The cost of conflict
THE voice of nine women who met in Vienna’s prestigious People’s Theatre recently succeeded in drowning the sound of war drums beating around the world—for a few hours at least. The women came from three continents and from different countries caught in the midst of armed conflicts. And they concluded that war has never been victorious in resolving any crisis.
Hundreds more, who listened to each visitor describe how their respective homes have been turned into a battlefield without their consent, made an even louder hue and cry against the use of aggression to end differences, both at the personal and political level.
After all, 80 per cent of
the more than 50 million people uprooted by wars worldwide are women and
children. The first to be deprived of food, shelter and healthcare in
the midst of any war, women remain most helpless when it comes to sexual
abuse by armed militias. And those women who stand up to speak out
against the atrocities of war are forced to face further torture.
Defence analysts say at least a quarter of the world’s countries are devastated by armed conflict, including sporadic but long-drawn battles against terrorists and guerrillas, posing a great threat to stability everywhere. Sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia remain prone to more wars. The war in Afghanistan has spread to other South Central Asian countries to unsettle an entire region. And Iraq is considered the most dangerous of all sites because of the threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The greatest fear is that owing to an attack on Iraq, any rogue regime could trip its nuclear weapons switch.
The nine women gathered in Vienna to talk and to listen to each other at the invitation of Women Without Borders and Reporters Without Borders. The two human rights organisations now dream of seeing the participation of women increase in politics and civil society. This, through dialogue, exchange of information and insight, and the setting up of ‘embassies’ in many countries.
The Vienna event was an opportunity for women to report on different problems in their respective regions and to bring them to the attention of the world. It is only natural that more women should be against war today as it is women who, along with their children, form the bulk of all civilian casualties in all armed conflict. Women simply suffer more and therefore demand that a large portion of the over US $900 billion spent on military budgets worldwide should instead be used to feed, clothe, shelter and educate humanity.
Edith Schlaffer, an Austrian social scientist, author of Mothers Make Men and founder of Women Without Borders, talked of how difficult it is to get women to travel, to meet with each other and to get them to talk about themselves. In war zones particularly, the movement of people is restricted and complicated regulations, along with a lack of income, make it impossible for women to keep in touch with the world outside their immediate and dangerous surroundings. One participant could not make it from West Asia — she was denied travel documents by authorities in the West Bank.
Tsvia Walden-Peres, daughter of Shimon Peres, and a linguist, has dedicated herself to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. She agreed to travel to Vienna on the condition that she would be allowed to meet many Palestinians here. And her first encounter with Violet, a 32-year-old Palestinian activist and author who lives in Vienna, was described by Tsvia as ‘tense’. But on stage they sat together around the same table and conversed endlessly in Arabic. The conflict in Bethlehem left Violet with little option but to escape abroad. The other choice before her was to continue to live at home, but like a prisoner and in constant fear. While still in Bethlehem, Violet witnessed the takeover of her house by Israeli soldiers, and the indignities borne by the entire family. A psycholinguist and specialist in the Hebrew language, Tsvia is the author of The Language of Peace: My Israel Story. She is as old as the state of Israel and has grown up watching both the peace process and wars. Her conclusion is that the root cause of the conflict in her region is both cultural and political.
Using parables she explained that the twin dream of the Jews to revive Hebrew as their mother tongue and to regain the Promised Land are realised. Now is the time for Israel to listen to others who are still in the process of fulfilling their dream.
While here, Tsvia also talked to Rosina Fawzia Al-Rawi who teaches ethnic studies at the University of Jerusalem because she can no longer live and work in Baghdad where she was born. The leading spirit behind a massive literacy movement for women in Iraq, Al-Rawi was one day asked to stop her work. She decided to leave the country. In Jerusalem, she lives a mere 35-minute drive away from Tsvia but the two women did not know each other till they met in Vienna for the first time last week.
Noori Haaqnazar, a mother of five and minister of Women’s Affairs, said that back in Afghanistan women are struggling to prevent the gender issue from being put on the back bench. According to the latest United Nations report on Afghanistan, intimidation and violence against women continues by regional and local commanders. Lack of literacy amongst the majority of the country’s girls and women prevents their positive participation in nation building. The good news is that 30 per cent of the three million children who have returned to school since last year are girls. But the bad news remains that 79 per cent of all Afghan women are illiterate.
Parastou Forouhar lives in the German city of Frankfurt but she returns every year to Teheran (Iran) to organise a meeting of like-minded people on the death anniversary of her parents. Both her lawyer father and her mother, a political activist, were murdered over a decade ago in Iran while Parastou studied in Europe. The annual pilgrimage to Iran is Parastou’s way of trying to keep the voice of her courageous parents alive and echoing down for generations to come. WFS