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Report on women’s charter for Northern Ireland out


WRDA, report, Northern Belfast Womens Voives Project, charter, women of Northern Ireland, discusion, report launch, September‘There is a feeling that certain vested interests want to keep the women divided and suspicious’.

The final report of the North Belfast Women’s Voices Project – including a women’s charter for change that tackles head on some of the most challenging issues facing Northern Ireland’s communities – was launched last month.

The goal of this project was to produce a Women’s Charter for Change, and to do this by having a cross-community group of women in North Belfast work together to produce it.

Researching for this, the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) saw 1,200 women share their experiences and views. And they showed what WRDA have always argued; that the impact of the conflict is different for women than it is for men. And that it was also experienced differently in different parts of Northern Ireland / the North.

UN resolution 1325 has never been adopted in Northern Ireland, and as such there has been no compulsion or requirement to include women in conversations about past or ongoing events or the future of the province.

The result of this, combined with the reality that Northern Ireland society is especially patriarchal, has resulted in few women being involved in attempts to resolve or even to understand the issues that they face.

Women, who suffered enormously during the conflict, who led many of the attempts to end the conflict, and have so much to offer to the process of dealing with the past and building a better future, are often sidelined.

At the same time statutory bodies on issues such as flags, identity and culture tend to be dominated by men, and women often find themselves battling gatekeepers to have a say in their own communities, let alone at the level of statutory bodies.

The Women’s Charter for Change project was designed to look at some of the most entrenched issues in society the region faces, issues around cultural expression and shared space, and to chart a way forward that could be used to build a toolkit that can be adapted and used in different circumstances and in different places.

The project has achieved more than this, though, and the various difficulties and successes have taken everyone participating on a journey over the course of two years, teaching unexpected lessons about how best to engage in this kind of work.

Conversations like this are not unusual in Belfast, but residents are accustomed to hearing the same arguments repeated, the same soundbites and the same standoffs. Rarely are these conversations productive, and there is usually little expectation that they will result in epiphanies or mutual agreement.

This project thus had to approach the issues from a different perspective and in a different way to avoid repeating that same pattern.

There is also another part of the broader problem – of society more widely not taking women’s roles seriously enough.

Women and their community work were vital to building peace, but now that they are left out of the conversation or struggling to survive in a difficult economic climate the peacebuilding work is faltering.

Women are more likely to be willing to engage in cross-community work and to be willing to listen to take on board other perspectives and women would be ideal to lead some community learning sessions around traditions and would be better placed to lead conversations around thorny issues – but some are not willing to because of fear of the paramilitary organisations which are still active.

Major progress could be made by determined women but it would need investment and time to foster respect. And any such work should be led within communities.

The report written from this piece of research is illuminating as to the attitudes of many of the women who have lived through the worst of the conflict here, and who have tried to hold things together throughout and piece things together afterwards.

The Charter-writing process itself was carried out over two different days; one full day as part of a residential, and one 4.5 hour session approximately one month later.

The gap in time between the two was purposeful, as the residential had brought up some difficult issues and had at times been upsetting for group members. But by the time the group reconvened some fraught feelings had calmed and a more productive discussion could take place.

In summary, the Charter said:

People want a better future for the next generation but fear this may not happen;

Integration, whatever way that happens, is key;

Understanding and education can help the communities understand the difficult parts of their histories, as well as the reasons for certain traditions;

This understanding enables genuine respect and that must be mutual;

There is a feeling that certain vested interests want to keep the women divided and suspicious; what more can be done about that?; and

There is an enormous well of trauma and grief and not enough help available for those who need it.

They then worked in detail on history, traditions, emblems and culture; shared space and integration; young people and the future of our communities; and the role of women.

Despite the difficulties there was a surprising amount of consensus among the women from the outset, primarily because of their focus on commitment to making North Belfast a peaceful place where everyone can live together peacefully, and because of a shared concern for the young people of the area.

To read about the making of the Charter – and the Charter itself – in full, click here.

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