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Lest we forget: The other face of war 

Jacky Sutton

War is neither “dulce” nor “decorum” – it is brutal, harrowing, destructive and fundamentally unfair. I have seen, at first hand, too many lives shattered by the arbitrary and invariably asymmetric move of a faraway power player to extol the virtues of killing people to achieve a political goal. ­

Moreover, according to the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, war is no longer a chivalric contest among consenting adults (as if it ever was); modern warfare sees more civilians, and particularly women and children, ending up dead or maimed than soldiers. The days of set-piece battles between professional combatants (those in the frontline back then being, of course, conscripted) are long since gone and war is now a question of bomb attacks on crowded markets, video game assassination from invisible drones and squalid “temporary” shelters for an estimated 42 million refugees and internally displaced people across the world.

To get some perspective, 42 million is roughly double the population of Australia.

This view is, of course, not shared by everyone and will certainly not feature highly in media coverage of ANZAC Day centennials this month. But the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF, (of which I am a member) is also one hundred years old this year and this month and next, Canberra will be hosting a series of activities to celebrate the power of women to stop war and to articulate the possibility of peaceful co-existence and promote economic and social justice.

It might sound like an utopian goal, but far below the headlines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Syria alone women I know are organising local peace initiatives, negotiating with kidnappers, dissuading their children from going to war and taking part in formal and informal political initiatives to bring an end to violence. In Australia too, women are involved in campaigns to prevent the destruction of their communities and the self-destructive and often murderous alienation of their loved ones. And yet how many women are leading peace talks and present at high level peace conferences around the world?

“Very few,” says Barbara O’Dwyer, the President of WILPF Australia. “Women’s contribution to conflict prevention and peace building is usually ignored. But not only are we half of the population and therefore at least half of the solution, women’s approach to peacebuilding usually focuses on restorative justice and reconciliation, while the traditional, masculine strategy favours retribution and force.” And as we look across the world’s dozen or so “major” wars it is hard to see how yet more bombs can reasonably be expected to achieve a sustainable, just and popular resolution to the structured and violent inequalities of the world.

WILPF is the world’s largest and oldest women’s peace organisation in the world. It was established in April 1915 in The Hague as the “war to end all wars” raged on in the killing fields of Europe, slaughtering an entire generation of young men and sending others home to face the horror and unnamable shame of PTSD or disability. Meanwhile, in Australia a group of women led by Vida Goldstein began a campaign against the conscription of more young lives and in 1919 the Women’s Peace Army became the Australian branch of WILPF.

Although it is a non-profit and volunteer organisation, WILPF has branches in all Australian states, a youth organisation, 32 national teams worldwide and an international secretariat in Geneva. It boasts two Nobel Prize winners amongst its past international Presidents and was one of the first organisations to gain consultative status with the United Nations.

WILPF Australia is involved in a range of activities ranging from civil society reporting on the National Action Place for Women, Peace and Security, supporting land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people, participating in international fora such as the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women and running an interns research programme to encourage young women to continue the work started by our courageous great grandmothers a hundred years ago.

WILPF is currently celebrated in the “Women’s Power to Stop War” exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery and will be organising four events in April and May at the ANU and the Albert Hall. The WILPF International Centenary Conference will be held in The Hague on the anniversary of its foundation on 27-28 April, a day which will see a Festival for Peace at the Albert Hall organised by WILPF and A Chorus of Women, which was set up in 2003 to lament Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq.

The highlight of the Canberra events will be the WILPF Australian Peacewomen Awards ceremony on May 28 and the WILPF Australia Centenary Conference on May 29. Both of these are in the Great Hall, University House at the ANU.

The inaugural Peacewomen Awards will go to four women who have promoted WILPF’s four core principles of disarmament, human rights, gender and security, and crisis response. The awards will honour Melbourne-born Dr. Helen Caldicott, an internationally acclaimed anti-nuclear activist; Sydney-sider Dr. Anne Gallagher AO, a leading global expert on human trafficking; Dr. Helen Durham, also from Melbourne, who is an international humanitarian law expert; and Kirstie Parker, a Yuwallarai woman from NSW who has lead community initiatives to promote the rights and voice of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people and is Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

Keynote speakers at the WILPF Australia Centenary Conference include Madeleine Rees, the head of WILPF International and Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls. It will focus on reconciliation and social and economic justice and challenge the chimera of weapons of war to impose and enforce peace with justice.

The essentials
What: WILPF Centenary Event
When: 28-30 May
Where: Great Hall, University House, ANU
Program: Download the 2015 WILPF program for more information.
Register: www.wilpf.org.au (under Centenary)

Jacky Sutton

Jacky Sutton landed in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa last year after almost two decades working with the United Nations in war zones around the world. Up until October she was working in Baghdad with the Iraqi election commission and before that she was working with journalists and bloggers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran. She started out with BBC World Service and Vatican Radio before moving into the development aid sector. She arrived in Canberra on Melbourne Cup Day – “It was like a nuclear winter – there was no one here!” – but is now enrolled as a research scholar at the Centre of Arabic and Islamic Studies at ANU and otherwise keeping busy with Vegan ACT, HerCanberra and two rescue cats called Shirin and Narla. More about the Author

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