THE WORLD COURT OF WOMEN
AGAINST WAR, FOR PEACE
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
by Corinne Kumar
The World Court of Women against War, for Peace was held on March 8, 2001 at the Oliver Tambo Centre in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa. The Court comprising of nearly 4000 women and men from different provinces of South Africa and different regions of the world listened to forty women as they spoke their testimonies of pain and power, survival and strength. The women who brought their personal stories from their different cultures and contexts presented strong and irrefutable evidence of the genocidal violence being perpetrated by the wars of this century.
Wars being perpetrated against entire collectives and communities of people against the vulnerable, the women, by the processes of colonisation, globalisation and militarisation; processes being legitimised by all nation state systems, particularly the global powers like the USA, in the name of development and progress; in the name of human rights and democracy and in the name of law and order, of national security.
The Court was formally opened on March 6, 2001 at the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. Central to the opening were the Unsung Sheroes of the Apartheid Era – a panel of speakers including Ivy Gcina, Lydia Kompe – Ngwenya, Mildred Lesila, Bernadette Nenbe, Nana Mnandi and Rita Nzanga. Each of them through their own personal stories of resistance to apartheid spoke of the silent and silenced role of women in the struggle against one of the most dehumanized yet legitimized institution of racism. Thandi Modise, Member of Parliament and Mennuna Zvizdic, from Bosnia representing the International Coordinating Committee of the World Court welcomed the international participants who came from sixty-two countries. The keynote address was given by Baleka Mbete – Kgotsislw ,Deputy Speaker of Parliament and Corinne Kumar, the International Coordinator of the Courts of Women who spoke of the Courts as a New Political Imaginary.
The Opening was followed by a series of Roundtables that were held from the afternoon of March 6 and to the evening of March 7.By focusing on the cutting edge and critical issues of our times they helped not only to prepare the context but also receive the text and testimonies of the Court with more depth and understanding. The Roundtables were integral to the World Court of Women and its methodology that seeks to weave the objective reality with the subjective testimonies of women; the personal with the political.
The Roundtables followed two basic themes: (1) Towards understanding the context and the roots of war and conflict. (2) Towards alternative notions of justice, evolving new visions of peace.
The Roundtables around the first theme included:
Globalisation of poverty: The war against subsistence; Nation states and Nationalisms: The war of borders and boundaries; Militarisation: The war against human security; Racism: The war of exclusion; Indigenous Life Worlds: The war against forgotten wisdoms; Trafficking: The war against women; Refugees: The war against the other.
The Roundtables around the second theme included:
Truth and Reconciliation Commission; International war crimes Tribunals/ International Peace Processes; Reconciling Memories of war; Healing and Peace Building in Local Communities; Poverty and social spending in South Africa. Apart from these two themes, two roundtables were held on issues focusing on South Africa, and three roundtables were held on Women and Islam; The Holocaust; Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.
An Opening Panel of speakers put forwarded the Challenges of Our Times as questions for the Roundtables on March 6 while a Closing Panel on March 7, speaking towards a New PoliticalImagination, captured the essence of the new thinking that emerged through the two days of discussions. The speakers on the Opening Panel included Samira Khoury, Palestine/Lebanon; Zarana Papic, Yugoslavia; Nelia Sancho, Philippines; Mililani Trask, Hawaii and Fatima Meer, South Africa. The speakers on the Closing Panel Towards A New Political Imagination included Pregs Govender, South Africa; Vjosa Dobruna, Kosovo; Vicky Corpuz, Philippines; Cheri Honkala and Cora Weiss, USA.
The Roundtables therefore prepared the ground for the Court of Women that received forty personal testimonies of women on March 8. The testimonies were heard in five sessions: Wars as Genocide, Wars Without Borders, Wars Against Civilisations, Wars Against Women and the Gathering of Spirit ( Voices of Resistance). Each Session was preceded by a powerful and poetic visual testimony and the testimony of Expert Witnesses – both of which combined to give the political backdrop to the personal testimony.
