Conference Report

June 17-18, 2008 - Palais des Nations, UN HQ Geneva
Culture-of-Peace/Middle-East-Conferences/Switzerland-2008
By: Carolyn Handschin

12th Annual Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East

One hundred sixty women leaders from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Japan, representing governments, international organizations and civil society institutions gathered at the United Nations in Geneva marking the 12th anniversary of the Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East. Discussions focused on identifying positive steps to improve access to education, tools and the mindset necessary for women to participate actively in the social, economic and political developments in their region. Holding the conference in Geneva presented a unique opportunity to forge partnerships outside of the region, share expertise and seek innovative solutions which built on conclusions from the previous eleven conferences. Over half the participants were under thirty years old, which contributed to the adoption of very forward looking strategies. "Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women's perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, justice and peace cannot be achieved."

"At this time of global crises, it has become clear that women's perspectives and talents are necessary to help redefine national and international priorities and to implement sustainable commitments to goals of peace and justice their governments have made," explained conference cochair, Carolyn Handschin, Deputy Director, WFWPI UN Office in her opening remarks.

The first speaker of the panel was Ambassador Luis A. De Alba, president of the historic first year of the Human Rights Council. He reminded participants that we are still building the three pillars of the UN. Enforcement of human rights comes through moral and political pressure, not force. As women are guaranteed equal access to education and as they take on roles to defend human rights, the new tools and mechanisms can deliver change.

Dr. Lan Yang Moon Park, WFWPI president affirmed the accomplishment of gathering women to break down barriers among ourselves first. She referred to the WFWPI Heart to Heart Peace Conference in 2004 in Jerusalem and last year's gathering of 500 women from five continents in North Korea. We must all respond to the needs of our fellow human family members. Women need to be heard. We all know of Martin Luther King Jr., but few heard about Rosa Parks. When she decided not to give a seat to a white person on a bus and was arrested for that, many people sympathized with her. Martin Luther King Jr. came on that foundation.

Dr. Patricia Lewis, Director of UNIDIR (UN Institute on Disarmament Research) said that men and women need to think together, as well as people of different ages, cultures and knowledge. We need women from the Middle East to bring their knowledge and experience to the UN or peace cannot be made there. Peace will come from understanding and listening within a common framework.

H.E. In'am Al Mufti, the first woman minister (Social Development) in Jordan and special advisor for 10 years of this conference series, referred to a report that she had written for UNESCO "Learning the Treasure Within". Scientific and economic advancement have not brought happiness. The family is the place where we learn to practice love and relate constructively to one another. The prophet says that we are all leaders. Women are most important in that area because they play a vital role in community development. We need to find women at the grassroots and help them develop their leadership capacities and skills.

Ambassador Laura Thompson Chacon of Costa Rica spoke about the labors her nation has made in the area of human rights education. She informed us that her country had abolished their army in 1948, dedicating all resources to education, health and development of infrastructure. We have to give our population a new perspective and vitality based upon ethics, citizenship and understanding of how to live together enjoyably. Civil society and especially women have much more power than they realize to challenge ideas and be a force of change.

Dr. El Bouchiha, a professor in civic education in Tunisia, stated that the most effective way of developing countries is to educate women. In Tunisia because costs are so high, often only boys are sent on to higher education. At this time only 23% of government officials are women. Even some Arab countries still deny women the right to vote and be elected. She recommended more incentive be established to increase the presence of women in decision-making.

Session 2 was chaired by Mme. Al-Mufti: What are the requirements for womens leadership and how to strengthen them? She invited Dr. Moon Park to speak about educating and promoting women as central figures instead of peripheral figures. Dignified gender roles must be fostered and masculine and feminine natures harmonized. Development is slow without utilizing the best of womens power. A leadership that serves, cares and embraces, as women learn in their gender roles, will bring prosperity and cultural development for all.

