Thursday, August 27, 2020

Anniversary. 'The Beijing Express Declaration' (UNSCR 1325). Aboard the trans-Siberian train to the 1995 Fourth UN Conference on Women


By Lesley Abdela



On this week 25 years ago I was aboard the UNDP ‘Beijing Express’ train travelling to the 1995 United Nations 4th Global Conference on Women. The demands in the Beijing Express Declaration drawn up in carriage 16 aboard the train have a strong resonance for a post Covid 19 better world.



The half a kilometre long line of coaches set off from Warsaw’s main railway station at 9am on August 21, 1995, destination Beijing.  The journey was to change the direction of my life.   My fellow passengers were a microcosm of the 35,000 women (and the few men) from 189 countries heading to Beijing for the now iconic 1995 United Nations 4th Global Conference on Women. They were former political prisoners, trade unionists, Members of Parliament, activists, business entrepreneurs, journalists, peace activists, authors, artists, and refugees.

Many had been directly on the receiving end of disastrous man-made policies. These women wanted the power to shape a better future.


Many of the passengers came from opposing sides in conflicts. At our eve of departure dinner in Warsaw, Greek and Turkish Cypriot women announced, ‘This is the first time we Greeks and Turks have been allowed to talk together in 25 years. We want to start a new peace initiative.’


It was on the train with these women from the Balkans, the Baltics, the Caucasus,  Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Mozambique, Lebanon and Cyprus that I realised my life growing up in the United Kingdom in peace-time democracy was not the norm. The normality for many others was to grow up in countries where there was conflict or full-scale war and very little, (if any) democracy. That was the first time this reality had been spelt out to me. Until then my main focus had centred on getting more women elected to the UK’s and world parliaments. In 1980 I had founded and led the all-Party 300 Group for Women in Politics campaign. After the Beijing Express experience my activities extended to women, peace and security.


The UNDP Beijing Express Train was dreamed up by UNDP Senior Executive Leueen Miller from the Republic of Ireland. It gave 250 women who would not have been able to financially afford to go to the historic conference the chance to participate. UNDP invited  government and non-governmental representatives from 36 countries to travel aboard.


The UNDP chartered President Yeltsin’s t train from the Russians. The carriages were more accustomed to housing the Russian political and military glitterati than the world’s feminists. Eight burly members of the Russian Black Berets’ special commandos rode shot-gun to protect us from mafia and terrorist attacks, even a rumoured possible ‘train-nap’ by Chechen rebels. Our musclemen bodyguards made Rambo look like a wimp. When we set off from Warsaw one of them hoisted aboard my large suitcase, laden with books, and papers as though it were light hand-baggage.


The majority of the women on the Beijing Express were from former Soviet Union and satellite nations.  This would be the first time they could represent their newly independent nations.  At the time of the previous UN conference on women in 1985 in Nairobi, these nations had still been subsumed in the Soviet empire. Ziva Vidmar from Ljubljana, Slovenia, said, ‘Ten years ago I heard on the radio news about the UN Third World conference on women in Nairobi. The speaker said there would be a similar conference in 1995. I thought lucky women who will be there! I envied them but as it turned out I was envying myself. Here I am.’ 


Life Aboard

In front of us stretched a journey of 8000 kilometers  (5,734) miles along the trans-Siberian railway, the longest continuous rail journey in the world. The train was crammed to the gunnels with Oligocen mineral water, snacks from Kraft Jacobs Suchard, supplies from Xerox and 3M, five pallets of Danone Yoghurt, computers from Rent-a-PC plus Accent computer software and an umbrella size satellite dish.


Local bands, dancers, singers, political dignitaries and women with flowers greeted us with music and speeches along our route. We danced on railway station platforms from Moscow to Mongolia. In Minsk, capital of Belarus, as Greek and Turkish Cypriot women danced together to a local Belarus band they shouted, ‘We want the world to see us together - Greeks and Turks - we women will show you how to build a better future.’ Greek and Turkish Cypriots co-hosted an evening party aboard the train titled, ‘Enemies sing dance and read poetry together’. One of those singers was Katie Economidou. She is now a famous mezzo-soprano singer. The final entertainment in our honour was at 4 o’clock in the morning in a railway station car-park on the Mongolia/China border. We were greeted by Mongolian women MPs and a nine-year old boy Monglian boy singing karaoke.


Life aboard was exhilarating but tiring. We travelled from Warsaw via Belarus, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and Northern China, to Beijing. We passed though seven time zones in eight days. The most oft-repeated questions each day was ‘what time is it?’

Moving our clocks back one hour or two hours each night, being awakened in the extreme early hours for customs at borders or to sing and dance on railway platforms with reception committees of women and dignatories along the way and getting up early to catch breakfast before my  first training shift meant I never got enough sleep. For eight days and seven nights I shared a two berth cabin with Katina. Mercifully for both of us Katina was the conflict prevention expert on the train.


