NGO Forum overcomes crises to become a global celebration of peace

HUAIROU, China -- As portrayed by the world's mainstream news media, the NGO Forum for Women '95 was dominated by conflicts and crises. From misunderstandings over security arrangements to rainy weather, the problems that beset the world's largest ever meeting of women made good copy for journalists accustomed to covering contention and catastrophes.

But for the majority of the Forum's 30,000 participants, the 10 days spent in this working-class resort town some 50 kilometers north of Beijing were something quite different. From the perspective of the grassroots women who traveled here from virtually every country, the Forum was a celebration of the great and largely untapped potential for peace that the full empowerment of women might bring.

It was an instant community, a place where friendships, new and old, were forged and reaffirmed. It was, as one participant put it, an emergent university, where some 5,000 workshops, seminars and activities revealed the vast special concerns and knowledge held by the world's women. And it was also a place where formidable difficulties over weather, transportation and politics were, in the end, largely overcome.

"The NGO Forum marks a turning point in the women's movement, uniting women from all walks of life," said Supatra Masdit, convenor of the Forum, in a final press conference. While acknowledging that there were "incidents and differences of opinion" at the Forum, she added: "Peace and friendships have become the mainstream -- and this is the real Forum."

Such an assessment was shared by many. "It's been very good," said Rukmini Rao, director of the Deccan Development Society in South India, describing the instant bonds of friendship and community forged by the common purpose of advancing the cause of women.

"When you see that women from so many different countries have the same points of view, the same problems and concerns, it affirms what you are feeling and that what you are fighting for is right," said Ms. Rao. "We are all learning from each other's efforts. I work in a small city and it breaks the isolation when you see so many others trying to change the world."

Issues the focus

Held in parallel with the Fourth World Conference on Women (see "Beijing Conference approves 'An Agenda for Women's Empowerment'"), the Forum marked the culmination of a two-year process of regional forums for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which aimed at developing recommendations for presentation to governments on how best to advance the cause of women worldwide.

In this context, the focus of the Forum was the issues that were discussed in the more than 5,000 plenary discussions, workshops, and cultural events -- most of which were organized by grassroots groups from around the world. Activities centered around 13 major themes: economy, governance and politics, human rights, peace and human security, education, health, environment, spirituality and religion, science and technology, media, arts and culture, race and ethnicity, and youth.

"It has been like an international university," said Maria Elena Del Valle of the New York-based Family Learning Center. " Now I know what it is like to go to school with the whole world."

Almost uniformly well-attended, the plenaries, workshops and seminars explored the serious problems that women face worldwide, from concerns over workplace discrimination to the way in which the burden of poverty worldwide falls vastly on women and girls.

"It is not acceptable for women to constitute 70 per cent of the world's 1.3 billion absolutely poor," said Noeleen Heyzer, the director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), in a talk at the Forum. "Nor is it acceptable for women to work two-thirds of the world's working hours, but earn only one-tenth of the world's income and own less than one-tenth of the world's property. Many fundamental changes must be made."

Empowerment and Peace

The meetings also explored solutions, and especially alternative solutions, which might arise if women were given more power to act in the world's political arena. Indeed, the need to empower women and bring them into the inner circles of decision-making at all levels was a key point of many of the Forum's discussions.

"To the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women . . . The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just nad peaceful life for all."

-- Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi

"To the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women," said Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in the Forum's opening address. "But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."

In a workshop sponsored by the International Peace Research Association and the Bahá'í International Community, new models for solving conflicts were explored. Dr. Betty A. Reardon, director of the Peace Education Program at Columbia University, New York, and Dr. Hoda Mahmoudi, a peace researcher at California Lutheran University, said old paradigms that use force to solve conflicts must give way to new understandings that focus on common needs and values.

Dr. Reardon said the old paradigm is built on two ideas, now made false by the world's increasing interdependence: first, that it is possible to be separate, whether in terms of political parties, ethnic groups, or nations, and still remain "viable;" and, second, that "there really is not enough in the world -- whether power or resources" -- and so force must be used to keep it.

The experience of women, however, has been that the security systems intended to preserve such separations are in fact sources of insecurity, said Dr. Reardon. By focusing on consensus and cooperation instead of conflict, it will be possible to create sustainable development and a "culture of peace" which can provide for all without the necessity of resorting to force.

Dr. Mahmoudi suggested that consultation, a specific method of non-adversarial decision-making used by Bahá'í communities worldwide, offers a distinctive model for achieving consensus and cooperation.

Consultation relies on a step-by-step process of fact-finding, identifying common principles, open discussion, and finally a pooling of ideas, all with the aim of reaching a consensus position, said Dr. Mahmoudi. She suggested the key to peace lies in building community from the grassroots level, rather than in imposing it from above. "You can start tomorrow using this process in your workplace," she said.