“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 3
International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
Quoting Corinne Kumar in “Woman in Black-A Women's Peace Movement”, you stated that “the Courts of Women are an unfolding of a space, an imaginary” and you also impressively mentioned more than 40 women's courts held since 1992. We also read this passage with interest, and among many women's courts, if there is one that is particularly noteworthy, please tell us about it. In addition, if there is a court in which you directly participated in, we would like to hear a detailed account of the live situation. Also, among the women's courts introduced in your paper, no Courts of Women in Asia are mentioned. Is this related to the language barrier? If Women in Black has had an experience of solidarity with Asian women, we would like to hear the story as well.
I was one of the Women in Black from London who attended the World Court of Women : Against War, For Peace held in Bangalore, in November 2015. Another of our number, Rebecca Johnson, one of the eight jurors chosen from India, the Middle East and Europe, reported in “openDemocracy 50.50” (25.1.2016):
Under the title “Against War, For Peace”, the Court was hosted by Mount Carmel College and Vimochana Women's Rights Forum, which works on a range of issues from domestic, sexual and dowry violence, to communities and human rights. The Court was held in conjunction with the 16th international gathering of Women in Black. A thousand students joined Women in Black to listen to testimonies that focussed on war as genocide, wars without borders, wars against civilizations, and wars against women. The final session spoke of building resistance, peace and justice.
Millions of women and girls are killed, brutalised and intimidated into silence every year.
The World Court of Women has held over 30 sessions since 1992, hearing from survivors of violence, conflict and war from around the world.
By focussing on the voices, experiences and resistance of women ignored and marginalised by mainstream politics, different kinds of peace-building and solutions are emerging from these hearings.
Corinne Kumar of Women in Black Vimochana, the initiator of the Courts of Women, asked us to “listen actively”, reflect at the end on what we had heard, and look to the future. The Bangalore session extended from early morning to late evening, with harrowing testimonies interlaced with expressive dance, poetry and short films. In expressing the anger and pain of their direct personal suffering, many of the witnesses highlighted political lessons and resistance, demanding that we all take responsibility to oppose these unending wars on women.
Some women shared their names, like Iraqi academic Eman Khammas. She spoke first of the struggle to keep going through Saddam Hussein's years of brutal dictatorship, and then of the greater calamity that blighted life in Iraq due to the disastrous US-UK invasion of 2003. Dr Khammas spoke of the impact of war, as towns and communities in Iraq were wiped out “first by the US-led occupation and now by the sectarian militia”. People who had nowhere else to go continue to face “human rights violations on a daily basis”. Others, like Eman, were forced to flee with their families. With her PhD and academic and human rights credentials, she was luckier than most; which made it even more shocking to hear her stories of daily poverty and humiliations as a refugee in Europe, where she and her family are often feared as terrorists and resented for the needs that they have.
Some speakers requested anonymity. In testimonies on different aspects of Afghan resistance we heard from women who ran community projects, such as the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC), and who managed - at least for now - to work openly with international organisations. And we heard from Afghan activists connected with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) whose lives are daily threatened because of their work for women's rights and protection. Despite seeing their mentors and friends assassinated, these women continue to resist the layers of oppression inflicted and sustained by misogynist patriarchal traditions, and successive wars perpetrated by Russians, Americans, British, Taliban and other armed men.
Lives that had seemed distant came close as listeners grappled with our own relative privileges and responsibilities. Here we confronted our countries' roles in cultural and ethnic genocides, including mass unemployment and eradication of livelihoods as people have been cleared out of the way so that big dams, nuclear power projects, agribusinesses, and mass production from electronic goods to cheap clothes can be taken forward in the name of “development”.
We listened to testimonies about everyday violence in poor communities living on the margins of society, where girls and women are routinely sold, bought, violated and murdered.
Women from South Asia spoke of struggles against violence and erasure in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nagaland and communities across the region. Some arise from conflicts over land, resources, religion or political dominance, often across borders artificially imposed by imperialist leaders and administrators in the recent past. Others have their pernicious roots in historical, systematized, cultural prejudices and traditions. Ruth Manorama, for example, told of the layers of overlapping oppression suffered by Dalit women from the so-called “Untouchable” caste in India, who are struggling for rights and education. Our hearts went out to the women as they relived the abuse they had suffered in marriages that poverty, tradition and misogyny trapped them into as young children. One after another their heads raised and voices strengthened as they told of their efforts to escape and gain education and independence.
Few of us had previously heard of how women's rights and conditions for the poor had deteriorated in Nepal, exacerbated by the recent earthquake. Radha Paudel gave testimony about the efforts of the Madhes Movement to get “meaningful dialogue” with the government about human rights abuses, and the corrupt practices that ensure the rich elites in and around Kathmandu obtain while the poor and hill people go hungry. Describing daily life contending with severe restrictions on access to necessities such as cooking gas, food and medicines, she spoke of empty markets and unemployed men taking their frustrations out through heightened levels of violence against women and children. Radha called the current situation in Nepal “bloodless genocide”, but also described women's blood being spilled by “their” men, even if not by soldiers acting on behalf of governments and military commanders as in more overt wars.
