Sister Watch: Halifax 1985

By Shirley Farlinger

For most negotiators, 1984 was not a great year. The (all male) arms control talks had been suspended; cruise missiles were being deployed; and the Trident submarine (equal to eight World War II's) was launched. Over $800 billion was spent on arms, while 65,000 children died each day. "Negotiating from Strength," men called it.

Yet at the same time women were succeeding in many of their negotiations. Maternity leave was grudgingly accepted by business; politicians were considering equal pay for work of equal value; por-nography was no longer a dirty joke. "Take Back the Night" marches were reclaiming the streets and women were negotiating their way into jobs of their own choosing. All these changes had been accomplished peacefully.

Could women's skills be applied to disarmament? Why not? Several longtime members of the Canadian peace organi-zation, Voice of Women, decided to organize a conference with that in mind.

The international invitees were largely chosen on the basis of their experience in conflict resolutions. Some of them had organized unions, others had worked to cool ethnic conflicts, and others researched or taught peace. Early in the planning process it was decided that, if we were to demonstrate that ideas and decisions can flow best from a non-hierarchical structure, men would have to be excluded, except for one "public" night. Men tend to take over peace conferences, feminists pointed out.

Moreover, it was decided that Cana-dian delegates be chosen to include native people, minorities, a range of incomes and backgrounds, all women's groups, and all provinces. Global women's groups could also be represented-especially those often excluded by economic necessity. While valuing "big names" we also wanted to expand the skills of all women -- from teens to great-grandmothers -- in dealing with the conflicts in their own domains (even such matters as who takes out the garbage).

Our fifty guests from around the world would be invited to participate in panels, workshops, and plenary sessions. We would provide simultaneous translations and daily worship services in all the major faiths.

Mini-conferences were held throughout the country, generating ideas on alter-native negotiating that were sent to Halifax. Newsletters were produced, along with resource kits, T-shirts and pins r proclaiming "Women Deliver."

Finally, on June 3, the chosen started to arrive: In all, 48 guests arrived from 33 countries for five days and nights. At the opening, however, the delegates from the Soviet Union and the German Democ-ratic Republic were missing. They had been delayed several days by the same Department of External Affairs that was our funder.

Each day a panel was to introduce a special question and then the entire group would divide into 24 recorded workshops to discuss the question further. The same people would meet for the three days to develop friendship and then choose a "Voceras" ("women speaking") to voice their collective mind on the final negotiat-ing day. The first day's question was:

"What Does Security Mean to Women?" As soon as the discussion began, it became clear that the conference would not follow the expected agenda. The arms control negotiations in Geneva were too remote from the crushing daily problems of most Third World women. Perhaps we had been naive in expecting them to put aside their own pressing concerns to talk of global peace. As had been the case last year in Vancouver at the World Council of Churches Conference, we were immediately reminded that peace cannot be pursued separately from justice. Their message was clear: "You cannot merely work for peace while our people are starving."

Thus, for our Tanzanian delegate, security was defined as a fair world trade system where poor countries are paid reasonable prices for their products. For Bolivia, security meant "safe working conditions for men and women, and reasonable salaries so families can buy healthy food."

In their brief to the conference, the women of Nicaragua had defined security in strong words. "For us the term does not represent different alternatives for men and women," they wrote. "We will head toward the sun of liberty or toward death because we refuse to accept a cowardly peace or a false security. Des-pite the continued aggression against our country, we Nicaraguans insist on dialogue and negotiation as a means of resolving difficulties." The recurring theme was the global struggle for food, freedom, and an end to militarism. Yet these were clearly not items on the table in Geneva where the talk was only about the armament numbers game.

When the dialogue began between the women from the North and the South, not everyone recognized how our respective concerns were related. Hunger and political oppression occupied such a central place in the work of the Southern women that our own worries about the nuclear arms race seemed remote and abstract to them. Very soon, however, we both began to see the links between our respective problems, and to recognize

that whether we are struggling primarily against militarism or against poverty or against the degradation of the en-vironment, we are working one the same global problem. Discovering the comple-mentarity of our work was moving, heart-warming.

Thursday's question was, "How Does the Arms Race Affect Women?" A sari-clad woman whose name must be withheld described the effects of the power struggle on her war-torn country, Sri Lanka. Two-thirds of her people live below the poverty line; martial law is enforced; and any talk of peace is con-sidered communist-inspired. No contact is allowed between the Tamils in the North and the rest of the population.

A racist propaganda campaign fuels the fires of violence which the women of the North and South are trying to counteract in the schools, she says.

For Guatemala, the statistics tell the story. There are 35,000 "disappeared," 45,000 refugees in Mexico; 100,000 orphans, and unemployment stands at 52 percent.

Two speakers reminded us of the militarization of the South Pacific. "Since 1966, over 100 undersea nuclear explosions have taken place in French Polynesia by the French military," said Tetua Doom of Tahiti.

The arms race also causes hunger, Agnes Aidoo of Ethiopia reminded us. Besides the drought the five mul-tinationals controlling' wheat have de-cided that Africa wil not eat, she claims. Added to that are the politics in which the people of the country play no part. "It is on the borders of South Africa that the superpowers meet," she said. " Both want bases and ports, so Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia are crucial to them."