Dr. Haifa Zangana, journalist from Iraq and chair of the Committee on Media and Culture, reported that people in her country have regressed unimaginably. Thirty years ago, gender was a vibrant issue, now 74% of uneducated children are girls. Youth cannot read or write although their mothers and grandmothers were highly educated. We are fighting an uphill battle. We have to continue talk of peace and build from the grassroots. Dr. Asmaa Kfarou, professor of Islamic studies for women, and granddaughter of the former Grand Mufti said we have to be able to cry for peace; for those close to us and those we don't know. Peace requires justice. When women cannot protect their children, it is an untenable situation. We are fighting to change laws that are discriminatory. Islam is misunderstood, and this also makes life difficult. The prophet insists that women and men both need education and knowledge.

Dr. Zoe Bennet, Women's Federation's Director for the Middle East opened Session Three, What kind of education is effective in promoting women's leadership? Dr. Natalie Mohamad Domloj, a young doctor from Lebanon, said that we women must be the change that we want to see. Women must choose between family and career/public responsibilities, but should be able to do both. Curricula need to be readjusted to changing priorities. Our society needs healing. Women can do that best, but they shouldn't get stuck in petty concerns. The best leadership education is the experience of leading even as a youth. Ms. Dakara Georgescu, from UNESCO's International Bureau of Education (IBE) asked the audience how we can best promote womens leadership, and answered: education. We have to organize curricula that foster leadership competencies and capacities of girls and boys.

Mrs. Noor Babad, Deputy Minister of Work and Social Affairs in Yemen explained that the Queen of Sheba was Yemenite who played an important role historically. Now, 80% of students in Yemen are boys. We have to challenge the masculine culture. Programs should be designed that include a vision of women as leaders. Ms. Barbara Stubble, educator in Character Education in Egypt explained the concept of a character based approach to education and how it has impacted the lives of violent and aggressive children who had no desire to learn. Change was more dramatic in younger students as they learned new life skills, based upon universally accepted core values. Results are much better when parents are involved and children have already been instilled with an image of good character.

The first session on Day 2 was lead by Dr. Emel Dogramaci, Dean of Arts and Science Faculty at Kankaya University on the topic: What are the important steps to be taken to improve womens leadership opportunities? Dr. Oya Talat, Director, Women's Patriotic Movement of North Cyprus opened the session by saying men and women should make decisions together to balance one another. Radicalism and ultra nationalism are dangerous, but seeds sown through women's common projects for the future can prevent such extremes. Working side by side and listening with open hearts is healing and can solve centuries of pain. Ms. Ayse Sozen, Coordinator of Foreign Affairs, Department of Justice and Development of Turkey expressed her desire that these conferences be held in the Middle East. Although ΒΌ of the Turkish Parliament is women, most have not been educated to advocate for necessary changes. Our campaign, "Girls to School" made it possible for 80% of girls to go to school.

Women have a natural talent for leadership, but may never recognize it, if not given opportunities to lead during the period when their personality is developing - expressed H.E. Noora Nasser Al-Merekhi, Supreme Council on Family Affairs in Qatar. Education from early life is essential to improve capacity. If women dont strive to lead, they will not lead. In Qatar, people often prefer men leaders. We need a good feminine role model, like the first lady, to demonstrate feminine leadership. Palestinian panelist, Dr. Sherene Sekaily, Co-editor of the Arab Studies Journal described the long journey of women in Palestine and their courageous fight for gender equality and rights to education against a backdrop of hardship.

We want to be women against terror, building peace first in our minds. Women deserve to be the model of strength, continued Dr. Hiba Othman, Professor at the American University in Lebanon. Leadership is persistence, vision, overcoming obstacles, collaboration. Leadership is praising and awarding others. United, women will represent strength. The final speaker, Dr. Roya Kshefi, Human Rights Committee for the Association of Iranian Researchers, explained discrimination toward women in the application of Islamic law in Iran. Many prepared, strong, righteous women have been imprisoned for the "crime" of providing access to education for girls. The situation is degrading.

A report was given by Dr. Bennet, NadinaTheodorou and Fawziye Tayim about the recent humanitarian project of WFWPI in cooperation with government and civil society sources, to bring medicine to the Gaza strip. Palestinian Ambassador Mohamed Abu-Koash sent a message of thanks.

A series of recommendations and a Call to Action were drawn up and accepted by consensus in the closing ceremony.