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Why mothers push for peace

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Cindy Sheehan has swiftly become a media star after setting up a "peace camp" outside US President George W Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Ms Sheehan, whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq last year, has vowed to remain for the duration of his holiday, or until he consents to talk to her.

Ms Sheehan is campaigning for the US to withdraw its troops from Iraq, where American casualties are rising towards the 2,000 mark.

Many of the supporters who have joined her sport shirts that say: "Talk to Cindy.

And while Mr Bush has declined to speak to her, he has been unable to ignore her.

He dispatched national security adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin to talk to her then he publicly said that while he sympathised with Ms Sheenan, pulling out of Iraq would be a mistake.

There is a long tradition of bereaved mothers campaigning for peace, both in the US and elsewhere in the world.

And while the poignancy of their protest inevitably attracts public attention, their campaigns have had mixed outcomes.

The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in Russia, a human rights organisation, has been campaigning against conscription and the war in Chechnya for years.

The group, which has become a bit of a thorn in the government's side and attracted international attention, met Chechen rebel representatives in London this year in an effort to end the decade-long war.

The Russian government, however, expressed much scepticism.

And in Argentina, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo continue their decades-old marches in Buenos Aires on behalf of loved ones abducted by Argentina's 1976-1983 military regime.

The women, whose children had been "disappeared", became a force to be reckoned with, playing a significant role in the eventual collapse of the military regime.

They no longer believe that the "disappeared" are alive but are determined to keep their names in the public eye in the hope that those responsible for the crimes will one day be brought to justice.

So what is it that turns maternal grief into a political force?

"There is a tiger-mother in most of us women, something that says 'don't put my son or my daughter in this position'," says Elisabeth Rehn former defence minister of Finland and former adviser with the UN department for peace keeping.

A few years ago, Ms Rehn visited 14 war zones and compiled a wide-ranging UN report on women and conflict.

"Women very much take on the burden of the push for peace. Men have other agendas, such as power and position. And, when mothers become desperate they take stronger steps.

"Mothers have been touched by what the war really means. Men see war in a different way. They argue that there will always be victims and that sacrifices have to be made for the country."

Helen Rappaport, author of An Encyclopaedia of Women Social Reformers says there is no doubt that it is instinctive in most women to be conciliators and urge co-operation and restraint.

"It comes down to a natural sexual difference. Historically, men made the war and women stayed at home."

Ms Rappaport, who also lectures on the subject of women and social reform says that women tend to get the compassion vote when they campaign for peace but are not really taken seriously by governments.

"Historically, there have been some extraordinary women who have stood up to protest against war. But, largely, while women provoke sympathy or empathy, they have not had much success at collective campaigning for peace."

Four Mothers
Ms Rehn agrees. "Some government allow things from women that they wouldn't allow from men because they don't see them as a serious threat. The Russian government, for example, doesn't see the Russian Mothers as that much of a threat."

There are, or course, examples of mothers who have been successful in their goals.

One such was the Israeli grassroots group called the Four Mothers, which is widely credited with playing a significant part in shaping Israeli public opinion towards pulling the military out of Lebanon in 2000.

The group was set up in 1997 soon after two helicopters flying to Lebanon collided, killing all 73 personnel on board.

The mothers, who had sons who had been either killed or wounded in Lebanon, fanned out across the country campaigning for a pullout.

The Four Mothers gained immediate media attention and their numbers quickly swelled.

However, they were dismissed by the military and political establishment as either too emotional or unable to grasp the security concerns.

That is until Ehud Barak defeated the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election in 1999.

Within days, Mr Barak, who had campaigned for a pullout from Lebanon, met with Four Mothers and promised that all troops would be home by the end of July 2000.

The Jerusalem Post hailed them at the time as "one of the most successful grassroots movements in Israeli history."

"From the beginning, it was so shocking to the Israeli public that it was mothers who were demanding answers from the government," said Linda Ben Zvi, a leading member of the group at the time.

"Mothers were supposed to make the schnitzel and hand- wash the uniforms and play the passive role."


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And that is the reason why they continually try to suppress women. War "games" would decrease substantially if not stop.

You don't stop being a mother because your child dies.

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