The Realization of Peace in Women's Hand: Meeting the Challenge

May 9-12, 2004 - Geneva, Switzerland
Culture-of-Peace/Middle-East-Conferences/Switzerland-2004
By: Carolyn Handschin

8th Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East

The 8th Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East was convened on May 9-12 in Geneva, Switzerland. Sessions on May 10-11 were held at the United Nations. This conference series, an annual regional gathering in the Middle East, came to the global platform of the UN for the first time this year. Forty Middle Eastern women leaders in the areas of politics, law, media, education, academics, and nongovernmental organizations were invited to address the issues of their region with the experts from UN Agencies, government representatives and many international NGO's based at the UN. At the opening banquet, Mr. Jean-Luc Chopard, chief of protocol, extended a message of welcome to the participants on behalf of the Geneva State Government and its President, M. Robert Kramer. Citing Geneva as a place of hope, peace and action, he said, "Even though the last century has witnessed tremendous progress in the scientific and technical field, for the honor of mankind, we should also be capable of progress in the field of human relations". Mrs. Conchita Poncini, President of the CONGO Committee on the Status of Women- Geneva extended wishes for a productive meeting.

The Opening Plenary began with remarks from Prof. LanYoung Moon Park, Pres. of WFWP International and H.E. Mrs. In'am Al-Mufti, Senator of Jordan, co-chairs of the conference. Prof. Park applauded WFWP Japan for the decade of humanitarian and educational activities that WFWP-Japan has been sponsoring throughout the Middle East. "We uphold the universal wish of every human being to create a safer and more peaceful world for our children". Mrs. Al-Mufti noted that, "Our future depends on people and leaders around the world developing the vision of a better and safer world, as well as developing strategies, institutions and the will to achieve the vision. We must each ask what our role is and how we can properly prepare our children for their future responsibilities".

The Welcoming Speech of the Swiss Foreign Minister, H.E. Ms. Micheline Calmy-Rey, a tireless advocate for the Middle East and women's empowerment was read by the Swiss Ambassador to the UN, H.E.Mr. Jean-Marc Boulgaris. The Keynote Speech was delivered by video from H. E. Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of Egypt and Founder of the Women's International Peace Movement. She began by saying that she chooses to focus on positive advances, expressing gratitude to all people who have continued to raise consciousness about the imperative for peace. She reminded us that we must consider above all, the fundamental need for human security; because without it, we can not realize our potential, or fulfill our aspirations and dreams!

The conference drew close to 150 participants, including Ambassadors (notably, 5 women Ambassadors), several heads of UN Agencies, and representatives from UN programmes, governments and international NGO's.

Opening Panel: Women's Contribution to Peace in the Middle East

This first Panel was facilitated by Carolyn Handschin, WFWPI Deputy Director for UN Relations. In his statement, Dr.Bertrand Ramcharan, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted the difference that women's input has made in situations of conflict, voicing the need for participation of women in conflict resolution. Prof. Feride Acar, President of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), outlined their work in assisting women to end discrimination and become empowered change agents. She urged all participants to lobby their governments to ratify the CEDAW Convention. Ambassador Najat Al-Hajajji (Libya), President of the Human Rights Commission (2003) noted the importance of exercising all Human Rights. "Lasting peace is comprehensive peace based on justice and equality." Dr. Aleya Hammad, former Executive Director of WHO/Women's Health and co- founder with Mrs. Mubarak of the Women for Peace NGO Network was also among the panelists. Dr. Yvonne von Stedingk, presented case studies of 2 NGO's who work with 'Education for Peace' programmes in the Middle East that bring children of conflicting sides together to work out their traumas. Students learn about common roots and aspirations and develop an appreciation of their cultural diversities. H.E.Mrs. Oya Talat, wife of the Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus and the President and co-founder of the Patriotic Women's Union was the last panelist to speak. She invited her longtime friend and colleague, Nadina Theodorou, a Greek Cypriot, to join her at the table as she spoke about the investment of women in peace initiatives over the years in their divided nation. She spoke about the recent bitter disappointment for peace activists on both sides when the referendum for unification failed, but assured us that their will to unify Cyprus is unbroken.

WFWP-Japan presented a video, Women Behind the Scenes, a look at the Middle East Peace Conference Series as well as many educational and humanitarian activities that WFWP has organized throughout the region.

Panel Session Two: The Role of Women in Creating a Culture of Peace

The first speaker was Ms. Rama Enav, an Israeli representing Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) at the UN in Geneva. She detailed the work of women's organizations in Israel to give women a voice, educate and train them in leadership roles and to sponsor their pursuit of peace through seminars and projects that enjoin Israeli and Palestinian women and youth. Ms. Siham Hillis, a Palestinian recruitment officer for UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) spoke of two projects that were organized for Palestinian children of the Ramallah Refugee camp following the 7th Middle Eastern Women's conference last year. She spoke of the longing of Palestinian and Israeli women for peace, noting the specific ways that women contribute to creating a culture of peace. The final speaker of the session was Ivette Abi Nader, an educator and journalist in Lebanon. Recognizing the crucial role that women have in nurturing and guiding future leaders, she noted the value of volunteerism and character education as a central aspect of education. In spite of the centuries of rule by brute force, she pointed to the instrumental role historically played by individual women in laying the foundations for peace.