The shower carriage was in the middle of the train. Our sleeping cabins were at one end of the train, and the bar and dining carriages were at the opposite end. My walks, several times a day, of the kilometre round trip between our cabin and my workshop sessions in the saloon-bar kept me physically fit. Government officials and NGO activists shared six-berth sleeping cabins. Along the train corridors posters and flags stuck on the cabin doors proclaimed the nationality of the room-mates. The corridor floor swayed like a ship’s deck. Striding along up and down the 19 carriages, with arms waving around like a tight rope walker to keep my balance acted as combined step exercises and aerobics. Wherever two carriages were linked I had to push a heavy door open and jump over two overlapping metal flaps slithering in opposite directions. The railway track below was clearly visible on either side. Not a comfortable sensation for someone like me who suffers from vertigo!

The Russian Railways staff were helpful and polite. Our carriage attendant Natalie kept us supplied with tea from a samovar. She also rescued me on a couple of occasions when I needed a quick wash and a mirror and didn’t have time to wait in the queue for the showers in the shower carriage.


My role aboard the train was to conduct workshops on activism, democratisation,  and advocacy. The UK Government Know-How Fund and The British Council funded my passage to represent the UK on the train as part of a  multi-national team. We all gave our time free of charge. My fellow Trainers and experts aboard the train came from the USA, Canada, Israel, Japan and Turkey and South African-born anti-apartheid campaigner Stephanie Urdang. They conducted workshops on negotiating skills, conflict mediation and conflict resolution, on how to change world trade agreements and create economic policies to suit the world's women - even courses in English language, computer skills and networking through e-mail.


The 25 women in my training group were courageous campaigners from 17 countries alphabetically from Armenia to Uzbekistan. Ala Mindicanu MP, author of children’s books, had been branded ‘The most dangerous person in the Republic of Moldova’ and arrested twice for organising pickets in support of Perestroika. ‘I was lucky,’ she said, ‘I was only imprisoned for a few days. By then the judges had changed too. They said pickets are a new development there is no law against them.’ She added, ‘I am campaigning for more women in politics because we are only 4% in our Parliament, but women make up over 60% of high school graduates.


The Beijing Express was a bizarre training environment. Workshop sessions and discussions were held in the train’s dining carriage, eight-seater railway cabins or the saloon bar. The barman who served us vodka or Coca-Cola at US$2 a drink was the same barman who served Russia’s President Yeltsin. During my workshop sessions I glimpsed  the scenes flashing past the train windows: the unending silver-birch forests of Russia, the sunlit Alpine scenery of Siberia, 25% of the world’s drinking water in the rapidly shrinking Lake Baikal, and herds of ponies and a few of the estimated two million double-humped Bactrian camels roaming the Mongolian steppes.


From the train window the Siberian countryside looked green and attractive in the Summer sunshine. The reality for many aboard was different.  Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, the Soviet dictator Stalin conducted a series of cruel mass deportations which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. It is estimated that between 1941 and 1949 nearly 3.3 million women, men and children were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics. Our travelling companions described the impact on their families exiled to the Soviet Gulags in Siberia.  Tiia-Ingrid Kriisa from Estonia said the first time she travelled by train through Eastern Siberia was during the 1949 deportations. ‘I was six years old. I remember not only the journey, riding in wagons meant for animals, but also the night we were given a few minutes to pack before being taken away from our house and homeland and loaded on an open truck.’ She added, ‘This time I am travelling of my own free will with other free people!’

‘I am following the footsteps of my father’ said Ziva Vidmar from Slovenia. ‘He spent three years living in camp barracks as a prisoner of war here in Siberia. He survived without a blanket or a coat.’


Travelling on the UNDP Beijing Express was like living in a late-20th century version of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. Each woman had a tale to tell.  Bosnian lawyer Jasna Basksic-Mufti risked her life escaping  Serb-encircled Sarajevo to join the Beijing Express. She escaped by dead of night  through the famous tunnel from the besieged capital city with her two small children. ‘The tunnel is half a mile long and you have to stoop much of the way,’ she said. A truck met them at the end and drove them within 300 metres of the Serb front line over Mount Igman in the dark with the vehicle’s lights switched off. Jasna Basksic-Mufti was  President of the Human Rights Commission in the International Peace Centre, Sarajevo. Her Commission was one of the first to document the concentration camp rapes and ethnic cleansing. En route to Warsaw Jasmin had temporarily left her children at her mother’s home in Croatia. She planned to collect them and return to Sarajevo after the Beijing conference: ‘I would rather face the shelling than have to live the life of a refugee,’ she said. Mozambique MP Lina Magala had been a farmer growing rice , maize and banana in Mozambique now she campaigned to ban the use of child soldiers. It was the first time I heard about child-soldiers. Bosnian and Croatian women showed a horrifying film about the Balkan war. They were seeking overseas donors to financially ‘adopt’ 10,000 children in refugee camps.



