agenda included the WWG history project and the collection of information on women in the military, as part of WRI's on-going investigation into the changing face of the military. The history project (see related article elsewhere in this newsletter) is proceeding, and participants from Denmark, the UK and Germany agreed to look into possible researchers and funding sources for the project in their countries, including possible funding from the European Union's Women's Committee.

Communication

WWG convener Casha Davis reported that there had been lots of communication through email. While many said the information was interesting, it was also overwhelming. What is the criteria for choosing information that is sent to the whole WWG network? Should only WWG material be circulated, or should other relevant material, such as the Women in Black statement from Belgrade at the start of the war in Kosovo, which some participants passed on to other anti-war groups? Encouraging or funny messages, while not strictly WWG material, were helpful.

While the email communication helps women "feel you are part of something", not all women are on email, and email can be very expensive for women in the global South. It was agreed that the WWG will find out who needs postal mailings, and how such mailings can be funded and organized. One possibility to lighten the load on email is a listserv: you send a message to a special address, and then it goes out to everyone who is on that particular list. A coordinator is needed to monitor the listserv. The pros and cons of a WWG website were also discussed, as was better use of the WRI website. More articles on feminism and nonviolence could be sent to the WRI website; "Peace News" and the "Broken Rifle" should also be better utilized by women. Participants agreed to investigate all these possibilities.

WWG Newsletter

The WRI women's newsletter, which began at the 1987 WWG's gathering in Glencree, Ireland, was next on the agenda. No newsletter has been produced in over a year. Does the WWG really want a newsletter? The arguments immediately made in its favor included the fact that a newsletter lasts a long time, is good for outreach (including to women who aren't on email), and is also good on a website. WWG members were encouraged to send articles to the newsletter editor, and discussed other solutions to help with the work, such as an assistant editor or guest editor on different topics. Scheduling themes in advance, especially using Nonviolence and Social Empowerment material, was also mentioned, as was using the newsletter to document other WWG work.

Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Conference

To prepare for the upcoming WRI conference on Nonviolence and Social Empowerment, women are asked to write down an example of when they felt empowered on a postcard and send it to WRI, for possible publication in the WRI women's newsletter. These experiences will then be fed into the conference. There was also discussion on how to contribute to the conference by collecting other case studies, for example, on domestic violence, and how to ensure that resource people would have a gender perspective. Anyone with ideas for resource women should send their suggestions to Saswati Roy at email: swadhina@vsnl.net.in.

Council and Seminar

WRI Executive member Joanne Sheehan reported on the WRI Council, and on the need to ensure a gender perspective in all of WRI's work. The group agreed to bear this in mind the evaluation-where did the Council go well from feminist perspectives, and where did it not? It is useful for WWG members to attend Council working groups: finance, structure, communications and publications, and the Africa group; and to avoid scheduling the women's group at the same time as other working groups.

Vesna Terselic reported on the International Fellowship of Reconciliation's Women Peacemakers Program meeting during the May 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace conference [editor's note: a report of this meeting is available by contacting IFOR, Spoorstraat 38, 1815 BK Alkmaar, the Netherlands]. The women's meeting was very inspiring and the best part of the conference. Vesna was worried, however, about the idea of women as ´natural' peacemakers. Women's role in peacemaking is more and more recognized. Women are being pushed into the limelight and presented with the mess to clean up, as a last resort. Why should women have the sole responsibility for a solution? The polarization and lack of debate at the Hague conference about Kosovo was also criticized. Vesna found it ironic that women peace activists had got our way: emotions are taken into account now - and now there's not enough space for rational argument.

Conclusion

Although the WWG hasn't met all its ambitious goals, many people felt very positive about what had been achieved, which was greater than in the past. Progress is being made. "We didn't want to let go of some of the projects that haven't happened yet, and emphasized the need to have particular people take responsibility for coordinating each task," said one participant. Such projects included: collecting the experiences of women volunteers working in the Balkan Peace Team; an in-depth analysis of violence against women in conflict situations; examining sexual harassment in peace movement; looking at the dynamics of mixed-gender groups; and how to challenge the perception of some recent Council behavior: long sequences of men taking the floor, more for self-aggrandizement, it seemed, than to make progress in the meeting; old arguments re-hashed with no attempt at resolution; layers of non-constructive communication (body language, polarized statements, etc).

How can women break through the barriers of silence and obedience (key words raised in conjunction with the upcoming social empowerment conference)? What does the silence of women in this context mean? Women explained their behavior as: "I knew it would only slow the meeting down further if I raised the issue of my discomfort about the group dynamics, without achieving anything". "The only thing I could have said was: I have the feeling we've heard this discussion before"; "There were too many different layers at once, how can we unravel them in one brief comment?" Many had the image of invisible presences in the Council plenaries, unspoken tensions that were not being addressed.

It was agreed that there is a need for transparency; role plays might help, encouraging the protagonists in the predictably repetitive scenarios to play out their opposite number's role. It was decided that the WWG would also make practical suggestions for future WRI meetings, such as in the preparation of facilitators, highlight the need for gender balance in the speakers' list.

Nonviolence and Social Empowerment

Link here to the homepage of WRI's Nonviolence and Social Empowerment discussion group. (This article appears in the print edition of WRI Women.)