The testimonies were received by a Jury who, as a Council of Wise Women and Men, at the end of the long day of listening, gave their own special insights into the wars of this century and through their reflections, enhanced a collective search for new visions of peace for our times.
The Jury members included Zanele Mbeki, a deeply committed social activist on issues related to poverty and women and the First Lady of South Africa; Fatima Meer from South Africa who has been involved in the struggle against apartheid, has survived imprisonment and assassination attempts and continues to be actively committed to struggles against injustice and poverty; Mililani Trask, a native Hawaiian attorney who has been a Chief Executive with the Hawaiian nation, a member of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace and a Jurist on the Pacific Court of Women; Mahjid Rahnema from Iran who is currently an academic concerned with issues related to poverty, development and governance but has served with the United Nations for thirty five years in various posts including as Ambassador to the U.N General Assembly and the UN Commission for Rwanda – Burundi; Vjosa Dobruna of Kosovo, currently the co-head of the Department for Democratic Governance and Civil Society in
Kosovo and a Member of the Council of Ministers but worked for long years as a political and human rights activist; Denis Halliday, from Ireland who was the former U.N Assistant Secretary General responsible for Iraq resigned after a thirty year career to protest and be free to speak publicly on the impact of the ten year U.N Security Council embargo on the people of Iraq; Aicha El Channa from Morocco who for the past thirty five years has been central to the rights of the marginalised, the women, in her country is also the author of Miseria, a collection of testimonies and stories of suffering and pain of women and children that was awarded the Grand Atlas prize. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was a honorary member of the Jury, who was unable to come as she was under house arrest by the military regime in Burma; She sent a message to the World Court which was read by a refugee from Burma who gave her own testimony during the day.
The Court opened with the story of Unkulunkulu, the Sovereign One, told through the powerful Tswana Shamanic drum rhythms, sounds and words and was blessed by Andrea,
a woman praise singer from Khayelitsha.
The Court was also blessed by the presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who spoke evocatively and emotionally of the crucial role played by the women of South Africa in the anti-apartheid struggle and their marginalisation in the reconciliation and peace processes. He spoke also of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission responding to the feeling of many that women had not been given a space to speak their own issues and their own pains.
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge , Deputy Minister for Defence South Africa, officially opened the Court giving an overview of the major wars this century and speaking of the need to understand peace in terms of human security.
Corinne Kumar , the international coordinator of the World Court of Women, giving the deeper perspective for the Court said it speaks of a new generation of women’s human rights that challenges the dominant ways to knowledge. It seeks to do this through weaving together the objective reality (through analyses of the issues as presented through the roundtables and the expert witnesses) with the subjective testimonies of the women; the personal with the political; the logical through the lyrical (through the video testimonies, artistic images and poetry) moving the Court to connect the rational with the affective; the dancer with the dance; inviting us to search deeper layers of knowledge. The Court of Women she said, invites us to create a new political space, and in the process a new politics; a new political imaginary.
And this she stressed was important since we need to inspire an insurrection of subjugated knowledges; knowledges from the South; the South as history and also as mystery; the Court is a voice she said of the Global South that is a challenge to the dominant rights discourse that has failed to respond to the violence of our times.
The first session, Wars as Genocide heard powerful testimonies from women who have borne witness to the most grotesque faces of modern warfare. Lola Fedencia David, a comfort women survivor from the Philippines; Nusreta Sivac from Bosnia who survived one of the worst forms of violence against women in wars, rape as part of ethnic cleansing; Keifah Afifi, a political prisoner who spoke about the violent and dehumanising torture in an Israeli jail meted out to all who are fighting for the just cause of Palestine; Pham Thi Xuan from Vietnam whose husband, son and daughter are still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange used by the US in its chemical warfare against Vietnam ; Samira Al Bayyati from Iraq who testified to the horrifying effects of the inhuman economic blockade imposed by the UN Security Council and the transformation of Iraq into a site of arms testing by powers like Britain and U.S.A and their use of depleted uranium that has dramatically increased the incidents of cancer, sterility, kidney malfunction, blindness, etc.