Panel Session Three: Women's Initiative and Middle East Peace

The first speaker, H.E. May Abu-Alsamen, a Jordanian Senator, said that women's organizations working in Jordan have doubled since 1990. They bring a new breadth, quality and balance into the political and civil arena. Individual members of the royal family as well as government institutions have made great effort to introduce a vision for a culture of peace, training women as facilitators of the peace process. Dr. Kawthar Al-Jouan, a Kuwaiti lawyer and director of the Women's Institution for Development and Training outlined the historic struggle of women of her country to gain their right to vote and be represented in parliament in spite of having achieved leading positions in other fields. As president of the lobbying committee for women's political rights, she carefully chose members of both genders and orchestrated a campaign to put all views clearly on the table so just decisions are made. The final speaker, Dr. Amal Osman, V.P. of the Egyptian Parliament and law professor, highlighted the role of women in preventative diplomacy. Their talent is better used as intermediaries, limiting escalation of disputes, fostering reconciliation and mobilizing civilians. She said that although conflict in her region has damaged social development and women's aspirations, women's organizations have exerted considerable influence on public policy and respect of law.

Panel Session Four: The Role of Middle Eastern Women in Creating a World of Peace

Dr. Lubna Al-Kazi, a professor at Kuwait University focused her discourse on the ways that Kuwaiti women work to spread tolerance in spite of mistrust, competition, and insecurity that has harmed the social and moral fabric of life. Mrs. Ehteram Malakouti Nejad, the Executive Director of the Support Network for Single Women in Iran pointed to the link between family values and a responsible civil society. After detailing the originally intended role of the UN, she proposed that if women have difficulty stopping war, they can find ways to support the work of the UN. The final panelist was Ms. Naima Al-Shayji, international consultant in Kuwait with a background within agencies at the UN.

Panel Session Five:
The Pieces of Peace: Practical Steps Women Can Take Towards a Peaceful World

The first panelist, Ms. Nadina Theodorou has been working for twenty years in Cyprus as a volunteer with seriously ill children, and children victims of domestic violence, living under the protection of social services. She described her experience working with Siham Hillis (UNRWA officer in Gaza) to bring a group of 8-10 year-old orphaned Palestinian refugee children to Cyprus to experience a peaceful environment. Few eyes were dry as she detailed the joy the children experienced in the beauty of nature and caring of others outside their community for the first time. Although there have been visits from Israeli children to Cyprus sponsored by the government, Palestinians hadn't been free to travel. Generous financial donations, hospitality, special outings, music and dance lessons, sportswear and clothing from many Greek Cypriots contributed to what Mrs. Hillis described as a 'rare and wonderful experience that gave the children hope for the future. Mrs. Leila Barakat, Founder and Chairwoman of the New Woman's Society in Egypt, reported on the work of her NGO to invite Palestinian children to Egypt. She too, had heard Mrs. Hillis' description of life in the Gaza Refugee Camps at the WFWP Middle Eastern Women's Conference last year. The final speaker, Mrs. Evelyn Zachary, Chief of the Social Services Division at UNRWA Headquarters in Amman, Jordan, gave a very informative startling exposé on the historic achievements and ongoing commitments of her agency to bring a better standard of living to the Palestinian Refugees. She gave insight into health services, education (achieved gender parity), relief services, micro-finance/enterprise programs and home demolition relief especially for civilian women.

Interactive Sessions/ Proposals

During questions and comments, there were lively, even heated exchanges. Participants sensed when the debate became divisive, correcting themselves, with conference theme in mind. Although it was clear that certain basic facts had to be put on the table in order to address root causes, the organizers encouraged consensus building and forward looking strategies. Throughout the sessions, an evolution in the ability to "receive" the other, a kind of progressive reconciliation was gradually won. As the 8th conferences on issues of Middle Eastern women, the framework of trust and honesty that has been built over the years has surely influenced the outcome.

The conference closed with proposals for the creation of several joint activities. These included a conference for empowerment of women to be co-sponsored by WFWPI in Kuwait and a continuation of the projects for children in the Ramallah Refugee camp in Palestine. A support network for schools in the region was proposed that would work with education for peace curriculum, and, where possible, democracy education, as well as a possible project to give Middle East youth experiences in diplomacy through children's congresses or other means. Establishment of a task force was proposed to identify projects for 'Poverty Eradication for Peace' and research into the best way to promote "1325 Advocacy" in each country. Follow-up to the proposals will be reported at the 9th MEW Conference in spring 2005. WFWPI President, Prof. Lan Young Moon Park invited the participants and their organizations to join in women's empowerment training and reconciliation as well as an upcoming international women's rally for peace in Jerusalem. The ongoing outreach to women in Palestine and Israel is an attempt to understand their situation, show solidarity and help build bridges towards reconciliation and reconstruction. The worldwide activities of WFWPI, to empower women, strengthen families and reinforce commitments to building a culture of peace in more than 100 countries, were recognized in the closing statements by chair, HE In'am Al-Mufti.

Images (top to bottom)
*First opening panel with Amb. J.C. Boulgaris presenting the speech of Mrs. Calmy-Rey, Swiss foreign minister, the two chairpersons, Prof. L.Y. Park, Mrs. Al Mufti, Senatoer of Jordan, Carolyn Handschin

*Conference Co-Chairs: Prof. Lan Young Moon Park, President of WFWP International and H.E. Mrs. In'am Al Mufti, Senator of Jordan

*Dr. Bernard Ramcharan, Acting (interim) High Commissioner of Human Rights, Geneva, Dr. Feride Acar, President CEDAW (UN-Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women)

*High level segment panel with from left to right: Dr. Ramcharan, Dr. Acar, Amb. Najat al Hajajji, President of the Human Rights Commission (2003) and Amb. from Libya to the UN, Mrs. Al-Mufti, Jordan, Carolyn, the First Lady of North Cyprus, Dr. Aleya Hammd, Dr. Yvonne von Stedingk

*Participants including 2 representatives of the Women's Internation Zionist Organization (WIZO)