The Beijing Express Declaration (27 August 1995)

On the sixth day of our journey, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Director of the UNDP Human Development Report office, invited me to chair and facilitate the final session aboard. The historic session took place in the carriage more usually serving as President’s Yeltsin’s bar. The goal was to draw up a statement we titled The Beijing Express Declaration.


Key themes from the UNDP Beijing Express Declaration later formed the basis of the first ever UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security whose twentieth anniversary arrives in October 2020. On 31 October 2000 The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). UNSCR 1325 called for an ‘increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’


The Beijing  Declaration was drawn up by a group of 25 women as we approached Beijing. It included women from Georgia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Poland, Moldova, Romania, the USA, the United Kingdom, Japan, Azerbaijan, Latvia, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, Kurdistan, Turkey , Bosnia, Cyprus and Russia. While mostly male diplomats and politicians continued along early 20th Century diplomacy, trying in vain to patch up over forty global conflicts, these women were looking for radical changes to prevent conflicts in the first place. Nani  Chanishvili from Georgia said, ‘What we need is prevention diplomacy. We in Georgia know how the population suffers. As a result of the war in Georgia 300,000 people fled as refugees. 30,000 died. We must put pressure on governments to allow the UN to go in earlier to stop conflicts and not have to wait to be allowed in. Under the present system the results of your peace building before, through, and after conflict are worse than zero.’  

The working group continued drafting the final Declaration throughout the night.  It has a strong resonance at this  time of discussions about a Post Pandemic world It included We affirmed the following:

White Scarves, Not Blue Helmets

(This heading is symbolic - in certain Islamic countries, when a woman throws down her white scarf no person must pass. This has been used on occasion to stop men fighting)

1.) We want women’s full participation in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-keeping. 2) The present system of peace-making and negotiations dominated by senior men at governmental levels has patently failed and is now discredited. We want women’s organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations from all sides in all future peace talks and working with governments on developing and expanding ‘Preventive Diplomacy’.

3) We want a ‘Hot Spot’ Commission set up to try to prevent conflict where trouble is brewing. This Commission, consisting of women and men, would be set up to intervene in conflict prevention, resolution and settlement.

4) We want the UN Mandate expanded to include Preventive Diplomacy.

5) We want economic and political sanctions imposed on parties violating human rights – but humanitarian aid should be allowed to continue to be delivered .

6) We want men who commit rape as a war crime to be brought to justice and prosecuted as war criminals. We believe this will only happen if women are included equally with men on committees responsible for bringing these men to trial.

7) We want property rights recognised as Human Rights, and improved mechanisms for getting back property snatched away in conflicts.

8) We want systems of national political and public life reformed to include women’s equal participation with men in political, economic and international decision-making at all levels, from local to national to global. This means also providing training and encouragement for women to participate in politics and public life.

9) We want government policies favourable to women. Many policies developed by governments either ignore women’s needs or actually harm women. We want governments in transition economies to show what impact their policies are having on women. This would be a way to get policymakers to develop policies that are women-friendly.


The New '-ism'

Neither Communism nor Capitalism has worked well for the majority of the world’s women. We believe the new ‘ism’ will come from a new approach to world economics.

Many economic policies have been disastrous for women. It is often women who bear the brunt of economic restructuring policies made by organisations who too often overlook the way their polices could impact on millions of women.


Under both Communism and Capitalism the quality of people’s lives is all too often sacrificed for the goal of wealth creation. Human development should not be sacrificed in the name of economic growth but rather economic growth should be used as a tool to help people achieve a healthy and creative life. We want governments to give financial support to women’s groups. These voices must be heard.


We want women’s unpaid work measured and recognised in economic arrangements such as pensions. Nearly 50% of the US$23 Trillion global output is provided by women’s unpaid work. We need fairer sharing of the work and equality in the home. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr of the UNDP says, “When we get world leaders to recognise that 70% of the world’s GDP is unpaid work, they won’t say women working at home can’t qualify for pensions on an equal basis with men.”


Since my life changing epic trip I have been feet on the ground in many conflict and post-conflict countries - as a journalist in Bosnia, as OSCE Deputy for Democratisation in Kosovo, as a Consultant assessing women’s needs in the immediate aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, a Civil Society Consultant working with women’s associations and Human Rights associations with RTI in Iraq, compiling needs assessments with women in Afghanistan, Senior Gender Advisor to the UN Agencies Nepal. As a civil  society consultant in Iraq. In 2019 I was in post-civil war Sri Lanka advising the British Council on mainstreaming gender into an language and arts Peace-building programmes. I have spoken about Women, Peace and Security  at conferences across the world on the need to fully implement UNSCR 1325 and its ‘daughter’ resolutions, including in the Summer of 2019 at conferences organised by the NGO ‘Democracy Today’ in Yerevan, Armenia, and at The University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki.




