Edit Schlaffer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)–This week, women from the Middle and Near East, Africa and Europe are having their passports stamped in Vienna, Austria, and making their way to meet one another.

Today and tomorrow about 200 women are attending the first international conference organized by Women Without Borders, a new Vienna-based organization that supports women and their inclusion in politics and civil society.

One of those passing through customs is Igballe Rogova, a resident of Pristina, Kosovo, who will be there to share her civil war experiences from the former Yugoslavia. Rogova, a former employee at a Pristina television station, was fired, along with all Albanians, from her job in 1990. Though Albanians accounted for 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, the Serbian government wielded power and many Albanians lost their jobs.

Not willing to be idled, Rogova immediately organized literacy courses for women and provided humanitarian aid. From 1994 until 1999, she and other female activists from Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina met every year under the name, “Women in Black Against Militarism,” an off-shoot of the international peace organization, Women in Black. Organizing protests and letter campaigns in Serbia, the women spoke out against then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s government.

Their idea was to keep communicating, keep hanging together, while the political structures in which they lived were falling apart.

In July 1999, the Milosevic regime ended. But this changed little for women. They noticed that the international community, with its reparation efforts, overlooked them. They needed to unite.

This week’s conference, Women Included!, is designed to give women, such as Rogova, strength in numbers, visibility and a wider network of contacts. Though she will share her experiences with activism, she is eager to hear the stories of women from Afghanistan and Iraq, including the details about how they were consulted–or not–by international agencies during the reconstruction process.

If one thing distinguishes Women Without Borders from other organizations, say participants, it is that its goals reflect the goals of women across the world. As such, participants hope it has the potential to be a conduit for change, even when it comes to the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The quest of women for a dignified, just, and humane way of life is boundless. An international network of women working for peace gives form to this concept,” says Naomi Chazan, from the Peace Coalition in Israel, who hopes to use the conference as a means to take a more active part in ongoing talks with Palestinians. “A conference that focuses on engendering peace processes helps to empower women–both Israelis and Palestinians–in their ongoing quest for a just solution to the conflict.”

Strengthening Democracy

As parts of the world are undergoing historic change and, in many cases, strife, conference organizers hope to “fortify democracy.”

“Women have to speak up, plan, negotiate and be part of the government,” Edit Schlaffer, head of Women Without Borders, writes on the group’s Web site. “We demand the acknowledgment of a new political situation: the heightened inclusion of women in international politics, for they play a deciding role in the economic, political and social development of their countries.”

Schlaffer also hopes the conference will spur greater participation by women in politics. According to October 2003 statistics from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, women account for 15.2 percent of the world’s parliamentarians. Though that number is growing, it still leaves room for improvement, says Schlaffer.

“Together we will work on strategies in order to have their demands be heard,” she says.

She says that a possible outcome of the conference is to implement similar workshops in the represented countries and continue dialogue and activism.

“The central aim is that women negotiate their future,” she says. “And this conference will be a mosaic in that process.”

Schlaffer has not always been rousing women from the pulpit of a human rights organization. For years, she and Cheryl Benard, U.S. sociologist, author and Women Without Borders co-founder, conducted research on gender and international relations for the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Austria. Then, the two social scientists hit an international current event that led them to form Women Without Borders.

They were moved to action by the resistance work of women in Afghanistan.

“When the Taliban attempted to exclude women from public life completely and raised worldwide international awareness, we knew that we had to do something,” Schlaffer tells Women’s eNews. “We did what we are trained for.”

The women conducted a study and documented the resistance work of the Afghan women who ran secret schools and health services.

“We soon realized that the case of Afghanistan represents a unique opportunity to document the real process behind such contemporary concepts as ’empowerment’ and ‘participation,'” she says.

Their work resulted in a book about the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, a human-rights organization founded in 1977.

Countering the Effects of War

Since 2002, Women Without Borders has been actively working with activists, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies to assist the efforts of women working toward stability in war-torn areas.

In a little over a year, its projects have ranged from supporting the establishment of a women’s shelter in Zaranj, the capital of the Afghan province Nimruz, to taking donations for athletic programs for two girls’ schools in Kabul. Currently, the group is planning a campaign in Kosovo that is directed at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the organizer of the 2004 elections, to ensure that women can vote independently.

Last month, the organization began a voter-outreach program in Afghanistan to support women in their efforts to participate in upcoming elections. The group plans to extend their efforts to Africa, where they want to launch a Girl’s Parliament project in cooperation with South Africa.

The group, Schlaffer says, is always looking for new projects, and such enthusiasm is overwhelming at times. “But more often we get very impatient and cannot wait to see progressive change and instant results.”

Building Global Networks

Along the way, the group has piqued the interest of female activists around the globe. And this week, many of them will arrive to network and learn more about the group that has been a sheer cyber correspondence thus far.

Sama Aweidah, director of Women’s Studies Center in Palestine and general director of the Arab Women’s Forum expresses hope that the conference will lead to profound change in her region and across the globe.

“We aim at exchanging experiences in order to achieve our goals and we aim at building bridges between all women of the world who share these goals.”

Mindy Kay Bricker is a freelance journalist living in Prague, Czech Republic.

For more information:

Women Without Borders:

Kosovo Women’s Network:

Israeli Peace Movement: