Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2004

The WCW 2004 International Research and Action Conference: Innovations in Understanding

130 participants from across the globe convened in Wellesley from April 25 to 28, 2004.

In April, the Wellesley Centers for Women waspleased to welcome colleagues working in 46 countries across the globe to the WCW 2004 International Research and Action Conference: Innovations in Understanding Violence Against Women. Chaired by Linda Williams, Victoria Banyard, and Nada Aoudeh, this truly international meeting was designed for researchers, activists, advocates, and practitioners from theacademic, nongovernmental, community-based, and government domains.

To maximize the opportunity for all attendees to actively participate, the number of participants was kept relatively small, with only 130 spaces available. The conference featured a distinguished anddiverse group of plenary-session speakers. However, most of themeeting revolved around94 field-initiated paper and roundtable discussion sessions concerning violence against women.

By placing gender-based violencein global, cultural, and local community contexts, theconference participants took a groundbreaking stance not usually evidenced at conferences onviolence against women in the U.S. Referring tothe well-received plenary panel “Violence and theIntersection of Multiple Oppressions,” Khatidja Chantler of the U.K. remarked, “The place of thepanel in a plenary session is noteworthy as itrepresents a shift to the center from the frequentlymarginalized spaces that such discussions inhabit.”

Notably, the conference participantsplaced the lived experiences of women and girls at the centerof inquiry. The voices of women were heard at the conference through the mixed-methods employed by researchers in their work. Research efforts thatadvanced the use of gender-relevant methodswere highlighted, and conference participants— includingresearchers, advocates and practitioners—tied their findingsto actions needed to prevent and ameliorate violence against women.

The conference design promoted dialogue and successfully fostered networking and the formation of collaborations across and within countries. As Indai Sajor stated in the closing plenary, “Working together and listening to one another, which we did in the past few days, we believe a better world is possible.”

One of the many topics covered at the conference concerned the way in which living in war zones and conflict areas affects women. Participants working in many conflict areas across the globe, including Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, El Salvador, and East Timor, demonstrated that armed conflict and the war on terror not only reduce the mobility of women but also contribute to discrimination against them. Women’s work and schooling—and the economic independence that can come from them—often suffer to a greater degree than do men’s, and the negative consequences of war and of the war on terror can affect women who live outside the zones of actual armed conflict.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s keynote presentation noted that, until recently, research did not focus on the way war affects women, or did so only when it served the purposes of those in power. The traumatic experience of war victimization and its pain, anguish, despair, sadness, and effects on individual women and girls formed the core of her presentation. Across the globe accounts of women’s victimization and trauma are silenced, and women’s coping, adaptation, and survival often are not discussed. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work, like the work of many others at the conference, revealed the historical impact of political violence on violence against women and the political legacy of the silencing of women’s victimization.

Another focus of the conferencewas the complex challenges inherent in conducting research onviolence against women in different cultural contexts. Incidence and prevalence studies inRussia, Japan, East Timor, the U.S., and manycountries in Africa and Latin America were discussed and compared. A number of sessionsaddressed the importance of women’s narrativesof violence in unraveling the intersection of race,gender, and class as well as understanding strategies for confronting the violence. Narrativeswere also used to understand women’sexperiences of violence over the life course. Research incorporating women’s narratives cancontextualize and validate women’s experiences inways that strictly quantitative research can not.The work of many participants from across the globe, including the Asian and Pacific IslanderInstitute on Domestic Violence and the MedicalResearch Council of South Africa, highlighted thenarrative as an important way of researching thetrafficking of women and girls, prostitution andsex work, female genital cutting, and so-called“ honor killings,” or femicide.

Other presenters examined theuse of the international human-rights framework as a way ofapproaching efforts to prevent violence against women. Projects in U.S. communities and inUganda that have applied this framework weredescribed, as were efforts in other countries through the work of Amnesty International.

Conference participants stressedthe need to connect violence against women locally to globalconditions and struggles in order to put an end toviolence against women around the world. At theclose of the conference, a working group prepareda statement that many attendees signed. Thisstatement appears on the conference website andidentifies four urgent areas for research and action.

First, based on presentations highlightingtheimpact of war and occupation on women, it isclear that in times of increased global militarism,physical and sexual violence against women by thestate, community, and family members intensifies.

Second, restrictions on freedom introduced as part of the war on terror have become a part of many women’s lives at home and abroad. In particular, women identified as coming from Islamic communities endure racial profiling and increased surveillance of their families and communities.

Third, the tightening of borders of western nation states through immigration controls has also increased women’s vulnerability. Abused women whose immigration status is uncertain do not have access to necessary support services, keeping the women trapped in abusive relationships.

The fourth critical area is the effect of globalization on women as it specifically pertains to forced trafficking and selling of women across borders. The growing demand for buying sex and cheap labor in rich countries has increased the vulnerability of socially marginalized women in poor countries to such abuses.

WCW is working to make the material from the conference easily accessible. Abstracts of conference papers are available on WCW’s website, and copies of PowerPoint presentations should soon be posted. Papers from the conference are currently being considered for publication as WCW Working Papers, which will make them available without the usual delay involved in journal publication.

As would be expected with a topic as complex as violence against women, the conference generated more questions than answers. It heightened awareness of the need for continuing dialogue and for an increasingly nuanced understanding of the issues. Conference organizers are planning to bring participants together for further seminars, discussion, and action in the coming months.