Saturday 1 October 2016

A century of social and political change - but much more remains to be done

Aisling Swaine

Published 28/04/2015 | 02:30

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The Women's Power to Stop War conference, taking place this week in The Hague, is not only a celebration of the stand for peace made by a group of courageous women during World War I. It is a demonstration of critical will by women activists from around the globe to continue to work towards the creation of a humanity and community of nations based on the premise of peace and equality.

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As an Irishwoman, I celebrate the freedom I have to participate in this conference.

Some time ago, I gave a book to my mother for her birthday. Her puzzled expression on opening it underlined that she was not familiar with its subject - Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.

Described by the book's author, Margaret Ward, as "the most significant of all Irish feminists", the efforts of Sheehy-Skefffington, and early suffragettes like her, are little recognized. In reading through this wonderful account, we discovered that in 1915, 100 years ago this week, she and six other Irish women were prevented by the British government from traveling to The Hague to participate in the first International Congress of Women.

That conference, now remembered as the Women's Peace Congress, represented the most significant engagement of the global suffragette movement on issues of war and peace to that date. Crossing the front-lines of World War I, some even travelling by fishing boats because ferry services had ceased operating in dangerous seas, almost 1,200 women from 12 neutral and war-engaged countries gathered in The Hague. Women from diverse backgrounds and identities adopted a resolution that articulated their unified "protest against the madness and the horror of war".

Sheehy-Skeffington aspired to a distinct "Ireland" presence at this international meeting. The would-be Irish representatives drafted a contribution to the Congress that articulated the need for a global means of reconciling the desires of "Subject Nationalities" in peaceful ways.

At the time, Ireland was embroiled in its struggle for independence. A struggle for equality for Irish women was also taking place, often forgotten as we approach the 100-year anniversary of the 1916 rising. Sheehy-Skeffington and her husband Frank pioneered attempts to infuse the nationalist cause with feminist principles, and to link progress for women's rights with the promise of Irish nationhood. Disputes over where and whether women's rights fit into the Irish nationalist cause characterized this movement, as it has done in many movements for self-determination globally.

I am privileged this week to join a handful of other Irish women, and hundreds of women from around the world, to participate in a global conference that builds on the cause initiated by the women who gathered in The Hague in 1915.

It has taken a century of social and political change, but this time Irish women will actively participate in this discussion of peace at a time when the importance of progress for women's equality - and the need for new ways to generate non-violent solutions to global crises - is as urgent as it was in 1915.

My own small role is to contribute to a discussion on fostering peace activism among the next generation.

In a world suffused with militarism and advances in technology that are inexorably used for violent means, how do we ensure a tipping point that lends itself towards a dispensation of peace, rather than that of war?

Having witnessed the raw and harrowing pain wrought on communities in a number of war-affected contexts globally, I am convinced that we cannot afford for it to be any other way. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced by political violence in 2013.

That is 51.2 million women, men, boys and girls, just like you and me, living in destitution and uncertainty, coping with harm and loss, living each day characterized by a search for recognition of their humanity.

Entwined in the political violence of contexts such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and South Sudan are the bodies of women and girls, ruthlessly violated.

UN Women has recorded that in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011, women represented only 4pc of signatories, and 2pc of chief mediators. Over the past century, there has been progressive acknowledgement of the inextricable relationship between peace and equality - equality between nations, between ethnicities and peoples, equality between rich and poor, and the equality that permeates relations between every individual - that of gender equality.

The feminist basis of the Women's Power to Stop War Conference espouses an understanding of war as not just an episodic interval in an otherwise peaceful and non-violent landscape, but rather a reflection of the enduring inequalities inherent in our societies and institutions globally.

In many countries (including those where war is not present), there are women living in oppressive regimes, denied their basic right to travel or move freely, or to hold their own identity.

There are still women whose voices will not be heard at this women's peace congress of 2015. Much has changed, for some. Much remains to change, for all.

Aisling Swaine is Associate Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington DC. Her forthcoming book, 'Conflict-Related Violence Against Women: Transforming Transition' will be published next year by Cambridge University Press

Irish Independent

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