Vye Bouvier, a Metis writer from Ile a la Crosse, Saskatchewan, described the effects of the arms race in her area. The Cold Lake Weapons Range, three million acres, was taken from the native people by fraud, she claimed. The houses of Cole Bay shake as the NATO jet pilots practice shooting wooden tanks and dro~ ping explosives. The area is sprayed with poisonous defoliants and her village must test the drinking water this summer to determine if it is safe. "The new Cigar Lake mine is so dangerous it will pr~ bably have to be mined by robots. A fake health inquiry is used repeatedly to gain public approval for new uranium mines," she said. Before the conference ended, several concerned Canadians had offered to help her.

The last of the prearranged questions, "What's wrong with the present negotiations?" hardly needed to be asked. Geneva seldom became part of the discussion.

On Friday evening hundreds from Halifax (including men) joined in for the film, "Speaking our Peace." The stars of the show, Ursula Franklin, Rosalie Ber-tell, Muriel Duckworth, Marion Dewar, Kathleen Wallace-Deering, and two of the creators, Bonnie Klein and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, were there to respond to our questions and bask in our applause. Friday ended in a singing, swaying circle across the stage and around the seats. How far could you get from Geneva?

For many, the high points of the conference were the workshops. In one such gathering Kim Besley presented the latest news on Greenham Common. On one side of the fence are British soldiers backed by Americans. On the other are women of all ages. Only the Americans, with their wives and children, will be allowed in the bunkers in a crisis. Out-side, the women have no protection from the weather and are moved several times a day. Yet, even without leaders or struc-ture they can organize women around all 120 bases. Sometimes they crawl through the fence and stroll down the runway, stopping for tea at the mess before they are arrested. Kim is one of 420 out on bail now. She tells the story of the American soldier who decided to visit their fire for a talk. He was sent back to the U.S., court-martialled, and convicted of "fraternizing with the enemy." She warns that what happens there can happen in Canada.

On September 2-13 the biggest civil defence exercise since World War II will be held in England. It is called "Brave Defender" by the military, "Grave Offender" by the women. It coincides with the fourth birthday of Greenham Common and the women have decided to "blanket the base" with blankets that have eyes embroidered on and the words "Mother is watching." Blankets can be sent to "Blanket the Base," 11 Broadway House, Jackman St., London E8, U.K.

On Saturday, most of the delegates were entertained by a concert featuring wonderful peace songs by Salome Bey, Joella Foulds, Rita McNeil and a group called Four The Moment.

Sunday began with worship-an inter-faith matriarchal ceremony, lit with can-dles from all the workshop sessions. Doris Dyke, Emmanuel College pro-fessor from Toronto, gave the address, "Like a Mother I will Comfort You." Each woman placed a leaf or petal in a basin of water as they blessed or hugged the others. The music was perfect-"Let There Be Peace On Earth and Let it Begin With Me."

But not everything in the conference had been perfect. It was ignored by the CBC and the Halifax media. It had too many Canadians and some of them had exhibited signs of racism. There should have been more preparation. Had the objectives of the conference been met or had the program, as Dorothy Rosenberg noted, "taken on a life of its own?" Ann Gertler, longtime liaison for Canada with the U.N., said there was too much process. "We're not here for group therapy. We must assume people can deal with their own feelings." Perhaps Gertler doesn't need the group togetherness scene, but many delegates welcomed it. Still, there were more complaints on the final day.

As the work of approving the Affirmations proceeded, the threads of the conference began to unwind Delegates had to catch planes. Consensus was slipping. Opinions were especially divided on wordings of Affirmations about the Middle East.

The Russian delegate, from the Canada-US Institute, spoke for ten minutes. Natalya Dolgopolova, young, blonde, and fashionably dressed, made no political mistakes. She emphasized the dire effects of nuclear war, and the way the memory of 20 million deaths in World War II has affected every Soviet family. She did not apologize for Afghanistan nor criticize the United States. Only Canada's own Communist, Nan McDonald, had extolled the virtures of Russian society.

Women were still lined up to speak as it was reluctantly decided that the "conference to end all conferences" had ended.

But it will never really end. Margaret Fulton, President of Mount St.Vincent University, promised to carry the Statement to the Nairobi Conference, where 15,000 women mak the end of the Decade for Women. The 48 delegates from other coutnries returned home knowing that we recognize that their social ills need our help to be corrected. We had pledged their safe return, only to realize that there can be no guarantee. A list was sent to Amnesty International as an attempt at Sister Watch. Follow-up gatherings are plan-ned throughout Canada as well, so that we can carry forward the work that began in Halifax and continue supporting each other here and maintaining our network around the world.

The power of our purses will be recognized by girlcotting (supporting) countries like New Zealand and boycotting South African goods. Some of the affirmations demonstrated our hope~ that the Canadian government will reject Star Wars, continue to help Nicaragua, sup-port peace initiatives like Contadora, declare Canada a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, fund the conversion of industries from military to civilian production, reform the U.N., legalize the Peace Tax Fund of Conscience Canada, and halt uranium mining.

We 'demanded a new model of negotiation that does not threaten the sur-vival of the planet or its peoples, based on the recognition of global resources and human needs."

As Dr. Ursula Franklin said, "peace is neither painless, nor is it cheap, nor is it fast." The conference had its pain, its cost. and not nearly enough time. But it was a start.

Our continuing address is Voice of Women, P.O. Box 3231 South, Halifax, N.S. B3J 3H5.

Peace Magazine August 1985

Peace Magazine August 1985, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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