MAY 2009



May 10, 2009

FIRE – Feminist International Radio Endeavour

Antigua, Guatemala – Arriving from more than 50 countries around the world, over 130 women activists, policymakers, journalists and communicators, and Nobel women Laureates are meeting to explore ways of redefining democracy from women’s perspectives and experiences, as part of an international conference organized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and JASS (Just Associates), and the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation.   Entitled “Women redefining democracy for peace, justice & equality,” four Nobel Laureate women welcomed the group in the morning of the opening day. 

Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992) of Guatemala proudly noted that “you are in the land of the Maya,” which is comprised of a diversity of indigenous and other ethnic groups.  “I want to pay tribute to those [women] who preceded us, those who were kidnapped, tortured and humiliated in many places of the world, the women whose rights were trampled and in their struggle for a better world…”   

Escalating violence against women in Guatemala including the recent kidnapping and torture of professor and human rights activist Gladys Monterroso makes the setting of this conference even more meaningful and the topics all the more urgent.  In 2008 alone, 722 women were murdered, and there were 39,400 reported cases of domestic violence, with 95% of those reported by women victims of violence, according to the Guatemalan National Police statistics.

The challenges for women to even attend a conference on democracy was highlighted by Dr. Shirin Ebadi of Iran (2003) who announced that two Iranian women’s rights activists who were scheduled to participate in the event were detained and their passports confiscated before they could travel.  As with more than 50 Iranian women’s rights activists in recent years, the women will likely face criminal charges for their activities.   “Why is the government of the Islamic Republic so scared of women’s rights activists and so opposed to them?  They don’t want a lot, they don’t want to topple the government.  The only thing they want is equal rights.”    Ebadi noted that “democracy in its real meaning means the victory of all women… if one or a few women gain power,  that will not resolve the issues.” 

Mairead Corrigan (1976) of Ireland stressed the urgent need for change in our way of practicing democracy that today is based on so much violence and fear, and how governments have been given the power to use violence against other governments as a means of “creating democracies,” which “takes away hope and destroys human dignity.”  MacGuire called for “fresh thinking and a new vision” from the women noting that “we cannot afford to stay with the status quo and think the status quo will change things”  She also emphasized the importance of seeking a world free of violence:  “I think that nonviolence and non-killing must be built into our democracies, human rights and international law need to be built into democracies, to create societies where non-killing and nonviolence is a way of life.”

Jody Williams (1997) focused on the constant “othering” by the more powerful that feeds conflict and erodes democracy.  “There will be no democracy in the world as long as we view some groups as ‘the other’ and talk about tolerance instead of acting for peace, justice and equality, we are still creating the other. “   

She noted that language is often used by governments as a means of “othering.”  For example, the US administration talks about “extreme measures” rather  than torture because “it’s much nicer to say extreme measures to protect Americans,“ and likewise the use of “collateral damage which is dead people whether it’s in Darfur or Burma or Palestine….it’s dead people. ..Every time we allow language to divorce us from human reality, it’s easier to get rid of the other.” 

In looking ahead to the next three days of the conference, Rigoberta Menchu spoke on behalf of the Nobel Women’s Initiative saying, “We have not come here to give you advice, but we have asked you to come to give us advice so the Nobel Women’s Initiative will be and continue to be a small light, a candle that helps so many women hear our voices, and know about our experiences.    Menchu listed some of the questions facing the conference:  “what is the role of women in democracy, in assessing democracy, and what type of democracy do we women dream of? “   A number of participants began calling for a feminist definition of democracy.


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