Sunday, March 08, 2020

International Women's Day, help to transform attitudes so that women and girls who have survived rape in deadly conflict are treated with dignity and respect by society, like other war veterans.

I ask everyone to think about ways you can help to transform  attitudes so that women and girls who have survived rape in  deadly conflict are treated with dignity and respect by society, like other war veterans. 

Men wounded in battle get statues, pensions and respect, but women and girls wounded by Conflict Related Sexual Violence are seen as something shameful. 

Whether it’s Syria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, the Yasidi community or elsewhere,  one of the most destructive powers of rape as a weapon of war lies in the deep-rooted stigma attached to women and girls who are survivors of Conflict Related Sexual Violence.  Their families fear being tarnished by the shame and stigma.  Long after the end of the conflict, wives, mothers and daughters who are CRSV Survivors, are ostracised by their husbands, families and communities. They are even told to kill themselves because they ‘have brought shame on their family’.

Female survivors of Conflict Related Sexual Violence could be helped  to overcome their horrendous experience if  their families, communities and everyone else  treat them with dignity and respect. 

We are holding a meeting on Tuesday 24 March at the House of Commons.  It would be super if you can come. You are welcome to bring a friend or colleague with you too. The link to register to attend is below.

Purpose of meeting on 24 March 2020

Back in 2015 Lesley Abdela and  Tim Symonds  arranged a discussion on this matter at the British Council HQ, including people from the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Society of Sculptors, and significant activists from major women’s campaign groups. 

We suggested the idea of a ‘Testament’, perhaps a physical monument (or?) in a public location, to mark the survivor spirit of the multitudes of women and girls who have been raped in war.  We thought to start at home in the UK. People in diverse countries can choose some similar construct or their own ways and methods. The aim is to help to encourage everyone to take actions to transform attitudes towards women and girls who have been raped in war.

The idea was met with great enthusiasm lots of good suggestions, but the main drivers of the idea, had to get on with their professional lives.

By popular acclaim we are returning to the idea see if/how  it can be moved forward. 

The main point of the meeting  will be to decide what sort of Testament, and where could it be best located for the maximum impact  if it has physical shape, i.e. a monument, or? And next steps for making it happen and how, 

You can register for the House of Commons meeting with this link. There is no charge to register nor to attend the meeting.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Boris Johnson's new Brexit Chief David Frost - threat to UK women's rights.

UK women beware of losing your rights! Alarm bells are clanging. Whether you voted to remain or leave the European Union or abstained – pay heed.
Boris Johnson’s new Brexit chief, David Frost, wants to scrap Theresa May’s commitment to protect British workers’ rights. This could result in women’s rights being consigned to the wheelie bin of history.

I have worked on women’s rights and Gender issues in over 50 countries and have watched  with alarm how, in the turmoil of a society in transition, whenever an opportunity arises to roll back women’s civil,  social, economic and political gains, they will be rolled back. It can happen with frightening speed as it did in former Communist countries and in the Arab uprisings. It is happening here in the UK.

David Frost former chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was appointed last week by Mr Johnson to replace Olly Robbins as Downing Street’s EU chief, a role that will see him leading any future talks with Brussels. Just two months ago David Frost former chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that EU rights should not automatically be written into law after Brexit. 

Frost is not the only man happy to scrap women’s hard won rights. Over the period of the BREXIT debate:
A headline in the Sunday Express was  specific: 

Former Conservative MEP Martin Callanan said in a speech:“One of the best ways to speed up growth is to … scrap the Pregnant Workers Directive and all of the other barriers to actually employing people if we really want to create jobs”. 
The EU has been at the forefront of driving greater gender equality for women. It has often felt over the years as though  the UK needed to be dragged along towards progress on women’s rights like an elephant on a piece of elastic. Without intervention from the European Union we would not have: 
·     equal treatment for part-time workers (the majority of whom are women); 
·     anti-discrimination legislation on employment, training and working conditions; 
·     the pregnant workers directive which gives women the right to take time off work to attend medical appointments; 
·     sex discrimination rules which place the burden of proof on the defendant. 
·     And it was the European Court of Justice that obliged the British government to amend the legislation to provide equal pay for work of equal value and to ensure women had equal pension rights with men.
Women's hard won rights, are prone to reversal at times of major changes and upheavals. This first came to my attention in the years immediately following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. I was working as a Consultant for programmes  on women’s leadership with the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard and with the EU across 11  former Communist countries from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary to the Baltics in the 1990s transition period.

