WRI Women Meet in Verona

by Maggie Helwig

The WRI Women’s Working Group met in Verona, Italy, in July, for the first time since the intense—and exhausting—experience of the Women Overcoming Violence conference in Bangkok.

We were joined by four women from the independent feminist/peace movement in former-Yugoslavia—from Serbia, Stasa Zajovic, who was also in Bangkok, and Gordana Sevo, whom we met for the first time; and from Croatia, Gordana Obradovic and Slavica Kusic from the Centre for Women Victims of War. Half a dozen women from Verona’s Women in Black also took part in some of the two-day meeting.

It was the situation of the Balkan women that generated the most political discussion. All four women made lengthy presentations to the meeting, discussing both the work they are doing to aid women war victims and to protest militarist government policies, and the analyses and understandings which they have developed through this work.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing women in war portrayed as victims,” said Stasa. “I mean, they have suffered, it’s true. But the image of victim just becomes a collaboration with our oppression … All you hear is women and children, women and children, they have to go to war to defend the women and children.”

“Women’s bodies are here to serve the men’s world,” added Gordana Sevo. “We never asked them to fight for territory for us, but because they do, they think we owe them our bodies, they consider it our responsibility to the nation to give them our bodies.”

Stasa also talked about some of the ambiguities in the roles women have played. In the early months of the war, almost all the men who came to the Anti-War Centre as COs or deserters came with women—“though many of them were probably beating these women,” says Stasa, who was working on the SOS Telephone line and at the Anti-War Centre at the same time. “But they saw leaving the army as an emotional problem, therefore a women’s thing, so they brought along women to explain it to us. Most of these women coming in were very nationalist, but politics went into the background confronted with the life or death of their brothers or husbands.” But now, she says, men come to talk to the Women in Black—a group founded to express a women’s anti-war politics that was not centred simply around supporting the resistance of men. And they come alone, more of them with clear political ideas about why they will not serve in the war. In some sense, the act of the Women in Black of stepping back, of withdrawing from their traditional support role, has created a new, more open and genuine space for men, as well as women, to question their politics and their roles.

Slavica Kusic, her voice often breaking and near tears, spoke of her work with both refugee women, and survivors of domestic violence in Zagreb. Returning soldiers, she pointed out, get no counselling or other psychological help, and a very small pension; and, as usual, take out their frustrations on their families. She told the story of one woman who arrived at the shelter with her three children, shaking and almost hysterical after her husband had thrown a bomb at them. The shelter was unable to get him into psychological care—and the Minister of Social Services recently told them that they should be “teaching women how to obey their husbands, it would be better for them and their children.”

“Bombs and guns and things are part of normal family life now,” agreed Gordana Sevo.

Gordana Obradovic from Croatia talked about the way they have tried to work with women war victims—“We can only be a friend for them. Professional help will only make things worse … they don’t have control over their lives if they have a lot of professionals telling them what to do with their lives, what’s good and bad. We just try to be there for them if they need it.”

“Solidarity between women has gone across the borders, and it exists,” Stasa insisted—noting as well that “the women from Greenhorn Common came and said that crying is not a form of weakness. We felt very happy about that.” Women’s solidarity may take just this simple and small a form, but perhaps that is one measure of how real it is.

“I wonder,” one of the Italian Women in Black mused later, “if war is always a form of ethnic cleansing—a way of eliminating what is different.”

Women at the meeting also made some concrete plans for future activities. As agreed in Bangkok, we will focus our energies on international actions on March 8 and November 25. We decided that the theme for November 25, 1993, would be “Name It’ —that is, break the silence, and name the violences that women in our different communities suffer and resist, understanding that the naming itself can be an act of resistance. For March 8, we will continue with the theme of “Crossing the Lines”. A mailing with more details on both days of action, and suggestions for what different groups might want to do, will be going out soon.

We also talked about communication within the group—which has not always been as efficient as we might hope. We came up with a few ideas for improving our communications with each other, including work on our mailing list to make it more complete and systematic, and choosing a convener to serve for a six-month period, who will co-ordinate communications and make sure tasks get done. The convener for the next six months (from August 1993 to January 1994) will be Maggie Helwig, from Toronto, Canada.

It is expected that the London office will be hiring a female staff person in January. The group had a short discussion of what our relationship would be to this woman, and how we will be able to support her in her work. It was agreed that we would meet next in London, in February 1994, partly to get to know and work with the new staffer.

It was encouraging to see that women’s issues remained near the forefront of the discussion throughout the Council meeting. Two of the developing-world groups which had sent women to Bangkok were voted in as WRI affiliates (Tchad Nonviolence, from Chad, Africa, as an associate; Swadhina, from Calcutta, India, as a section). The affiliation of Swadhina was of particular importance, marking perhaps the first time that a group which sees its primary work as being on women ‘sand development issues has affiliated to WRI. Almost a full day of discussion at the Council was devoted to questions of women and militarism, and how women’s concerns can be more fully incorporated into the work of WRI. And, on the last day of Council, a mixed-gender subcommittee was set up, to prepare bibliographies and discussion materials for affiliates, and encourage them to open debate on feminism and anti-militarism in their own work. This subcommittee will work for one year only—the convener is Serge Vanden Berghe, of Cork, Ireland.

Finally, on Wednesday we joined with Verona’s Women in Black for their weekly vigil. Women from Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, flong Kong, Ireland, Poland and the United States stood with the Italian women in a one-hour silent protest in the main piazza of the city.