Gender, War and Equality under the Law – Interview with Madeleine Rees
Madeleine Rees – Secretary General, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Full interview below
Rowan Farrell: Is there a need of unity amongst activists?
Madeleine Rees: It’s not just about the need for unity amongst activities. It’s about the need for unity of people who don’t want war.
We need others to do more than just passively support. We need them to actively support and that means engaging, that means engaging in preventing conflict and engaging in the ways in which you prevent conflict.
Simple things like just giving support to the political candidate who will say that they will reduce military expenditure and increase expenditure on health, education, foreign development aid etc. Those are the things that prevent war.
Where as increased military expenditure, increased militarization inevitably lead to conflict and you can see in the way in which it becomes the default position [of governments] you have the weapons you feel you’re powerful. The default position of international diplomacy becomes, “I can intervene militarily in your country to solve a dispute” and that’s not what law is about.
RF: What are the similarities between now and 1915 (The creation and first meeting of the women’s international league for peace and freedom)
MR: In 1915 when we had one thousand three hundred women come to The Hague, They were there to stop war and we are here to stop war and the analysis they did is extraordinarily relevant today.
It is about doing the joined up thinking, that you can’t just stop wars without looking at root causes of conflict. By looking at root courses you [have] then got to be able to identify where those discriminations lay in relation to power.
They also said if you do allow an arms industry which is not only owned by the state but is privatized you unleash capitalism into a market which is essentially to make war. So you make war inevitable. They were right
We have so many of the root causes that they identified as being very very relevant today. They famously and very pertinently said, foreign policy should be democratized so we don’t get lead into conflict from the decision of one man, and its always a man, and so we need to actually ensure that we have systems which prevent conflict.
That’s what they were saying and we at the 100th anniversary [of WILPF] reaffirmed what they have said, but contextualizing it slightly differently. I think that while the root causes remain the same the intensification of capital in the hands of the very few is much greater than I think could have been anticipated.
The extent to which military budgets have grown probably could not have been anticipated. The way in which we have to organize is now different because we have better abilities to do so through social media than clearly existed then.
The other thing is that when they came together in 1915 women didn’t have the vote, now we have the vote. What we have to do is create circumstances in an environment where we can use that democratic right because in so many places it doesn’t work. It either doesn’t work because we have deliberately disenfranchised ourselves because we see this is not working, we don’t feel represented so we get on and ignore that system. Of course that’s never going to make any changes.
The other places where you can’t vote because you’re too busy looking after the kids, trying to find something to eat, whatever it might be. Which happens in many countries especially in places of displacement, where there is conflict. You don’t get to use what it is that has been achieved.
So we have many similarities but we also have now a context which is different.
RF: There are many people working for equality of women by working with the existing systems of patriarchy, working with community elders or religious leaders. And this approach seems to yield good results. At the same time it is these systems and these men who are the cause of the inequality in the first place. How can that conflict be traded off?
MR: It’s an interesting question. The thing we’ve said all along is you have to engage with everyone. If you leave someone outside the puzzle then you’re not going to achieve it because you are automatically working against rather than with.
We have to engage. We’ve done this with women from Syria who have been so brilliant. There’s not one of them really who wants to keep the regime in place but they will talk with everybody, they will engage with everybody in order to bring peace and that’s the sort of thing that we have to bear in mind.
We are working within a patriarchal system? Yes.
We need allies within the patriarchal system? Yes.
Who are those allies? Men.
We women have been working for a hundred years now, we need to engage with men and men will take the responsibility that they have committed to. Only they have to understand that they benefit from it because nobody gives up something for nothing.
I think that’s one crucial way in which we can do it. They do engage with elders with particular religious fundamentalisms and that’s what we need for change
But we do have to engage with them at the same time as retaining our integrity. Because the easiest thing in the world is to retreat into our own default position, to feel it is safer to be with this religious grouping or another religious grouping or this political grouping or this ethnic identity [where] you feel safer because your pack animal. That of course is to destroy this idea of common humanity and leads ultimately to conflict.
We have to hold tightly and strongly on to that belief in the community of the human being and engage with all of us in our various manifestations.
I’m not saying it’s easy I’m not saying its easy at all, especially when we’re talking about the extremities to which religions have gone to now but we overcame the inquisition so we can overcome the other extremisms as well.
RF: What do you think the future of the fight for equality looks like?
MR: It depends what sort of quality we are looking at.
RF: It seems clear that we can talk about gender equality but we then have to talk about equality overall. We can look at issues faced by women but then we need to look at issues of economics and so on.
MR: I think this is the better question, because in fact, I don’t actually think there is such a thing as gender equality.
What is gender but a social construct?
If you are going to continue to construct gender as a social construct then you’re still going to be creating something that is different from something else.
It doesn’t matter who you are what you are. Let’s get rid gender all together and just say you’re a person in whatever identity you choose to manifest and you have a relationship to power. That relationship to power must be on the principle of equality, which is non-discriminatory.
So essentially I don’t care if you’re black white whatever religion you are if your gay whatever I don’t care, we don’t care, the law says it doesn’t care.
But it doesn’t work that way because the structures of power are such that the hierarchies work against that principle of equality. That’s what we have to change if we can actually bring those structures into accordance with what international law has already said should happen and states have agreed to and we have lobbied for. Which means we’re all on same pathway but we haven’t made it work. We haven’t made it work simply because it doesn’t suit those people who have that power, because they’re not about to give it up
It’s not just about men. It’s about some men and some women and then everybody else fits with in hierarchies underneath that. If we can change that much, then we will change everything and then we will have real equality.
“Women’s Power to Stop War” is the global Anniversary Movement of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), aimed at strengthening, connecting and celebrating 100 years of peace building from a gender perspective.
Madeleine Rees has been Secretary General of WILPF since 2010, where she refocused the organisation’s energy on integrating the fields of human rights, disarmament and women’s participation in peace processes at the international level.
Before her time with WILPF, she served as the Head of Office in Bosnia with the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and later as the Head of Women’s Rights and Gender Unit of OHCHR.