Despite hopes that women would be one of the prime beneficiaries of the Arab Spring uprisings, they have instead been some of the biggest losers, as the revolts have brought conflict, instability, displacement and a rise in conservative religious groups in many parts of the region.
Until now here in the UK we  women have mostly relied  on EU law to make sure our rights get meaningful protection. EU directives provide a minimum standard for Member States. It is possible to go beyond these standards, but Member States cannot go beneath the floor. 

An article in the Telegraph was headlined:
The article said: ‘Britain must sweep aside thousands of needless EU regulations after Brexit to free the country from the shackles of Brussels, a coalition of senior MPs and business leaders have demanded.’

Calls to unravel what is seen by some as ‘European red tape’ are actually a threat to women’s hard won rights. Red tape also means regulations that protect citizens – women and men.
The loss of EU protection after Brexit would mean that the British government can do whatever it feels appropriate, unimpeded by international floors as the EU, safety net status will be removed.

At a meeting last year,  to shine a light on how to ensure precious rights gained by the majority gender during our long membership of the European Union are not set aside,  Professor Catherine Howard, Professor in European Union Law and Employment Law at the University of Cambridge,  explained “Under the current system if there is a conflict between EU and UK legislation, EU law would trump the UK directive. This means that an individual can go to their local court and get that corpusof the EU law enforced by the British courts. This principle is important for women. By abandoning such a system, rights for individual women and men  are at risk of being downgraded.” 


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sevgul Uludag first woman from Cyprus nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her journalistic work bringing Turkish and Greek Cypriots together.

My friend Sevgul Uludag has been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. 
She is the first woman from Cyprus to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her journalistic work in bringing together the two main communities of the island – Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots – by showing them with her work that their pain is a common human pain and through her work producing democratic solutions to the problems of the communities in Cyprus and her peace activism.

She helped to set up TOGETHER WE CAN where relatives of “missing persons” and victims of war from the two communities have been working together for the first time in the past decade to find burial sites of “missing persons”, as well as pioneering for reconciliation and peace and for facing the history of the conflict together in order to move towards the future. She set up a “Hot Line” with her own mobile phone and mobilised readers from both parts of the divided island to call in and give information to her about this sensitive humanitarian issue and as a result of these calls, many burial sites of “missing persons” on both sides of the island were found and remains of “missing persons” were exhumed by the official Cyprus Missing Persons’ Committee and returned to the relatives for burial. Her work heals wounds of the war and conflict in Cyprus. 
Uludag born in 1958 in Cyprus is an investigative journalist writing in newspapers in both parts of the divided island Cyprus in Turkish in YENIDUZEN and in Greek in POLITIS and on her blog in English, has focused for the past two decades on stories of “missing persons”, “mass graves” and “rapes during times of conflict” has been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. She is also a gender and peace activist and spent last four decades of her life, bringing together women from across the dividing line in Cyprus, setting up joint women NGOs, training women on peace, gender and organisational skills, pioneering in this field as a peace activist. 
She is one of the founders of HANDS ACROSS THE DIVIDE, the first bicommunal women’s NGO in Cyprus. She had also set up the Women’s Research Centre which held activities around gender and peace for many years, in coalition with women NGOs from both parts of the island. She was also one of the founders of Women’s Movement for Peace and a Federal Solution in Cyprus in the 80s… She worked voluntarily in the Women’s Platform in the 90s to train women on a big scale from rural to urban areas on issues of gender, peace and organisational skills.
She is the first woman from Cyprus to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her journalistic work in bringing together the two main communities of the island – Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots – by showing them with examplary pieces of her work that their pain is a common human pain and through her work producing democratic solutions to the problems of the communities in Cyprus and her peace activism.
She helped to set up TOGETHER WE CAN where relatives of “missing persons” and victims of war from the two communities have been working together for the first time in the past decade to find burial sites of “missing persons”, as well as pioneering for reconciliation and peace and for facing the history of the conflict together in order to move towards the future. She set up a “Hot Line” with her own mobile phone and mobilised readers from both parts of the divided island to call in and give information to her about this sensitive humanitarian issue and as a result of these calls, many burial sites of “missing persons” on both sides of the island were found and remains of “missing persons” were exhumed by the official Cyprus Missing Persons’ Committee and returned to the relatives for burial. Her work heals wounds of the war and conflict in Cyprus.
Sevgul Uludag has several international awards for her work like “Courage in Journalism” given by the International Women’s Media Foundation, “European Citizens’ Prize” given by the European Parliament, “Press Freedom Award” given by the Reporters Without Borders Austrian section. She has several books like “Strategy and Planning for Women in Politics” (in Turkish) and “Oysters with the Missing Pearls – Untold stories of missing persons, mass graves and memories from the past of Cyprus” (in Turkish, Greek and English), “Cyprus: The Untold Stories” (in English).
Throughout her life, Sevgul Uludag has been receiving death threats and she faced hate speech, psychological terror, intimidation… But she did not give up what she was doing and her work as an investigative journalist and as a peace and gender activist has been based on humanitarism and she works voluntarily as a humanitarian task, inspiring the two main communities of the island and giving hope for peace and reconciliation…
Contact details of Sevgul Uludag:
00 357 99 966518 and 00 90 542 853 8436