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 said something about impunity - that the blue bereted rapists were protected from prosecution for crimes they committed while carrying out their “peacekeeping” duties. As one of the jurors, I sat on the platform making notes on everything I heard. So many appalling, unbearable testimonies. I didn't allow myself to look away, but often found that I had covered my mouth and nose, holding my breath. The child stared into the camera with haunted eyes and said “they were very bad men.”
No-one was spared. The Court heard from women who had grown up feeling relatively secure and comfortable, till their lives were destroyed by armed men who wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of religious or ethnic purity. Our differences of age and background dissolved as so many women told how they were turned into refugees, widows, mothers of dead children, the raped and trafficked spoils of war.
The roles of our own politicians and institutions also came under scrutiny, with recognition of the way in which armed masculinity perpetrates violence in pursuit of military-industrial power and profits that are frequently dressed in high-minded concepts we've been taught to venerate – like “development”, “democracy”, “freedom” and “security”. Indian and African testimonies particularly challenged assumptions about the desirability of colonialist, “Western” models of development that dispossess the majority, desecrate the environment, and devalue women and rural communities.
Giving the jury's response to the evidence and arguments that we had heard on that long day in Bangalore, we first paid tribute to all the witnesses - “the brave, brilliant, indomitable spirit of women… resisting the oppressors, violence, wars, environmental destruction and attacks on our lives, sexual identities and rights”. The jury recalled the capitalist, colonial and patriarchal roots of the pervasive “wars against women,” and called on all - individually and collectively - to do whatever we could in our own lives to support each other, work beyond borders, expose the perpetrators of violence against women, and build peaceful, just alternatives with whatever resources we can bring together.
The Court held accountable those who own, control, run, enable, govern, manage, implement and benefit from all forms of violence. It demanded an end to impunity for officials and military forces who harass and violate women, including so-called “peace-keepers” and the men who harm women while hiding behind progressive organisations, political parties and NGOs. Calling for the implementation of UN SCR 1325 (2000) and related resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, including UNSCR 2242 (2015), the Court highlighted the importance and all round benefits of enabling the full participation of independent, feminist women in all aspects of negotiations and peace-making.
To build genuine structures for peace and security, the Court recognised the need to challenge and dismantle patriarchal assumptions and practices on personal as well as political levels. Never easy, this means taking on friends and colleagues as well as exposing the hypocrisy of governments that point fingers at non-state terrorists and declare an unending “war on terrorism”, while expanding military alliances like NATO and arming themselves with more bombs, guns, missiles, drones and all kinds of weapons on land, in the air, the waters and even space… with thousands of nuclear weapons at the apex of the pyramid of patriarchal violence.
The World Courts of Women are important platforms for restoring and amplifying voices that have been silenced by oppression, poverty, violence and denial of human rights and education.
Some of the stories are so terrible that it's hard not to feel despair and turn away. But that would be a cop out. The purpose of the Courts is to enable us to learn about each other's experiences as a spur to collective action. Many of the participants in Bangalore joined in the Women in Black conference that was held over the next few days to discuss the issues in more detail and propose actions. On the last day we demonstrated at a major crossroads by a military barracks in the centre of Bangalore city, standing shoulder to shoulder with our banners and messages opposing violence against women in all its aspects.
The Court concluded: “the best way to bring justice to those who've testified… about so much loss is for us together to build a powerful global women's movement to transform this world… to build better peace, justice, equality, environmental and human security, nurturing our Earth's precious resources in sustainable ways, sharing her fruits and putting the poor and needy first”.
International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
Please tell us about Women in Black London's current activities and movements. Concerning the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, please let us kindly know any direct action that Women in Black London is engaging in.
London Women in Black vigils have been held every Wednesday at 6 p.m. since 2000 around Edith Cavell's statue near Trafalgar Square, which gives it visibility in the busy centre of London. The first vigil of every month is dedicated to supporting Women in Black Jerusalem's founding calls for building peace and justice by ending the Occupation of Palestine and working for an inclusive solution, upholding human rights and the security of women and children.
As vigils are silent, women hold placards that always include Women in Black against Militarism and War. The week’s theme is also set out on placards and described in leaflets handed out by one or two women who stand apart from the vigil and engage with members of the public. Passers-by are asked to sign short letters, generally calling on the UK government to take action, which are collected in the Women in Black post box and sent to the Prime Minister. Signatories often receive a reply, and many communicate this to Women in Black.
Women in Black London rotates vigils on themes of nuclear disarmament, resisting nationalism and war, the invasion of Ukraine, preventing violence against women, opposing UK arms sales, divesting from militarism, and prioritising resources for peacebuilding, health and human security needs, including environmental sustainability.
While vigils have underpinned Women in Black UK protests against militarism for over 30 years, Women in Black have also left their street-side protests to take direct action against the occupation of Palestine, war and militarism, including arms sales and nuclear weapons.
