GENEVA With laughter and tears, speeches and song, more than 500 women
from around the world gathered here yesterday for opening ceremonies of the three-day
Global Peace Initiative.
In what's being hailed as a historic event, leading female figures in religion,
business and politics have come together with a goal of creating specific peace-building
activities in regions of conflict.
"The glass ceiling doesn't apply to spirituality," said Dena Merriam, convener
of the initiative. "Women can have a great impact in reducing tensions around
the world. Women have been silent for too long, and now we are preparing a united
call for peace."
All the major faith traditions are represented at the conference, including
Bahaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto and
Speakers repeatedly stressed that not only do women have the potential to
serve a mediating role in future wars, but that they must do so because armed
conflicts affect them the most.
"War is a gendered activity," said Noeleen Heyser, executive director of the
United Nations Development Fund for Women. "Those who make the decision to go
to war are overwhelmingly male, yet the nature of war has changed. Now fewer soldiers
get killed, but there are higher casualties among women and children."
As a result of war, Heyser said, women are targeted for rape, sexual torture
and even infection by HIV, as a way to destroy their community's social fabric.
Another common thread among the presentations was an insistence that women
are uniquely suited for peacemaking due to their experiences in child-rearing.
"Women teach their children not to fight and keep peace within the family,"
said Sobonfu Some, a spiritual leader from Burkina Faso. "Now women must assume
this same role toward the world, and remind nations not to fight."
Doing so involves a delicate balance.
"It's not necessary that all women become Iron Maidens. We should not confuse
empowering with overpowering," said Alice Shalvi of the Schechter Institute of
Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Shalvi said the most practical way of bringing about peace was for women to
exercise their political rights. "In Hebrew, the word for 'voice' is the same
as that for 'vote,' " she said.
Joan Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches,
said "people have hardened their hearts. But war does not take courage, peace
does. So, we hereby put on notice all those who put us at risk of war. We will
not go quietly into that dark night."
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company