Photo shows Sevgul Uludag at the burial site in Kytherea,Cyprus.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hannah Yilma - Ethiopian activist, refugee, United Nations diplomat. 1943 – 2018. A personal tribute by Lesley Abdela


Hannah Yilma - Ethiopian activist, refugee, United Nations diplomat. 1943 – 2018

A personal tribute by Lesley Abdela

Hannah Yilma was a good friend for five decades. She was brave and cheerful no matter what life was throwing at her (and it did, in quantities). She was kind and funny and warm and passionate about politics. Hannah was quietly elegant with a wicked chuckle.

Born in Ethiopia, Hannah told me about happy times spent with her Father riding through their coffee plantation on horse-back when she was 14 or 15 years old. In this year of the 100th anniversary it is worth mentioning Hannah’s  parents knew Sylvia Pankhurst who lived in Ethiopia from the 1950s. Hannah’s Father helped support the monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, in which Sylvia reported on Ethiopian life and development. Hannah’s Mother was Elisabeth Workeneh, her Father, Yilma Deressa was  Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United States and Minister of Finance, at the time of Emperor Haile Selassie.

I first met Hannah in the 1960s when she came to London to attend St Godric’s Secretarial College. We met through mutual friends. She lived with a British family in Surrey who knew her Father through major agricultural business in Ethiopia. I remember admiring the  long light tweed winter dress she wore. It was under-stated quietly elegant with a pink coloured bodice and plaid checked skirt in the same pink with milky coffee beige. I went out and bought an identical dress.

The fact Hannah was at Secretarial College is ironic. She was dyslexic. Much of Hannah’s  life was a kaleidoscope of contradictions.   She looked well-behaved, demure and lady-like. Beneath she was unconventional.   In the swinging sixties she shared a flat in London with a couple of other friends.  One was Maggie Wolf. Maggie married Richard Mason, author of ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ on which the film of that name was based. Maggie and Richard moved to  Rome. Hannah was a frequent visitor.


Hannah’s  life changed after the Dergue government took power in Ethiopia in 1975. Following the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie, her Father was imprisoned with other ministers and members of the Emperor’s family. The Communist dictatorship  executed and imprisoned tens of thousands of its opponents without trial.

Hannah  became active in the opposition movement against the military regime.
She and her cousin Dereje Deressa formed the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) and ran the  opposition radio station, “Voice of United Ethiopia” hostile to the military regime. She married the celebrated Ethiopian writer Sibhat Gebre-egziabher.

After threats of assassination  Hannah and her young son Iyassu were rescued secretly by a pilot in a small plane and flown  across the border to safety.  She and her husband lived apart from then on.  Hannah never talked much to me about her husband. Their  relationship, their marriage, and their publication ventures are said to be described in a fictionalised account in the book Derasiw by author Baalu Girma. Her Father died of cancer a political prisoner in an Addis Ababa prison.( Aged 71 in January 1979.)


Hannah experienced racism a number of times. At one stage when she rented author Neville Shute’s house in Seven Sisters, London she was furious with the local state school teacher who suggested 8 year son Iyassu should focus on sport rather than academic subjects. Hannah  said, “ They jumped to the assumption because he is black he should do sport. ” Hannah battled with the school to ensure her son had every academic opportunity.
 When he was a bit older the friends in Surrey enabled Iyassu to continue his education at a Boarding School in Surrey.   Iyassu graduated in Chemistry from Imperial College, University of London.

Later Hannah and her British Partner of many years, were living in flat in Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale. His company offered him promotion to a top job in the USA.  He told Hannah his employers, a major petroleum company said he would not be allowed to take Hannah with him to the United States.  He would need to choose between career promotion and living with his ‘black girl-friend’.

She  was left with the apartment, but she had no way of earning an income in the UK.
Hannah usually gave an outward positive view of life. But one day confided to me how tough things had become, ‘ Who wants to employ a 40 something, who is dyslexic, and who is black’ she said.  I was able to lend her money from winnings from a bet I put on John Major to become Leader of the Conservative Party. The odds were 50 to 1. (She paid me back the loan many years later.)

Hannah’s life continued to be under threat. One day when I was staying with her and Iyassu in their Flat in Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale. London.   She loaned me her dark red Volvo to drive somewhere. I opened the glove compartment to look for the ‘A to Z map’ and saw a gun there.  I was shaken. In the UK almost no-one carried guns. I asked Hannah about the gun ‘I keep the gun for my protection’ she said.


