The Sunday TimesPlus

25th May 1997



Women, worst victims of war and violence

So, believes Elaine Hesse Steel, General
Secretary of the world YWCA in Geneva.
In an interview with Anne Abeysekera she
discusses the Palestinian question and the
hapless state of the war victims.

The brief visit to Sri Lanka early this month of Elaine Hesse Steel, General Secretary of the world YWCA in Geneva, went largely unnoticed by the media, but Ms Steel has had her finger in international affairs since she assumed office in Geneva in 1987 and is an articulate and dynamic person whom it is a pleasure to meet. A strong advocate for a just peace for all peoples in the Middle East, she is a Board Member of the International Coordinating Committee on the Question of Palestine.

I had only to mention Palestine and Ms. Steel was quick off the mark to say that Israel has occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 1967. June 1997 will be the 30th year of occupation and the Palestinian question is the longest-standing issue that the United Nations has not been able to resolve. This, she states unequivocally, is entirely due to the USA using its power of veto every time the matter comes up before the Security Council of the UN. "Over 180 countries endorsed the condemnation of Israel for breaking the Geneva Convention," she said. "Only Israel and the USA voted against the motion and about 11 countries abstained. The UN is trying to avoid using force."

Ms. Steel deplored the fact that any criticism of Israel immediately results in charges of anti-Semitism, "I'm not anti- Semitic. The YWCA in its policy statements has always recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist and to have secure borders, but we also insist that the Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination and statehood. Every year the UN Commission on Human Rights hears accounts of the State violence perpetrated against Palestinians and the torture and concentration camp techniques that are used.

"How can we raise children to understand conflict and to desire peace if we allow the aggressor to set the agenda for the rest of the world," Ms. Steel asked.

The holocaust is brought up, Ms. Steel avers, to confuse the Palestinian issue. "The holocaust and anti-Semitism are quite separate issues from the question of Palestine." She said that Palestinian Christians and Muslims are barred from going to Jerusalem to worship.

Many Palestinian men seek employment elsewhere because of the dearth of jobs, If the father is employed outside, Palestinian mothers are denied Identity Cards for their children - a very effective way of decreasing the Palestinian population. Ms. Steel has been to Palestine many times. The Committee on which she serves talks not only to Palestinians, but to Jews as well. "We have interviewed women of every political party in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), showing them UN statistics. Groups of national YWCA leaders who come to Geneva are taken to Israel to see for themselves what is happening." Ms. Steel said that South Lebanon too is occupied by the Israeli army and that Lebanese villages are bombed. "Recently they bombed the electrical installations in Beirut and set the city back by about three years," she said.

"The tragedy is that much of the world media is controlled by the Western media, mainly North American, and so there is a pro-Israeli slant". Ms. Steel mentioned a video entitled 'Tears of Stone' a documentary, showing how significant has been the turning of Palestinian land into Israeli land. "We work with NGOs in Israel that are working for peace".

The YWCA is active in 103 countries, of which 85 have their own national associations, as in Sri Lanka. As the leader of one of the world's oldest and largest women's organisations, Ms. Steel worked actively to end apartheid in S. Africa, serving as the only woman on the World Council of Churches, delegation to Heads of State in Europe, Japan and the USA in 1989, which urged the leaders of these countries to strengthen the economic sanctions against S. Africa. I asked Ms. Steel whether she had met Nelson Mandela and she said she had, several times.

"Does he have the charisma suggested by the media?

"Definitely! I think the magic of Mandela is his compassionate and forgiving heart. He is a remarkable man. But let me tell you something - another person with incredible charisma is his former wife, Winnie Mandela. Such a pity they parted company".

In her native New Zealand, Ms. Steel had chaired a YWCA National Council of Women Working Committee for submissions on the Re-drafting of the Crimes Act as it pertained to rape and violence against women. The laws in New Zealand were evidently as outdated as our own, going back to the 1890s. Over there, too, there was no law against incest, nor was there a law against assaulting a woman's body with a foreign object. As a result of the women's protests, judges no longer treat domestic violence as extra judicial."

There was a case where a woman with a broken jaw, broken arm and broken leg resulting from assault by her husband, was directed by the judge to go with her husband to a Family Court Counsellor! We wanted any person who assaulted a woman to be regarded as guilty of breaking the law." They had also pressed for mandatory training of all police personnel on how to handle women who came into make a complaint - "often, they were so rude and crude towards women victims of violence". The sensitizing and training of all police and medical officers was also brought into effect. The Court system was changed so that victims could have a support person of their choice sitting beside them in the courts.

In the 1980s the women of New Zealand had pressed for the appointment of a Special Committee to inquire and report on the incidence of violence against women. Three women who gave evidence before this committee had been shot dead by their husbands, despite their having asked for police protection and restraining orders against their husbands. In one case, the woman had been threatened by letters, then by bullets placed in her letter box. The restraining order on her husband had stated only that he must not come within a hundred metres of her. He would sit in his car opposite the house, aiming his gun at the house. This kind of intimidation went on for some days and finally he shot and killed her. "We had to convince the public that these were not occasional horror stories, but everyday happenings". When YWCA national leaders of Australia and New Zealand were interviewed on television about domestic violence, there was, at first, a backlash of public feeling against them. But within a year or so that changed, especially when the Health Dept. and the Education Dept. too took up the issue, Ms. Steel said. "Women cannot expect that legislation will change everything, but we have to wake the country to see the real state of affairs."

The YWCA in New Zealand has an extensive pilot project, she told me, to teach self-defence to schoolgirls. This has been eagerly received and the Y has produced a handbook on self-defence and a video to instruct young women. "I myself have learned that the knee -hitting technique is a most effective counter-attack," she said.

Ms. Steel is just concluding a second 5-year-stint as World YMCA General Secretary. Her husband, who was an archdeacon of the Anglican Church of New Zealand, gave up his job to accompany her to Geneva. She confided with a smile that he described himself as Husband and Support for the World General Secretary, adding "and that's absolutely true!" She said he had become "a great cook and ironer" and she felt wonderful when he asked her, as she was preparing to leave for a conference in Korea, whether there was anything she wanted ironed! In appreciation for all the chores he does for her, she reciprocates by going with him on house and hospital communions. He is chaplain of the Anglican church in Lausanne and a part-time Professor of Business Management at Webster University, the only English-medium university in Geneva. They have five grown-up children and three grandchildren.

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