By Jean Martensen (*)

This feature will be available in French, German and Spanish translations next week.

Ce document sera disponible en français la semaine prochaine.

Dieses Dokument wird nächste Woche auf Deutsch verfügbar sein.

Esa crónica será disponible la semana proxima en español.

“Women are either victims of civil strife or beneficiaries of humanitarian efforts, but they are not full partners or equal participants” in the peace process, proclaims Sarah Shteir of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Shteir was one of several panelists at an ecumenical women’s gathering convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA and a national women’s peace organization called PEACE X PEACE.

Shteir, along with some thirty female leaders from eight Christian denominations in the US, came to the Episcopal Church Center in New York to observe this year’s International Women’s Day in a unique way. With their thoughts on the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence and its 2004 US focus theme on the Power and Promise of Peace,they came to ask one question: Where are women in the peace process?

During their two-day consultation, taking place just across the street from the United Nations building where the Commission on the Status of Women was meeting, they discussed women’s roles in organizational and grassroots peace efforts.

Kofi Annan’s call goes unheard

The voice of women in the international peace process is not new. Day one of this women’s consultation concentrated heavily on UN work around this issue, specifically UN Resolution 1325 focusing on the improvement of the status of women in the UN Secretariat. Sarah Douglas of the United Nations Development Fund for Women provided the background for this remarkable “watershed” resolution, passed in October 2000.

The resolution, coming just before the UN Decade for Peace began in 2001, “urges Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels” with regard to the peace process, and requested that the secretary-general provide UN member states with “training guidelines and materials on the protection, rights and the particular needs of women”.

However, despite Kofi Annan’s strong support for this resolution, nations continue to act as though women were invisible. Of the 264 reports submitted to the UN Security Council from the secretary general, only 17.8% made multiple references to gender, 15.2% made minimal reference and 67% had no reference or only one reference to gender issues.

Part of the problem is that “there are no timetables and target dates explicitly articulated in UN Resolution 1325 that make the UN actors and UN member states accountable,” concluded Shteir. “UN Resolution 1325 doesn’t exist for most UN agencies. It is not integrated into their mandates or their daily work.”

Some women may argue that it doesn’t have to be. As the global constituency of knowledgeable women is growing, they are increasingly taking it upon themselves to use this legislation to ensure their right to participation.

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo used UN 1325 to support skills training and capacity-building in preparation for and during the peace negotiations held in Sun City, South Africa in 2002. They are not an isolated case; thanks to the tenacity of Somali women in promoting the resolution, they have taken part in their nation’s peace talks and peace-building efforts in the post-conflict period.

In the US, congresswoman Bernice Johnson has introduced a congressional resolution to build support for UN Resolution 1325 at the federal level. This effort is heartening at a time when the US delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN appears to be regressing.

But who will take care of the cats?

However, these women are few and far between. Monica Willard of the UN International Day of Peace – a day that is increasingly observed around the world – spoke of the need to further engage women in the peace process. It is one thing to petition the government to support resolutions that help empower women, but it is another issue entirely for women to empower themselves – a realization that hit Judith Kelly hard in November 2003.

Judith is a Roman Catholic woman who came to the decision to participate in civil disobedience through daily prayer, careful thinking and a very supportive community. This decision, though carefully made, was not so easy to carry out.

Just the day before taking part in an annual protest gathering at the School of the Americas, a combat training school in Georgia, she found herself thinking: “I might get sick… It may be raining too hard…Who will take care of the cats?” She did go in the end, but only after securing a faithful cat-sitter – a prudent move considering she was later found guilty of trespassing during the protest and sentenced to three months in a federal prison. An experience that has perhaps left a bigger mark than the protest itself.

While in prison, Judith’s strong commitment to non-violence was repeatedly tested through humiliating rituals designed to differentiate those with power from those without. Refusing to return the contempt of the guards with hostility, she found peaceful ways to assert her integrity, alter relationships and enable a community of “prisoners of conscience” to grow.

In a country with a growing prison population and tendencies towards violence both inside and outside the prison gates, helping women to find integrity is a necessary step in transforming the power of violence into the power of peace.

The torch has been passed

Both speakers and participants of this consultation were clear about the need for women to speak up and to make full use of the legal instruments now available. Some thirty UN participants, coming from Sweden, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Bosnia, among other countries, came into the consultation during session breaks from the UN commission, stressing how important it is that American women participate in the worldwide struggle to overcome violence with nonviolence. Though engaging women in the peace process remains a major challenge, it is clear that the torch is continuously being passed.

The conference drew to a close with a list of possible actions women might take in the quest to overcome violence from a women’s perspective. Enthusiasm for collecting stories of women’s non-violent witness was apparent, and these stories and others will be shared through the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence. Together, those assembled were able to see new ways to help shape a more just world, trusting, as they do, in God’s enduring power – the power and promise of peace.

Jean Martensen is co-chair of the WCC US Decade to Overcome Violence committee.

UN Resolution 1325:

For questions regarding translations of Resolution 1325, please contact Sarah Shteir.

WCC Decade to Overcome Violence:

National Council of Churches:


International Day of Peace:

For more information about the “prisoners of conscience”: