A Conversation with Sue Finch of Women in Black London (2)

Posts Sue Finch International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

  • Created at2023.09.18
  • Updated at2023.10.04

“Until we find each other, we are alone.” - Adrienne Rich

Reflecting on the significance of women’s solidarity, the 2023 webzine Kyeol has curated a special feature with the aim of introducing international networks that focus on addressing wartime sexual violence and advocating for women’s human rights. Women in Black, a global network for the women’s peace movement, originated in Jerusalem in 1988 when a group of women dressed in black staged a silent demonstration to protest the 25th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Recognizing the diverse experiences of war, militarism, and violence that women face in different regions and circumstances, Women in Black perceive themselves as a platform for communication and a catalyst for action, resisting being a rigid organization. In this feature, we will delve into the written interviews conducted by the International Law and “Comfort Women” Seminar team at Seoul with Women in Black members based in London and Belgrade.


A Conversation with Sue Finch of
Women in Black London Part 2


International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

While browsing Cynthia Cockburn's website, we noticed that in December 2004, an internal debate had taken place online over the participation of men in the Women in Black protests. And we know that currently biological men are also participating and working in Women in Black. Now we wonder what kind of process and discussion went through until the Women in Black activity reached its present state. Through the process that Women in Black went through to reach the aforementioned results, we may be able to get some sort of hint about the gender conflict that Korea is facing now. Thus, it would be appreciated if you could tell us in detail, if possible, about the concerns and practices within Women in Black up until today in relation to gender issues.

Sue Finch

Women in Black activists are motivated and informed by theories about the relationship between gender and violence, in peace and war.

Violence, militarism and war are gendered phenomena, and peace activism, to be effective, must likewise be gender analytical and gender aware.

We are a network that campaigns against the continuum of violence stretching in both directions from rape and violence against individual women, to rape and violence in war. Different groups focus on different parts of that continuum depending on their local situations. Some Women in Black groups include men, in Belgrade and Israel women worked closely with male Conscientious Objectors to war, for example, in India trans men are welcome in Women in Black, and men are part of Women in Black in Armenia. Some Women in Black groups are women only.

Women who want to actively engage in opposition to militarism and war often choose to organise separately as women. Why …?[1]

She concluded:

Antimilitarist and anti-war feminism is by definition multi-dimensional, taking as its scope not just “body politics” but a far wider range of concerns. For a start, it cannot fail to have a critique of capitalism, and new forms of imperialism and colonization, class exploitation and the thrust for global markets, since these are visibly implicated among the causes and motors of militarism and war. Next, since many wars involve intra-state and inter-state nationalisms, this feminism also has that cluster race/culture/religion/ethnicity in view. In these two significant relational fields of class and race, this feminism perceives the working of gender relations and is alert to how they intersect. . .

This feminism defends international human rights and women’s rights, negated in war, and the development of international justice. It has a sense of women’s marginalization and under-representation in political systems, as we see from women activists’ efforts at the UN. Clearly, then, this is a holistic feminism.[2]

Feminist theory has informed Women in Black UK vigils calling for the scrapping of our nuclear weapons, and to use the billions saved for our real security needs, including health, education, poverty reduction, and tackling climate change.

In trying to persuade the public that peace is “more than a mere cessation of hostilities”, we have reframed “security”, informed by definitions formulated by women and men in the global south.

The military definition of security is replaced by a broader, humanitarian and feminist definition which conceives of security in terms of access to and enjoyment of basic human rights.

Women in Black London try to present this alternative to military security, which focuses, for example, on the rights of access to food and water, to shelter, to education, to healthcare, to employment and the right to live without violence. This rethinking has informed the writing of leaflets in support of refugee, displaced and migrant women. Rather than present women as victims, texts foreground the agency of women and girls, for example in peace processes, working for the rights of survivors of conflict-related violence, or in opposition to the UK’s arms sale to Saudi Arabia, by describing the impact of these weapons on women in Yemen, and initiatives taken by those women.

Perhaps the most problematic vigils have been those addressing the 16 days of action between International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (26 November) and Human Rights Day (10 December), focussing on the elimination of violence against women. London Women in Black has faced differences of opinion on how to address domestic or intimate partner violence, with no agreement as to how useful it is to explicitly call out “male violence”. This difference is not about whether it is or is not male violence (it is), but whether the language pulls or pushes the audience. 

There is, however, general agreement with Cynthia Cockburn that there is a continuum between violence against women in the home, and war violence:

When we’re looking for the links between war violence and violence against women in peace time, I think we need to look for causality, influence, flowing in both directions. Put briefly, violence in our everyday cultures, deeply gendered, predisposes societies to accept war as normal. And the violence of militarisation and war, profoundly gendered, spills back into everyday life and increases the quotient of violence in it.[3]

 International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

How do the international norms related to women's rights set by the United Nations and many other international organizations affect the Women in Black movement? Conversely, we wonder if Women in Black has experience of participating in the creation of international norms regarding women's rights. For example, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom(WILPF) exerts mutual influence in its relationship with the United Nations, however, it is difficult for us in Asia to get rid of the impression that international norms related to women's rights are biased. It could be possible to raise criticism that the First World makes the norms and the Third World remains the subject of analysis. We would like to learn about Women in Black's opinion on this kind of problem awareness.

Sue Finch

Women in Black work closely with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). WILPF's feminist voices were instrumental in achieving UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on women, peace and security, adopted on 31 October 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction, and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all UN peace and security efforts. It also calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.

However, by 2015, when UN Women published their Global Study on UNSCR 1325, it was clear that its promise had not yet been achieved; they found that: “The world has lost sight of some of the key demands of the women’s movement while advocating for the adoption of resolution 1325: reducing military expenditures, controlling the availability of armaments, promoting non-violent forms of conflict resolution, and fostering a culture of peace.”

Women in Black and WILPF are clear that women have a crucial role to play in building peace, and campaigns for women to be at the table in all peace negotiations. Women make up 52% of the world’s population. Yet our voices are rarely listened to when it comes to peace and security issues.

Far too often, women affected by conflict are excluded from the negotiating table, overlooked as experts, and denied visas to countries where multilateral discussions are held.

When women participate – not just in a symbolic way, but in a true, meaningful way – things happen. Their input completes the picture of what is needed on the ground. According to UN Women, the chances of a peace agreement lasting at least 15 years increase by 35% if women are included in the process behind it.

International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

In “Woman in Black - A Women's Peace Movement,” you reference a statement made by Madhu Bhushan of Women in Black Vimochana: “We didn’t start as women against war, but as women against violence against women. Through that we came to take a stand against violence in the wider society.[4] We found this quote very impressive. It sounds like a declaration of “participating in the anti-war movement as a female gender”. We agree that in light of wartime damage in general, there is a more specific form of violence against women and their bodies, i.e. wartime sexual violence. On the other hand, however, one critical question is raised whether the perception of gendering the anti-war movement as femininity is projected in the statement of “participating in the anti-war movement as a female gender”. In other words, as femininity is emphasized as a counterpoint to war, the image of women is cemented in a certain way. Could the problem of emphasizing the biological essentialism of women arise as a result? Furthermore, we wonder if this process will inadvertently reproduce a biased view of femininity.

Sue Finch

Rita Manchanda, a feminist writer and activist in South Asia, pointed out that “women’s perspectives come from the margin or “from below” and therefore may produce better insights into transforming inter-group relations which involve asymmetries of power”[5]

This does not suggest that women, any more than men, are “natural born peace-makers”. But most women have a different experience of war from that of men.

Most women fear rape, and rape is endemic in war. A feminist view sees masculinist cultures as especially prone to violence, so women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war.

Women in Black have consistently opposed war, but have only comparatively recently, and through listening to voices from the global south, realised that we need to provide a response to conventional and often masculine definitions of peace and security beyond the mere absence of war or threat to a nation state, but as the absence of threat to the well-being of people in the world.

Cynthia Cockburn wrote in “Antimilitarism – Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements” (2012), exploring international anti-war, anti-militarist peace movements in Japan, Korea, Spain, Uganda, and the UK:

With every decade that passes, human violence, amplified by developments in media and weaponry, gains a longer reach, has more power to destroy our psyches, our relationships and our world. Our survival may depend on our ability to generate, quite soon, a worldwide epochal movement, one capable of displacing the prevailing idea that violence is normal and inevitable, and substituting a different paradigm: the idea that violence is a matter of choice. It would mean supposing that there is almost always a less violent alternative, a less violent thought, word, intention, policy, strategy and action; that we can choose a path that leads, step by step, towards a very much less violent society than the one we live in. For that idea to become hegemonic, to become universal “common sense”, requires a huge and effective social movement. To obtain that sweep and scope, a lot of people must be paying careful attention to each other’s thoughts and aspirations, exploring and exchanging methods and negotiating tactical and strategic alliances.

Women in Black groups exist in many countries, and in widely different political situations. For some, especially those living through war, theories about the relationship between gender and militarism are the most vital. Other women, living in relative peacetime, choose combating male violence against individual women, and campaigning for control over their own bodies, as the centre of their activism. The theories that connect Women in Black across the world, as a result, include the continuum of violence against women, and a causal relationship between gender and war.

We are always clear that this is about gender – a social construct – not biology.