Pun Srey Leak of Cambodia testified to the violence of land mines; Odette Mukansoro spoke of the genocide in Rwanda; Teruko Yokoyama a Hibakusha, a survivor of the Atomic bomb dropped by the U.S.A in 1945; Tay Tay, a refugee from Burma spoke on the impact of militarisation in her country where the regime has launched campaigns of forced relocation and ethnic cleansing and has unleashed terror against women through rape and sexual slavery; Almira Matayoshi to the Marshall Islands spoke as a survivor of the nuclear testing in the Pacific when the people were reduced to being guinea pigs in a deadly and deathly experiment launched by the US. This session was opened by testimonies from expert witnesses, Nelia Sancho from Philippines and Biljana Kasic from Croatia who through their analysis sketched the landscape of wars in this century and the specific ways in which women are affected.
The second session focused on Wars without Borders – Women testified here to the wars in times of peace. The invisible wars of poverty, wars of development, the wars against subsistence. Vandana Shiva in her expert witness gave an overview of the intellectual property rights regime in which the older forms of exploitation caused by the landlords are being replaced by the life lords who are seeking to patent all forms of indigenous lifeworlds and life visions. She spoke also of the new forms of poverty and exploitation being generated by the new world older. Ok Saval, a member of the sex workers union through her story spoke about the cycle of death, fear, violence and exploitation she was pushed into when in search of a job. She was trafficked with false promises into the city. She was desperately seeking to escape from poverty, violence and exploitation in her village. Christine, a victim of civil war in central Africa, was forced to flee her country with her children, leaving behind her husband who she learnt later was killed. When she came to South Africa as a refugee she was forced into prostitution by a man who deceived her and against who she could take no action since she was an illegal entrant. Even though she is dying of HIV she said painfully that she would like to do so honorably. Mayda Alvarez testified to the paralysing effects of the blockade imposed by the US on Cuba; Mariama Koroma from Sierra Leone whose entire family including her husband and children were killed by the Revolutionary United Front in 1997 had to relive the pain and horror of conflict once more in 1999 when she was threatened rape and shot at in her legs by the RUF due to which one of her legs had to be amputated. Nine years of war is enough for SierraLeone she cries – asking for total disarmament and reconciliation in her country. Nosesembile Fani testified to the extreme deprivation and poverty that is being perpetrated by government policies in South Africa; Om Ali Navisali, a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan, poignantly showed the audience the key of her home in Palestine, her country and her land that she dreams she will go back to and will belong to her people once again.
The third session focused on Wars against Civilizations in which women victims of institutionalized systems of violence like colonization, apartheid and the caste system testified to the wars against the Other . Vicky Corpuz from Philippines and Thenjiwe Mtinso from South Africa gave their Expert Witnesses statement that provided the context for the individual testimonies that followed. Albertina Sisulu, an inspiring figure in the struggle against apartheid spoke against one of the most legitimized system of racism evolved in recent times. Ruth Manorama and Jyothi Raj from India speaking on behalf of a dalit testifier who could not come to the Court gave a background to the issue of caste violence presented the story of Surya, a 10 year old dalit girl who was raped by an upper caste hindu who was not prosecuted due to his higher status in society. Maureen Wenzel, an aboriginal from Australia, through her story spoke of the stolen generation – a violent process through which an entire people were made to forget and forsake their past, their lyrics, their lore, their memories and their myths. Rosalinda Santiz Diaz from the Chiapas, Mexico where the indigenous people have been exploited and oppressed for the past 500 years spoke of the low-intensity warfare and proliferation of the military’s and para-military groups which has led to sexual violations, forced displacement, hunger and deaths.
