Women push for peace

The perennial mission of the Women’s Initiative for Peace (WINPEACE) – launched by Margarita Papandreou, wife of late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, and established Turkish journalist Zeynep Oral in 1997 – is to convince the governments of Greece and Turkey to reduce their military budgets and channel the saved resources into peace education and female empowerment as part of a broader campaign to improve relations between Greece and Turkey. WINPEACE may not have achieved this elusive goal but it has succeeded in emphasizing the significance of the female outlook in decision-making and conflict resolution through a range of projects, workshops and cooperations, the organization’s members told representatives of women’s groups and non-governmental organizations at a briefing on Monday at the headquarters of the General Confederation of Greek Labor in central Athens. One of WINPEACE’s current projects aims to sensitize very young children from both Greece and Turkey to the importance of an open-minded outlook. Pupils at a primary school in the central Athenian district of Gazi – 85 percent of whom are Turkish-speaking and 15 percent Greek-speaking – are taught to have respect for human rights and for the differences of others. Another ongoing initiative involves youth camps for university and school students which take place twice a year – once in Greece and once in Turkey – and which seek to instruct young people from both countries on «citizens’ diplomacy, conflict resolution techniques and other useful skills for promoting a culture of peace» as well as analyzing the role of the media in consolidating prejudices. «The aim (of these camps) is to train young people from Greece, Turkey (and also northern and southern Cyprus) as ‘peace ambassadors’ by making them understand and overcome their own prejudices and those of others,» WINPEACE member Beth Athanasiadou told Monday’s gathering. “What made the biggest impression on me was the way that most Greek students were defending the traditional Turkish point of view and vice versa,» Zeynep Oral said after attending the camps. Another WINPEACE project – a joint venture in agro-tourism between Greece and Turkey – shows how the people of two traditionally hostile countries can produce more by cooperating. Using as their model a successful women’s agro-touristic cooperative on Lesvos, Greek and Turkish women help fellow women from both countries to plan, develop and run similar cooperatives. But though these activities are constructive and valuable, women also need to be more involved in making decisions which affect their countries, according to Papandreou, who started the ball rolling for the establishment of WINPEACE when she issued an open letter after the 1996 crisis over the Imia islets. «After the September 11 attacks and the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have reached a point where we should reflect on how foreign policy is formed,» Papandreou said. «The challenge is to go beyond ‘Who?’ (i.e. who is the terrorist or the enemy) and ask ‘Why?’ – to get to the root of the problem,» she added. «Women have a unique way of thinking which should be included in decision-making and in the formation of foreign policy.» WINPEACE members are all too aware of the barriers they face in their venture. Members of the audience drew parallels between the work of WINPEACE and that of Jerusalem Link (a joint venture by Israeli and Palestinian women’s groups Bat Shalom and the Jerusalem Center for Women) which was seriously hampered after the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East. But WINPEACE members believe that persistence can make a difference in improving ties between neighbors who have the will to negotiate. Papandreou’s proposal for the creation of a peace education unit within the Ministry of Defense provoked chuckles in the auditorium but was far from a joke, and it is this bold projection of apparently unrealistic, but entirely logical, solutions that has attracted the support of women’s groups and non-governmental organizations for Papandreou, Oral and their vision for peace.