Conference Report

May 12-15, 2009 - Vravrona, Greece
Culture-of-Peace/Middle-East-Conferences/Greece-2009
By: Nadia A. AL-Sakkaf Publisher and Editor in Chief, Yemen Times

13th Annual Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East

Throughout time women have been leaders, often practicing a behind-the-scenes form of leadership known as 'soft leadership.' Achieving peace through reconciling first is the mission taken on by today's women leaders, feeling confident that they can bring reconciliation in the true sense to the world.

"Lasting peace can only come from respecting human rights, especially for women and children," said guest speaker Mr. Ilias Libers, Executive Director of the Hellenic National Committee for UNICEF - Greece at the inauguration session of the Thirteenth Conference for Peace in the Middle East.

The conference was organized by Women's Federation for World Peace (WFWP) International and by WFWP Japan to "look more pragmatically at the issue of reconciliation and how we can achieve it, which is the foundation for all the other steps towards peace," said Carolyn Handschin, Deputy Director of the United Nations Office of WFWPI.

As early as 1987, pioneers from WFWP Japan started the Asian Women's Federation for Peace that expanded in 1992 into the International Federation for World Peace (Now known as WFWP International). Today WFWPI has nearly 100 national chapters in nine different world regions, and all staff are volunteers. The tradition of annual conferences for Middle East peace started in 1997.

Dr. Lan Young Moon Park, president of WFWP, commented that we are all internationalizing through a multicultural and multi-faith era. Changes are more rapid and more complicated in today's environment because of globalization.

Participants agreed that the problem is the ruling leadership. Power is in the hands of men. However, men are not bringing peace to this global era which calls for diversity and global thinking. This is a time for women to participate wholeheartedly in this world. We need to change our mentality that women are just on the sidelines and not in the mainstream.

Noor Baabad, Assistant Deputy Minister for Social Care, and Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Editor in Chief of Yemen Times, joined 45 leading women from twelve countries across the Middle East, Japan and Korea for a two-day Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East in Vravrona, Greece between May 12 and 14, 2009.

Zoe Bennett, vice president of WFWP of the Middle East and North Africa region, said that there is suffering all over the world, particularly in the Middle East. "We have to break through the barriers of prejudice and stereotyping. This is the UN's year for reconciliation, and in order to make big changes, changes within ourselves have to come first."

"Children face violence in the Middle East in their everyday lives," Ilias Liebers said. "UNICEF considers the Middle East region as highly important because of unacceptable conditions. Children everywhere have suffered too long and are being brought up in unhealthy mental circumstances due to ongoing wars, especially girls because they suffer more from discrimination. More than half of Jordan's children are subjected to some sort of violence in school."

As the conference participants discussed the role of UN and other international agencies, they agreed it is time to join forces to fight violence. We must begin by recognizing women and children as a priority. They are rarely talked about except as victims, yet they can be catalysts for peace. No effort to promote peace can succeed unless we provide protection for vulnerable groups including women and children. We need to promote skills, attitudes and values to bring about behavioral changes that will allow critical thinking, coping, and decision making skills that will lead to peace.

Sonia Billard Fattah, coordinator for women's issues and manager of the on-line education system at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, said, "we have to dismantle any barriers that we might have and start as individuals and members of a movement in order to establish true reconciliation in the world."

Aida Al-Maainah, wife of the UAE Ambassador in Korea said the Islamic greeting Assalam Alikum, or 'peace be upon you,' and explained that Islam is the culture of peace, evidenced in this greeting. She commented that there are some champions for peace and development in the region, such as Sheikha Fatima bin Mubarak who works with women, refugees, those with physical hardships and victims of armed conflicts with no regard to religion, nationality or race. She was selected as the Mother of the UAE in 2005.

"At the family level, women can play an important role in peace building, making the house a place for peace and allowing family and visitors to feel peaceful," said Al-Maainah.

Rihab Ghazal, lecturer at the American University of Cairo, explained that reconciliation is the highest form of dialogue. However, before we valued dialogue and communication, but now we build the ability to communicate and engage in dialogue with the ultimate purpose of achieving reconciliation. Education is the way to do this; either formal or informal education. It can foster attitudes of tolerance and encourage the responsibility to reach peace and sustain peace.

"We have to raise our children properly and change the curriculum to tolerate others, otherwise we will never get there," said Dr. Moza Al-Maliki, a therapist and writer from Qatar and a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Judith Karp, former General Attorney from Israel, brought up the late Sami Adwan as an example. She was the President of the Palestinian and Israeli History Research Institute, one of the few organizations created to reach common ground between Palestinian and Israeli people. "We have a conflicting historical identity narrative. And we need to come to terms with our past in order to advance into a peaceful future," she said.

Stella Savvides, president of the United Democrats Women Organization in Cyprus, explained that the Middle East is one of the regions that has always seen conflict through the years. "Nicosia is the only capital in the world that is divided. I must show my passport if I want to move from the south to the north side of Cyprus, as if I am travelling from one country to another. For 35 years, the people of Cyprus have been separated. We don't want to forget our history but rather we want to build on it. We must keep in mind that we are all Cypriots and that we want to live together. We must use music, games, cultural events and plays to bring young people closer to each other."

Oya Talat, a Cypriot from the Turkish Women Solidarity Council, said that culture determines race rather than race determining culture. "If we want our world to be less problematic, we need to make small successful steps rather than committing big failures," she said. "Come on women, be more actively involved. We need this, and the role of women in reconciliation is important. Since women are not directly involved in the cause of war, we can be more objective in reaching peaceful solutions."

Avital Shapria-Shabirow is the Director of the International Relations Department of the Histadrut-General Federation of Labor in Israel, which is the largest labor organization in Israel with over 7,000 members from many different religions. "It is based on equality, solidarity and brotherhood," she said. "Lasting peace can only be built on genuine relationships among people, and we need to build mutual trust and understanding and recognize the suffering of all sides in any conflict."

She added that in war there are no winners and that people should not let the political situation affect relations. Members of the union set the example of how Arabs and Israelis can work together in peace. "As trade unions, we meet and discuss the work problems. We signed an agreement in June 2008 with Palestinian Transport Union and solved financial disputes. We translate the work rights into Arabic so that Arab employees (which exceed a million persons working for Israeli employers in West Bank settlements) understand their benefits, such as pensions and get them from the Israeli government. An emergency hotline was created for those who cannot cross the borders so that they can be helped by Histadrut, which assists workers crossing the separation wall to work.

Noor Mohammed Baabad, Deputy Minister of Work and Social Affairs, commented that "Yemen has recognized the strength of reconciliation, both in modern and in ancient times. During the 1960s, it was very important to support the revolution. So many meetings and conferences took place after the 1962 revolution faced serious obstacles, and without reconciliation, none of these meetings would have been successful. Afterwards, it was equally important, if not more so, to support reconciliation when North and South Yemen unified under one republic. Even after this achievement, people still faced illiteracy, poverty, ignorance, revenge and weapons proliferation, a difficult environment. Reconciliation is still important and needed."

Dr. Moza Almaliki explained that reconciliation from within is the most important step. When a person is at peace with him or herself, reconciliation with others is easy and there is a better chance to achieve it. This person with inner peace has flexibility to adapt to the other and accept his or her culture, ideas and religion. If this is achieved, the world will be a better place. Discussions from the sessions concluded that women could and should reconcile as they engage in common cultural and civil society activities. It is important for the world to understand what a great idea reconciliation is and that it should be used to bring peace.