Ayan Mahmoud from Somalia spoke of her experience of being a refugee in a European country. The testimony of Mejra Dautovic from Bosnia began with an appeal to the audience – when you listen to this, be strong as I have been. For as a mother, a wife and a woman, she has suffered all the horrors of the war – dislocation, fear and the loss of her loved ones – her daughter and her son. Despite these deep tragedies she continues to help other women during the war for as she concluded – you are greeted by Mother Mejra who has lost everything in her life but her pride and inspite of it all keeps on moving. Susanna Ounei from the New Caledonian in the Pacific spoke of the violence militarisation and colonisation of the Pacific by the French.
The fourth session focussed on the Wars Against Women in all cultures and communities. Amina Mama from South Africa who spoke as the expert witness gave a deeper insight into the increasing violence against women that is being generated from within the family and community. Women who spoke testified to the violence of reconstructed traditions in the era of modernity and brutalised patriarchies in the age of consumerised womanhood. Gangamma from India through sharing her pain over the loss of her daughter in a dowry murder indicated the denigration and destruction of women in the new marriage market. Ragia Omran from Egypt presented the stories of two young girls, Amina and Nora, who died because their bodies were mutilated by the act of female genital mutilation. Mercy Senahe of Ghana through her painful story made the audience aware of a little known practice called Trokosi in which young virgin girls are forced into servitude of priests in religion shrines to atone for the alleged crimes of the men in their families.
Nooria Shafiq from Afghanistan in her testimony spoke of the violence that is consuming her people and has killed her husband and other members of her family who were resisting the Taliban, the forces of fundamentalism. Esther Rasesemola from South Africa through sharing her painful experience spoke about the horrifying practice of witch hunting and witch killing.
Session five, the Gathering of Spirit, turned the Court to hear the testimonies of resistance from women who have been central to many significant movements for peace and justice. Cheri Honkala from the Kensington Welfare Association spoke of the Movement for the Homeless in the U.S.A. She spoke of the poverty and destitution in America that hides its own infirmities; she spoke also of how the great American dream has turned into a nightmare as our country finances the killing of those around the world.
Gila Svirsky and Nabeha Morkus from the Women in Black Movement for Peace in their joint presentation testified to the strength of women who can cross the line drawn by nation state borders. Tatyana Klochko from Ukraine spoke of the Flowers of Wormwood created by the first ten parents of child invalids of Chernobyl, providing legal and social protection of these families.
Therese Ndoli from the Widows of Rwanda spoke of the response to the genocide in Rwanda through the setting of the Gacaca, a more rooted judicial system that speaks of justice without revenge. Souad Abou Dayya from Palestine spoke of the Intifada and the resistance of the Palestinian women to Israel’s war against Palestine ; while Thandi Modise spoke of the history of the resistance to apartheid, and women’s role in the dismantling of the system.
In the final session all members of the Jury spoke of being touched deeply by the testimonies of the women. “Peace in the image of women is what we want,” said Zanele Mbeki. Women should take the leadership roles to transform institutions. “We should perhaps do a Court of Women on dreams and other visions,” she said.
Vjosa Dobruna in her response spoke about her own experience of living as a refugee, of her experience of war and violence but one who never lost hope. She expressed that what touched her most about the tribunal was that “as long as women have a voice and the hope that was expressed during that day, there is a chance.”
Aicha Chenna taking hope from the testimony of Gila Svirsky and Nabeha Markus who spoke together said she would take back to her country the testimony of courage the Court repeatedly echoed. The greatest challenge she said was to question and analyse the origins of the arms trade – arms that are being sold only to improve the economies of the North.
Mililani Trask thanking the women who came from different corners of the world to bring testimonies of violence into the light of day said we should reject the male paradigm of violence and militarization; decolonize our hearts; return to the vision of our grandmothers and walk the path of our cultures. For this is the only way she said, we can greet the coming millennium.