In 1991 she was finally offered a job where she could use her diplomatic skills. Hannah was an ace networker.   She became an Information Officer in the UN Department of Public Information. Hannah Yilma participated in two field missions; the UN Protective Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia, from 1994 to 1995, and the UN Observer Mission to South Africa (UNOMSA), from 1992-1994, as Civil Affairs Officer and Peace Observer. Prior to her final posting in South Africa, she served as a Political Affairs officer in the Situation Centre in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 1995-1998 and then held the post of Associate Spokesman in the Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General from 1998 to 2000.

She retired as the Director of the UN Information Centre Pretoria in 2005 and stayed on living in Pretoria.   I stayed with Hannah overnight in 2005 on my way to catch my flight home to UK from Johannesburg after a month I spent working on a project assessing the situation on women’s rights in Swaziland. Life had finally worked out for her. She was living in a large gated community in a nice house with a garden beside a lake.    In retirement she  remained actively involved in in non-governmental work, as well as in the diplomatic corps in South Africa.


Several of us from London of the 1960s remained lifelong friends with Hannah. In  2016 She  organised a small reunion dinner in a Greek taverna in Bayswater for Advertising Photographer Sanders Nicolson  from Scotland, Maggie Wolf from Rome and her brother Adrian. Five decades earlier we had all been together just across the road at Queensway Ice skating rink when we heard the news US President John Kennedy had been shot .

Hannah and I last spoke on the phone in early June this year She told me she had ovarian cancer and it had been treated with a hysterectomy and chemo. She thought she was on the road to recovery. . She sounded optimistic and busy. It was a tremendous shock when her son Iyassu called.
She died in S.Africa where she lived for the past 20 years.

Here is a pic I took of Hannah in 2012. We had lunch together at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington and made a ‘pilgrimage’ to her son Iyassu’s alma mater Imperial College, nearby.

Hannah was rightly immensely proud of Iyassu. He is a leader in  preclinical drug discovery, early clinical development programs and therapeutic areas spanning cardiometabolic (diabetes, obesity, hypertension) and neuroscience (cognition). He was Director of Chemistry at Merck Pharmaceuticals in the USA and is now Head of Chemistry and Senior Director at Kallyope, New Jersey, USA.

As well as her son Iyassu Sebhat, Hannah Yilma  leaves two sisters Salome and Sophia.
(31 May 1943 – 14 August 2018)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

#Vote100 Salute to Millicent Fawcett women's suffrage campaign Leader

Salute to Dame Millicent Fawcett DBE  
President of the -The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) 1897 until 1919.

Millicent Fawcett campaigned within the law which is why she is less well known today than the Pankhursts' suffragette movement. As a campaigner myself for women's rights I can truly say that the scale of Millicent Fawcett's achievement, her tenacity  and determination is absolutely awesome. Millicent Fawcett was President of The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) 1897 until 1919.
The NUWSS was fifty times bigger than the militant suffrage movement - the Women's Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU)with only some 2,000 members. Millicent Fawcett's suffrage union had 500 local branches and over 100,000 members. They held over 300 public meetings per week and massive peaceful marches, organised petitions, wrote letters.  Millicent Fawcett Millicent Fawcett was an exceptionally capable organiser, mobiliser and fund-raiser for 'the cause'. She used constitutional methods. Her approach was to use reason an/d patience, based on persistent lobbying and public education.
Millicent Fawcett was one of the vintage generation of women activists who brought about reforms for women's  lives that impact on us today.    One of the scenes in history that I would most like to have witnessed is a scene in 1860 at the Garrett family home - Alde House, Aldeburgh. In front of the bedroom fire, three girls were brushing their hair. They were two sisters : Elizabeth and Millicent Garrett, and their friend, the famous feminist Emily Davies. Emily was 29,  Elizabeth 23 and Millicent 13. As they brushed their hair they chatted: "Women can get nowhere", said Emily, "'unless they are as well educated as men. I shall open the universities." She did it. In her life Emily Davies succeeded in opening up access to women for university   - including founding Girton College College.

"Yes," agreed her friend Elizabeth Garrett . 'We need education but we need an income too and we can't earn that without training and a profession. I shall start women in medicine."  She did it. Elizabeth Garrett became the first qualified British woman Doctor. Elizabeth Garrett Browning Hospital is named after her.

Elizabeth looked at her younger sister and said, "But what shall we do with Milly?"  They agreed that Millie should get the parliamentary vote for women. Millicent too succeeded in her allotted life- task.
Millicent  (Garrett) Fawcett  campaigned for over 60 years from 1857 until 1928 -  for women to have the right to vote and to stand for parliament and to have full  rights as equal citizens with men.  She was author a number of publications. Her: 'Political Economy for Beginners' became a bestseller with ten editions in twenty-five years.

