What women want: Women and peace building
by Catherine DOYLE for Northern Ireland Foundation
20 March 2014
For an event that tackles gender inequality, the setting of the podium on a replica of the Titanic stairway at Titanic Belfast was appropriate, as the audience couldn’t help but think — how much has changed since 1912? Organised by the Women’s Resource & Development Agency (WRDA), there were nine expert speakers, including Baroness May Blood.
Professor Monica McWilliams (Department of Social Policy at the University of Ulster) opened the conference and set the overall objective of the event: “What women achieve here is to have a say in their future.” Prof McWilliams plans on doing this with the application of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.
The UN resolution asserts that women should play an important role in peace building in post-conflict reconstruction. Professor McWilliams complained that this resolution was introduced two years after the Good Friday Agreement, but has yet to be implemented in Northern Ireland. Prof McWilliams also denounced the Northern Ireland Assembly for having so few female politicians.
The Dail Eireann has the lowest number of women, and the NI Assembly is second worst with only 20 out of 108 MLAs being female.
Kathryrn Stone (Commissioner, Commission for Victims and Survivors) addressed the issued of the legacy of the past. She proclaimed: “The past is your present. The past is something you deal with every day.” As a Commissioner she deals with victims of the Troubles. She discussed bereavement due to conflict, pointing out that this is the reality for so many women in Northern Ireland who are haunted by loss. She used an example of a parent constantly reminded of a deceased child through witnessing other children cry, and remarkably in the audience a baby cried, heightening her point. Talking about a ‘hierarchy of pain’, she stated: “In Northern Ireland many things are contested; being a victim is one of them.”
Commissioner Stone was able to show the unique perspective women can have in conflict. She quoted Sir Kenneth Bloomfield: “It has been the task of women to bury the dead and care for the living. Mothers have been left to mourn their sons and young widows to grieve for their husbands. I want to pay a heartfelt tribute today to the remarkable way in which the women of Northern Ireland have borne these terrible burdens.” This backed up her point that women are crucial in decision making in a post-conflict world.
The Victim’s Commissioner finished by revealing the frightening prospect of inaction by quoting Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
The next speaker, Bronagh Hinds, pointed out how “52% of the population in Northern Ireland are women. Women are the largest group discriminated against in Northern Ireland.”
Ms Hinds showed the absurdity of just improving political relations, while not moving forward on gender issues. Criticising the government with Orwellian comparisons, she said: “It’s not ok for that type of double think to go on.”
This was followed by four keynote panellists: Diane Dodds (MEP), Liz McManus (Chair of Committee for Implementation of Ireland’s National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325), Stella Burnside (Equality Commission) and Irene Miskimmons (NIWEP).
Diane Dodds (MEP) urged women to “pick up the gauntlet” and get involved in politics. She said: “Northern Ireland is moving forward. Women are an integral part of that moving forward.”
Ms Dodds talked about the European Parliament as having a healthy balance of genders; 37% are female. However, she went on to reveal a disparity in the number of female decision makers, as the leaders of the parties are mainly men. “We don’t just want women there to vote; we want women in important roles.”
During questions, Ms Dodds was the only panel speaker to be completely against using quotas to bring women into politics.
Liz McManus showed the disparity between the North and South in regards to the UN resolution. Ireland already has a National Action Plan to implement UNSCR 1325. Describing it as “the elephant in the room”, she questioned: “Why is there an action plan in the UK? Why is there an action plan in the Republic? Why not Northern Ireland?”
There is an All Party Group on UNSCR 1325 in the NI Assembly, but work is still needed to actually implement the resolution.
Irene Miskimmons described 1325 in Northern Ireland as “a virtual reality system”, because no actual strategies exist to bring it to fruition. Ms McManus claimed that without this resolution “we are in a vacuum”.
Stella Burnside stressed the need for everybody to work together. She said: “I feel as a woman that everyone must play their part for fairness and equality.” Ms Burnside pointed out that there are “multiple layers of discrimination.” There’s inequality against women, but it can be manifold if the woman has a disability; then she can get discriminated against twofold.
Baroness May Blood stood out for her sharp and blunt discourse. She was able to take a seemingly feminist quotation and demand more from women. She stated: “Behind every great man there’s a woman standing behind him. I don’t know about that. I’m not standing behind anybody.” The Baroness is a member of the House of Lords. She admitted that her first year in Westminster was lonely, but she persevered, recalling her goal: “I want to make this work for me, and the people of Northern Ireland.”
The Baroness also criticized benign stereotypes, by saying: “Do women make better leaders? No! They make equal leaders to men.”
Dr Avila Kilmurray (Director, Community Foundation NI) closed the conference. She pointed out: “Gender is no longer seen as a matter of urgency. It’s a matter of trying to put gender back into the equation.” The plans are to produce a toolkit by May, which will develop approaches on how women can get involved in peace building.
The Director finished with a quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Women are like teabags — put them in boiling water and you realise how strong they are.”