Majid Rahnema thanking the women for the insights into their riches and strengths said that each testimony gave him new reason not to let the logic of the market, of profit and globalization further colonize our new imaginary. A radical new way of looking at others and of ourselves, a basic change of an ethical an aesthetic nature, he said is necessary to rediscover and regain all the potentials of our humanity. Dwelling on the modernized notion of poverty that is at the center of the development paradigm today, he said that the biggest illusion is that we need productive economies to get rid of poverty. For if that were so, he asked then why would USA, the worlds’ most powerful economy has the so many poor as Cheri Honkala stated so clearly. We need to recover he said, some simple frugal forms of convivial living that provided most human societies the means to avoid destitution and misery and which are today categorized as poverty.
Talking of power he said that more, ever extending spaces of freedom are needed for new kinds of power to be exercised by those who want to change the very nature of power. This was the message he said he received from the majority of the martyrs/witness who shared with us their pains and frustrations for the overall process of a globalized and competitive market is not only to economize human life but also masculinise all forms of power.
Responding to the many tragedies that were heard during the day, Dennis Halliday focused specifically on the use of chemical weapons whose use he said must be deplored. Good women, he said must step in where men have failed and demand an end to the sale of such weapons and conventional arms as also weapons of mass destruction. Women sould no more be accepted, he said accept a UN that neglects the killing of Palestinians in their own country; the killing of thousand of Iraqi children every month; the genocide of indigenous people and ethnic cleansing around the world. The world, he said, requires that we convert national and international institutions into places of caring, understanding and prioritized focus. Women, may be able to forgive many of the crimes committed against them but “you must not,” he said, “forget the pain”. Quoting Thenjiwe Mtintso of South Africa he said “let us take strength from the testimonies we have heard, not only sadness.”
Saluting the women who suffer and survive, Fatima Meer addressed herself to the two words that kept recurring through the day – colonisation and globalisation – both products of capitalism she said that wants to consume all our countries, that wants to design, and mark our boundaries. Capitalism concentrates on making bigger arms so that smaller countries can destroy each other. What can we do she asked with the millions of words we heard today. “What we can guarantee is that we will not forget these words”.
And so we carried back with us at the end of the day deep sadness but also a greater strength for as Mejra said, “when you listen to my story, be also as strong as I have been”.
It was a cry of sadness; but it was also a call of strength.
And in this collective strength we will find the hope to
make violence against women and the violence of all wars, unthinkable .
This hope and vision was sought to be given a more defined shape through the formation of the World Women’s Commission on Human Rights – a process that was initiated on March 9, following the World Court of Women. The setting up of this Commission will mark the culmination of one phase of the Courts of Women that was initiated by the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council ten years ago in Asia. Over these ten years many regional focal points have emerged in the Arab World, Africa, Pacific, Caribbean and Central America and the Balkans. Representatives from these focal points came together as the International Coordination Committee to organise the World Court. The World Commission will seek to extend these regional initiatives at an international level in an attempt to deepen and transform the dominant human rightsdiscourse.
The discussions on the World Commission on Human Rights evolved around the relevance, scope and vision of such an international body that is proposed to be set up later this year. While many issues emerged, the central concern remained that of creating a political spacefor women to redefine politics – from the healing of local communities to proffering a more caring, compassionate involvement in peace processes in the international arena – an involvement that seeks to weave truth with reconciliation and justice.
Even as the World Commission slowly gets crystallized through the voices and wisdoms that have emerged from the Courts of Women, the relevance of the Court itself has not ceased. Many regional organisations have taken the initiative to organise courts on issues specific to their region. Among those proposed, include a Court of Women in the Balkans and in South Africa. Apart from these, two other Courts are already in the process of being organised. These include the World Court of Women on Racism to be organised during the UN World Conference on Racism to be held in August in Durban and the Court on Economic Blockade in Cuba to be held in the end of the year 2001.
The Courts of Women therefore that began in 1992, have over the years, become more than a reality. Through offering us other ways to know, inviting us to seek deeper layers of knowledge, they have slowly begun define a new space for women, a new politics.
International Co-ordinating Committee
March 25, 2001
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