Beijing Peace Train & Beyond Women’s Memories & Testimonials

Beijing Peace Train & Beyond:Women’s Memories & Testimonials
March 13, 2015

This entry and the previous one (and some subsequent ones, soon) tell of events that are part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women fifty-ninth annual meeting (CSW59), which took place March 9 through 20, 2015: CSW59 Implementing the Beijing Platform for Action

CSW59 marked the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action by the 189 UN Member States that met in China in 1995. This was a major step in the work for equal status and rights for women; the adopting Member States (countries that are members of the United Nations) affirmed their belief in women’s rights as full adults.

Each year, this commission reports on women’s progress and strategizes for greater effectiveness in the twelve critical areas outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action:

  • Women and poverty
  • Education and training of women
  • Women and health
  • Violence against women
  • Women and armed conflict
  • Women and the economy
  • Women in power and decision-making
  • Institutional mechanisms
  • Human rights of women
  • Women and the media
  • Women and the environment and
  • The girl child.

The UN Women website offers explanations of each area and interesting facts about progress or lack thereof. For instance, although 2 billion more people had gained access to clean drinking water in 2010 than in 1990, women still spent 16 million hours per day collecting water in Sub-Saharan Africa. Those 16 million hours equal 666,666.66 days—or 1826 and a half years! Children, mostly girls, spent another 4 million hours per day collecting water.

I had heard a little about the Beijing Conference when it was held because Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly, OSU, then president of The College of New Rochelle, attended. Mostly I remember her describing the excitement of meeting women from around the world and the very primitive living conditions – tents in the rain and mud and long walks to the toilets.

The Beijing Peace Train

This session, moderated by Lois A. Herman, and sponsored by WILPF – the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – was comprised of women who had been on the Train. They introduced me to an amazing journey just to get to the Conference: the Peace Train, which gathered women from Helsinki and many countries between there and Beijing.

A lively video of the journey showed the women in native costume being seen off by local celebrities and neighbors at each station, from Helsinki, through Budapest, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Istanbul, Kazakhstan, and, of course, China.  Others, from India notably, traveled to join the train. Two hundred and twenty-three women, aged eighteen to eighty-two filled the seventeen cars, four to a compartment. As they passed through the Communist countries, they were subjected to frequent unannounced passport checks, day or night.

The Peace Train became a rolling international school and workshop, with women educating each other about conditions in their own countries – from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to the challenges to feminism under Turkey’s Islamic leadership aspirations for greater equal rights for women – one Indian woman mentioned that there was no word for feminism in any of the languages she spoke; another suggested, “We need to construct another country in which women are equal” – down to sharing art and crafts native to each country. (Imagine watercolor lessons on a swaying train, one panelist noted.) Throbbing under it all was the desire for peace, especially for an end to nuclear weapons.

The women also conducted workshops and roundtables for local people at some of the stops, on women’s rights, the economic situations of women, and the evils of nuclear weapons. In Kiev, a group of the women addressed Parliament, citing their experience with the health problems resulting from nuclear testing.

The trip was punctuated by a series of physical challenges. In Romania, the train had to be emptied while engineers changed the wheels of each car to accommodate the different size of the tracks. To reach Istanbul, they had to travel in five buses from train to train. Most threatening was China’s initial refusal to allow the train to enter the country. Only frantic telegraphing to numerous governments to pressure China gained them entry.

The Poster
Ida Harslof of Denmark described the Peace Train Poster that she designed and that was given to all on board.  The images are full of meaning: The luggage consists of a missionary bag and a midwife bag, representing the ways many women traditionally encountered other cultures.

The stickers on the bags name some of the places they went through. The background wall is inscribed with experiences of the women, in their many languages. And finally, the apple, Ms. Harslof said, represents Eve’s apple and the hope that men would join the women in their desire for peace and equality. (I am unable to upload the picture; sorry!)

The African Women’s Train
Two other speakers spoke of other getting-to-Beijing experiences. Litha Musyimi-Ogana told of a similar peace train for African women. Like those on the Helsinki to Beijing train, they met some difficulties. They actually had to engage eight different trains because of the varied tracks across the eight countries they traversed in Africa. Ten thousand kilometers of the journey was through jungle. At the Zambia-Zimbabwe border they had to hire buses to cross. They met other snags, too – Uganda, for instance, had to change a law to allow the women’s train through!

So unprecedented was this journey for African women that at every stop, thousands of people gathered to greet the train, often including governors and other official. For many of the women, it was the first time they had crossed the border of their own country.

The Sole Girls’ Delegation
The final speakers, Zora Radoseich and Reshma Pattni told of the only girls delegation at the Beijing conference. Although they were not on the train, the girls’ delegation was unique. The seventeen girls from across the United States and five editors of New Moon magazine obtained press credentials.

In preparation, the girls did fundraising, learned about China, and spent much time developing the message they would bring to the Conference. The girls developed five questions to focus on the needs and concerns of girls around the world and used the then-new Internet technology to gather their information. Their major theme was that adults had to listen to the needs and concerns of girls, s these are different from those of adults.

At the conference, besides reporting on the events, several of the girls participated in the NGO Forum and in negotiations around human rights, and helped prepare the closing session. The two presenters concluded that the girls not only learned a great deal of information but they also learned the importance of having and using their own voices.

The session ended with a description of some of the artistic works that resulted from the Conference (books of poems, music, as well as images) and assurance that much of the work continues, as each woman or group of women went home to carry the message of peace and freedom.

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