Shameful behaviour of Gladstone, Churchill and Asquith
 In giving her entire adult life to the great cause, fighting every day for votes for women, she and her suffragist supporters  were endlessly mocked, derided and treated with contempt by these pillars of the British Establishment The great political 'A' List celebrity beasts who are so revered today, Gladstone, Winston Churchill, Asquith and their colleagues have a shameful record of duplicity and arrogance. These men in no way behaved as democrats.
For daring to ask for democracy - the right for half the population to have a say in who governs Britain  Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her fellow suffrage campaigners were the butt of ribald humour, adverse press comment, and duplicity.  The very mention of the word 'women' in the House of Commons produced laughter and derision. In a debate in the House of Commons, Liberal MP Labouchere said - "it would be as useful to extend the vote to rabbits as to women!"
 Despite being tricked and trivialised by Gladstone, Asquith  Winston Churchill and their colleagues,  year after year Millicent sat patiently in the lobby of the House of Commons waiting for appointments with Ministers and Members of Parliament. I think it would be a fitting and ironic tribute for a bronze statue of Millicent Fawcett sitting on one of the benches in Central Lobby……….similar to the bronze figures of Churchill and Roosevelt who sit on a bench in Bond Street.

Having a blind husband turned out to be a great asset in learning about politics
Three other men played a pivotal role in Millicent Fawcett's life - the first was her Father -  the second was  Radical MP and philosopher John Stuart Mill
and the third was her husband Henry Fawcett, an economics professor at Cambridge who was also a Liberal MP. He had been blinded in a shooting accident when he was aged 22.
The result of her having worked alongside her blind husband in his political activities  meant that after his early death in 1884,  Millicent Fawcett was the only woman in the early suffrage movement  who understood how to wheel and deal with politicians - how to choose the right people to lobby and how to approach them. At this time in Victorian England it was not considered proper for a woman to speak on a platform at a public meeting. The partnership with her blind husband gave Millicent  the chance to learn the trade of politics. Because of Henry's condition, Millicent Garrett Fawcett served as his amanuensis, secretary, and companion as well as his wife. The husband and wife team of Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett Fawcett  was similar to that  of their mentor  John Stuart Mill and his platonic love, (and later wife) Harriet Taylor. Besides being among the leading feminists of their time, the two women provided both intellectual stimulation and feminine perception of the highest degree to their partners.

World War 1 and Lloyd George
Millicent Garrett Fawcett  supported the British war effort in World War I, believing that if women supported the war effort, suffrage would naturally be granted at the end of the war. In the  London Suffrage Society's case this was  mainly through the setting up of the Women's Service Bureau, to place women both as volunteers and into essential paid war work -which included ambulance drivers, medics, the setting up of training schemes for women welders and munitions workers.  This war work contributed to their main purpose - with increased activity in Parliament in 1917 around the Representation of the People Bill.
 In March 1917 Millicent Fawcett led a deputation that included representative of 24 women's suffrage societies to see new Prime Minster, Lloyd George and in February

Victory in 1918. Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act.
The Representation of the People Act allowed the vote, to women with property over the age of 30.
After a struggle of  52 years Millicent returned home to Gower Street from the House of Lords, triumphant from witnessing the victory of Women's suffrage. The press flocked to her home. A journalist knowing of her fifty years association with the movement, asked her to describe briefly its 'ups' and 'downs'. She replied that  it had been all 'ups' and no 'downs.'  He looked perplexed and incredulous. Millicent Fawcett continued with words that I feel best sums up the progress since the 1950s….
She said : "The history of the women's movement  for the last fifty years is the gradual removal of intolerable grievances. Sometimes the pace was fairly rapid; sometimes it was very slow ; but it was always constant , and always in one direction. I have sometimes compared it, in its slowness  to the movement of a glacier; but like a glacier it  was ceaseless and irresistible.  You could not see it move, but if you compared it with a stationary object and looked again after an interval of months or years, you had proof positive it had moved. It always moved in the direction of the removal of the statutory and social disabilities of women. It established their individual liberty and freedom; they were in fact passing from subjection to independence . That is why I said the history of the movement has been all 'ups' and no 'downs. "      

Millicent Garrett Fawcett turned over the NUWSS presidency to Eleanor Rathbone, as the organization transformed itself into the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and worked for lowering the voting age for women to 21, the same as for men.
In 1924, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was given the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, and became Dame Millicent Fawcett.

Until her death Millicent continued to campaign for votes for women on the same basis as men including - in her 80s -  taking part in the famous Mud March in Hyde Park.

She died in London just months after women got the right to vote on an equal basis with men in 1929.

Millicent Fawcett  earned the words on the memorial she shares with her husband in Westminster Abbey. The words say : "A wise, constant and courageous Englishwoman who won citizenship for women."
(Dame Millicent Fawcett DBE - June 11, 1847 - August 5 1929)