by Astrid Lium
Since 1911, initially in Europe and North America, March 8 has marked International Women’s Day. In the United States, Congress passed a bill in 1981 authorizing President Ronald Reagan to declare March 7 of the following year to start “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed another bill designating March “Women’s History Month.”
The celebration has since expanded into The Middle East, Africa and Asia. Around the world, it marks an observance of women’s efforts toward political and social equality, as well as a general appreciation and respect of women, moving in the mainstream direction of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
In Boston, the Women’s Forum at the United Nations Association of Greater Boston (UNA-GB) observed the movement with its annual “International Women’s Day Celebration.” Held at the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) conference center, the March 5 event included a screening of War Redefined (2011)–the final film of the “Women, War and Peace” series–followed by a panel discussion.
The four guest speakers included Abigail E. Disney, documentary filmmaker and executive producer of the series; Swanee Hunt, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP); Dr. Amani El-Jack, professor of Women’s Studies at UMASS Boston; and Sahana Dharmapuri, creator of the Carr Center’s Gender and Security Seminar series.
Disney, who directed the featured documentary, also introduced it. “There is nothing more invigorating for a filmmaker’s soul than an audience,” she said to the crowd of about 100. Her previous films in the series, which focus on international social causes, include Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008), Playground (2009), Sun Come Up (2010) and Family Affair (2010).
Narrated by Geena Davis, War Redefined focuses primarily on how warfare and wartime violence affect women. It includes footage from Bosnia, Liberia and other war-torn countries, and interviews with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretaries of State Condolezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, and Founder of Women for Women International Zainab Salbi, among others.
After the screening, Hunt explained that, in her political experience, peace negotiations always exclusively involved men. She countered that women can provide solutions as they know what is best for their own countries. “[These] women know what they want,” she said. “We just need to ask.”
El-Jack expounded on the topic, claiming that women play complex, multi-dimensional roles during war and peace. Referring to a conversation with a friend in Nairobi, she said, “What does peace mean from a woman’s perspective? War is a foolish game invented by men, played by men, and should be stopped by women.”
Dharmapuri noted that women’s involvement in the military and peacekeeping operations helps promote human rights in overseas missions. She underscored the importance of taking action along with dialogue. While talking about the issues mark an essential step in the process, she emphasized that preventative measures as well as reactionary ones were integral to problem solving.
After each panelist discussed women, war and the documentary screening, they answered audience questions. Issues regarding the Rwandan genocide, violence and mass rape in the Congo, and the big business of international arms dealing were addressed.
Despite the somber conclusions drawn, a final note of optimism emerged from the discussion. The four speakers agreed that, for positive change, shifting the legacy of war to a movement of peace, as well as cooperation between men and women are both necessary.
In her Huffington Post blog about the film, Disney wrote, “War Redefined aims to challenge conventional understandings of war. We hope that after watching all five episodes you are left with a profound new comprehension of war, its true reach and implications, and of the critical role women play not only in its conduct, but in its resolution.”