Women in Black from the UK joined the International Solidarity Movement to support Palestinian and Israeli women working for a peaceful resolution to the occupation. Some have acted as human shields in Beit Jala, where 850 Palestinian homes had been shelled by Israeli forces, to protect Palestinian families from attack. They helped clear Israeli roadblocks, stood as human rights observers at Israeli checkpoints, and demonstrated in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Women in Black in the UK also challenge militarism through opposition to the UK's arms sales, including protests at the government-sponsored Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Arms Fair held every other year in London, since 11 September 2001. The UK has been one of the world's most prolific arms manufacturers. In 2019, British manufacturers exported £11bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the UK's biggest customer and one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
Women in Black London have held vigils about Ukraine, with leaflets that call for:
Women in Black oppose militarism and war.
In the face of Russia’s invasion, occupation and war with Ukraine, Women in Black call for urgent action to:
➔ provide human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (https://hrw.org/europe/central-asia/ukraine) and the Feminist Workshop Ukraine (https://femwork.org/warinukraine ) with access to communities in Ukraine and beyond, to gather evidence of these war crimes
➔ call on our own Government to accept that war crimes against women and children are being committed and call on the ICC to open investigations into reports of sexual violence
➔ support, amplify and protect peace activists in Russia and Ukraine
➔ the UK must welcome and support all refugees, from Ukraine and other armed conflicts in the world
➔ laws on violence against women and children must be implemented, with more action to prevent and prosecute rape as a war crime
➔ the connections between war, climate destruction and patriarchal violence need to be recognised
➔ public campaigning to prevent future conflicts and end military-industrial profits, arms dealing, nuclear and fossil-fuel dependency
➔ democratic engagement at all levels to limit the opportunities for militarists and nationalists to gain and abuse political power
➔ Russia, the US, the UK, France and other nuclear-armed governments to join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and eliminate their entire nuclear arsenals.
➔ the United Nations system and regional organisations need to be reformed and strengthened to work for the elimination of inhumane weapons, promote peace, human rights and justice, and adhere to international humanitarian laws
➔ all of us need to work together for conflict resolution, war prevention, disarmament, the ending of occupations and colonialism, and the building of cooperative relations and real security.
Many Women in Black UK direct actions have addressed nuclear disarmament, calling on successive UK governments to fulfil their existing nuclear disarmament obligations under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Women in Black calls for nuclear weapons to be abolished, for the UK to stop making them and for the use of nuclear weapons to be recognised as a crime against humanity and a war crime.
Over the years, Women in Black have joined with other direct-action groups in many nonviolent protests and actions at military-nuclear facilities, including at Aldermaston and Burghfield Atomic Weapons Establishments - where we blocked entrances by lying in the road ‘locked-on’ to heavy metal pipes - and the site of the UK's nuclear submarine home port at Faslane in Scotland.
At least one of the four nuclear-armed Vanguard submarines based in Scotland is continuously on patrol at sea around the UK at any time. Current nuclear policies require that each submarine will carry up to eight US-made Trident missiles, each with a total of 40 warheads, most of which were designed to be eight times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
Since 2017, Women in Black has called on the UK government to sign and ratify the UN Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. In January 2017, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) convened multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. These were boycotted by the UK, the eight other nuclear states and most NATO governments. Nonetheless, on 7 July 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted by the UNGA by 122 votes to one against, with one abstention (Singapore). The Treaty entered into force on 22 January 2021. It now frames Women in Black calls for UK nuclear disarmament.
The purpose of the Treaty is to prevent nuclear weapons ever being used again. It prohibits all the practical activities that would enable both states and non-state actors to use nuclear weapons and requires states parties to facilitate the irreversible elimination of all nuclear arsenals. Article I bring into force clear prohibitions on the use, development, testing, production, deployment, stockpiling, acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons, as well as stationing and transferring nuclear weapons, thereby outlawing the nuclear sharing practised by NATO.
The Treaty is not just a symbolic ban. It requires the total elimination of nuclear weapons and provides two practical pathways for nuclear-armed states and nuclear alliances like NATO to comply and join. Both require states to eliminate nuclear weapons and programmes from their territories. The Treaty also places positive obligations and responsibilities on states, including environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance, as well as to provide technical and financial help for victims and environments affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, as Rebecca Johnson, a Women in Black who has been involved in developing strategy on the NPT and CTBT since 2000 and is part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 describes, feminist analysis and activism underpins the language and intent of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty reflects its origins in feminist activism and analysis along with humanitarian perspectives and practice. It acknowledges the “catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons” and their “grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations”, and importantly, their “disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation”.
The Treaty recognises ‘that the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men is an essential factor for the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security, and is committed to supporting and strengthening the effective participation of women in nuclear disarmament.’
- ^ John Clammer et al., “Dynamics of Dissent,” Routledge, 2020.
- A Conversation with Sue Finch of Women in Black London (1)
As the history of Women in Black shows, each Women in Black group has its own approach to feminist action, growing out of their local situation, but linked to each other through international theories and conferences.
- A Conversation with Sue Finch of Women in Black London (2)
Violence, militarism and war are gendered phenomena, and peace activism, to be effective, must likewise be gender analytical and gender aware.
- 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.