U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson

(WOMENSENEWS)–As each day’s tragic headlines make clear, post-Saddam Iraq is still plagued by major security issues and economic deprivation. And evidence is mounting that women’s ability to fully enjoy human rights–indeed, even to demand such rights–is integrally linked to their economic empowerment.

The lack of security is restricting women’s mobility outside the home, reproductive-health services, education, jobs, prenatal care, social services, child care, and other gender issues must all be addressed. Inclusion of women in decision-making positions as well as their participation in the transitional government is critical to ensure that their needs are met.

On June 12, 2003 on the same day that I joined my colleagues on the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and held a briefing on women survivors in postwar Iraq, I, as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, was also honoring Shoshana Johnson, the first African American female prisoner of war.

The confluence of those events brought home to me the dichotomies that women, in all their various roles, now face during and after war. Again, the same feeling I had two years ago–about the importance of women gaining a stronger voice and role in war-related issues–completely enveloped me.

Shortly after the horrific events of on September 11, a United States declaration of war became an ever-present possibility and media coverage of related atrocities was intense. In the midst of such a difficult time for our nation, my heart became heavy as I read a story of 12-year-olds being forced into combat and realized those children abroad were victims of terror and war, just as all Americans were.

I thought about U.S. women who might have to watch their children go off to war and refused to accept that a woman could carry a child for nine months and experience the pain of childbirth, only for her son or daughter to be sent off to war and die on a battlefield. I thought to myself that this offends the world’s sense of decency and the code of conduct of civilized nations.

At that moment I decided it was incumbent upon me–not only as a member of Congress, but as a mother and grandmother–to take action.

In March, 2002, I officially launched “A World of Women for World Peace.” The program provides a unique opportunity for women from all over the world to discuss viable alternatives to war and violence and ways to get women more involved in every level of the peace process.

Congressional Push to Involve Women in Peace Building

My first step was on December 13, 2001, when I introduced House Concurrent Resolution 290, which focuses on the role and necessity of women in peace negotiations, peace building and reconstruction efforts. It also calls on civic groups, women’s groups, and others throughout the world to speak up for world peace. The resolution was re-introduced during this Congress and is still pending passage.

My resolution also designates May, the month in which Mother’s Day is traditionally celebrated in the United States, as an appropriate time to focus on women and peace. It was through Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, who organized Mother’s Friendship Days as a way of healing the scars of the Civil War, that Mother’s Day was eventually established as a holiday in 1914.

To better promote international peace and increase women’s participation in the process, I met with many distinguished peace advocates from all over the world. Among them were Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, founder and executive director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling, which is dedicated to improving the social and legal status of Palestinian women, and Terry Greenblatt, director of the Israeli organization Bat Shalom (Daughter of Peace). They were the first to join me in a National Day of Dialogue.

The National Day of Dialogue marked the gathering of scholars, Nobel laureates, government officials and Members of Congress with the single goal of discussing how women could have a greater voice in preventing and resolving national and international conflicts. International peace groups such as Women Waging Peace in Cambridge, Mass., Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, based in New York, Hague Appeal for Peace also based in New York, Women’s EDGE, Seeds of Peace and others have signed on as key supporters of A World of Women for World Peace.

Postwar Meetings with Female Iraqi Leaders

To gain a clearer understanding of the challenges facing women in post-war Iraq, I met in April with 26 Iraqi women leaders in Washington, D.C. They included expatriates from the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Several women came directly from Iraq, including the female minister of reconstruction and development of Northern Iraq and the president of the Assyrian Women’s Union in Iraq. About 60 other experts from key international and federal agencies also participated in this gathering that aroused just as many emotions as it did facts.

Shortly after that meeting, I went on the first Congressional Delegation to visit the war-torn area. After returning from Iraq, Republican Congressman Dave Hobson of Ohio and I on May 22, 2003 introduced House Concurrent Resolution 196, which urges the federal government to provide assistance to the women of Iraq in order to strengthen and stabilize the emerging Iraqi democracy.

Dangerous Time for Women in Iraq

Given the human, financial and emotional costs of war, I was overwhelmed by the certainty that the burden of peacemaking and peace-building cannot be left to one institution, gender or political party. It must be a shared responsibility that encompasses all, regardless of race, class, gender or religion because every one of us pays for the human and economic costs of war.

The military budget is projected to rise to an outrageous $480 billion annually, but damages can’t merely be measured with statistics or dollars and cents. The human costs are torn and displaced communities, women suffering the ravages of rape and widowhood, children with missing limbs and orphans without the hope of education or healthcare.

It is worth remembering what General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.”

To all those committed to real and lasting peace in the Middle East, I have only four words: “No women, no peace.”

Congresswoman Johnson is serving her sixth term representing the Thirtieth Congressional District of Texas. She was named by Ebony Magazine as one of the Ten Most Powerful African American Women of 2001.