International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

As the women's movement expands solidarity activities at the international level, we are afraid there could be some cases where problems arise due to missing the special context of conflict areas. For instance, the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue in Korea is a complex matter as the issue intersects with ethnicity, gender, social status, etc. Among them is ethnicity that occupies a very important position in the issue. Likewise, we think that ethnicity can play a pivotal role in the women's movement in some regions. In relation to this, we are curious about the thoughts of Women in Black, which aims to realize a transnational solidarity of women.

Sue Finch

Cynthia Cockburn’s book on “Antimilitarism – political and gender dynamics of peace movements” (2012) has shaped some of our thinking around intersectionality: “Only a combination of structural repression, threat of violence and overt force has sustained class rule, racial supremacy and the subordination of women these many centuries. Intersected as they are, mutually shaping, acting through each other although sometimes in contradiction, they often have expression in the self-same institutions: family, church, corporation, military, state. Women in armed conflict, experiencing rape and abduction as women, genocide for their tribal name and dispossession by corporate plunder, have no doubt that together patriarchy, racism and capitalism give rise to and perpetuate militarism and war.” 

International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

In the case of Korea, international military activities such as dispatching troops as UN peacekeepers are being actively carried out. In this regard, there have been no reports of South Korean soldiers committing sexual violence while stationed overseas (there were such cases with diplomats). There is a view that sexual violence against women is inherent in militarized masculinity/militaristic masculinity, and we heard that there was a debate within Women in Black London on whether to highlight this issue or not. For example, we know that Women in Black London was engaged in an active solidarity movement against rape, clitoris removal, and femicide committed by the Guatemalan Blue Helmets. If so, could you possibly let us know what kind of discussions have been specifically pursued within Women in Black concerning sexual violence committed on the battlefield by UN peacekeepers or Blue Helmet troops dispatched overseas?

Sue Finch

The issue of sexual violence by UN peacemakers was raised and condemned at the Women in Black international conference in Montevideo, Uruguay in 2011 by women from Žene u Crnom protiv Rata in Serbia and has been raised at subsequent conferences and Courts of Women, including the World Court of Women held in Bangalore in conjunction with the Women in Black international conference in 2015. In one of the filmed testimonies shown to the Court, an African child who looked about 11 years old spoke haltingly about being gang raped by armed men who swept through her village, killing her mother. Then she was raped again by UN soldiers who were supposed to have protected her. The narrator talked about impunity - that the blue bereted rapists were protected from prosecution for crimes they committed while carrying out their "peacekeeping" duties. This was condemned by everyone there.

International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team ⓒRIMSS


  1. ^ Cynthia Cockburn, “From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis”, Zed Books, 2007.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Cynthia Cockburn, “Don’t talk to me about war. My life’s a battlefield”. “openDemocracy 50.50”, 25.11.2012
  4. ^ John Clammer et al., “Dynamics of Dissent”, Routledge, 2020.
  5. ^ Manchanda et al. “Women Making Peace: Strengthening Women’s Role in Peace Processes”, South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2002.

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Writer Sue Finch

Sue Finch has campaigned for peace since she supported the Greenham Common peace camp in England in 1982, and as part of the Women in Black network since the 1990s. She recently finished her friend Cynthia Cockburn’s book on the history of “Women in Black: Against Violence, For Peace with Justice” (Merlin Press, 2023) after Cynthia sadly died in 2019 before she could complete it.

Writer International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team

The International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team started its first season in 2020, which was the 20th anniversary of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on the Trial of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in 2000.  Researchers of various majors have come together every other week to read international law-related materials, and have studied gender-based violence, including the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue, from a new perspective in a contemporary awareness of the issue. Through this seminar, we learned that international law, which is still being developed, is an ongoing endeavor.

During the past three years, there were two rulings related to the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue in Korea. One became a pioneering precedent acknowledging the Japanese government's responsibility for reparation for the Japanese military “Comfort Women” system, which is a crime against humanity by the Japanese Empire. The other recognized the Japanese government’s state immunity and dismissed the lawsuit of the plaintiffs who were the victims of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” system. Our seminar team has read various reports, verdict statements, written opinions, and interrogations on prisoners of war on the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue, and takes great interest in gender-based violence in armed conflict, the issue of impunity for gender-based violence in international war crime trials, as well as colonialism as a criminal act and the impunity for it.

We are delighted to be able to interview Ms. Staša Zajović in Women in Black Belgrade and Ms. Sue Finch in Women in Black London, as we have been reading various sources and thinking about what kind of issues could be raised in tangible history.

International Law & "Comfort Women“ Seminar Team members: Kim Sooyong, Kim Ellim, Sim Ajung, Lee Seulki, Lee Eun-jin, Lee Jieun, Jang Soohee, Jang Wona, Jang Eun-ae, Cho Sihyun, Hong Yoon-shin and Furuhashi Aya.