Peace through Women’s Economic Security and Justice

IMG_4244Peace through Women’s Economic Security and Justice

By Siegrid Raible

Last month on March 14th, Pasos Peace Museum and the International Institute on Peace Education held a symposium titled “Women’s Rights to Dignity, Security and Justice  –  The Rana Plaza collapse and the Triangle Factory Fire:  Consequences and Accountability.”  Co-sponsored by the Biosophical Institute, CONNECT, The Global Campaign for Peace Education, The Network for Peace through Dialogue, The Peace Education Initiative at The University of Toledo, Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Voice of Women for Peace-Canada, the World Council for Curriculum and Instruction, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, this symposium was organized to discuss the on-going struggle for women’s economic rights and worker safety and was a side event to the annual meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Status of Women. More specifically, the symposium was designed to raise the awareness of workers and civil society to the need for safe working conditions; educate the public on the need for safe working environments for workers worldwide; and, identify actions needed to right the wrongs which lead to tragic injuries and loss of life because of unsafe work environments.

Betty Reardon, a prolific author and a leading theorist and practitioner of peace education moderated the panel discussion. The panelists included Robin Berson, a trained historian, editor, librarian and quilter; Tiffany Millieon, a lawyer, human rights activist and board member of Pasos Peace Museum; and Janet Gerson, a peace educator who currently serves as the Education Director of the International Institute on Peace Education.

The role of the arts in facilitating discussions on issues of human rights and as tools to promote peace education were instrumental in advancing the afternoon’s discussion on steps that individuals and civil society can take to promote social justice.  Two of Berson’s quilts, Triangle Fire Memorial Quilt and Bangladesh Garment Workers Memorial Quilt, were at the center of the day’s exhibits. The quilts bear witness to the individuals, mainly women, who lost their lives while working in the garment industry and the on-going need for safe working conditions for workers around the world. Also on exhibit was a video titled Fashion to Die For which was produced by videographer, photographer and interactive media artist Lynn Estomin.

Berson addressed the issue of quilting as an art form which bears witness to historic events and raises society’s consciousness to civil wrongs. Quilting is universal; there are quilts to commemorate the missing in Chile, the fighting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and probably the most well-known quilt, the American Aids Quilt, commemorating the loss of life to a dreaded and misunderstood disease. The two quilts, which hung side-by-side, commemorate events that are separated by one hundred years:  the New York City Triangle Fire in 1911 and the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013. The loss of life was almost ten times greater in the most recent tragedy – compare the 146 lives lost in the 1911 event to the 1,129 lives lost in 2013 event. In addition to those killed, there were 2,515 injured workers, mainly women, in the Bangladeshi disaster. Little is known about those that were rescued and the impact of their injuries on their daily lives. Berson’s quilts can be viewed at www.workermemorialquilts.org.

Fashion To Die For is an indictment of a system that values the bottom line, in this case low-cost garments, above the safety of the workers who labor to produce these items. For the first half of the this five and a half minute video, which played in a continuous loop, Ms. Estomin compares the hectic automated spinning machine spools which create the fabrics to the rows of Bangladeshi women who then piece together the fabric to make the inexpensive garments we wear. The video ends with a slow-motion pan of the collapsed Rana Plaza building and the rescue efforts. For more information about Lynn Estomin and this video go to http://lycofs01.lycoming.edu/~estomin/fashion.html.

Millieon addressed the need for arts in education – of using art to educate and raise public awareness of human rights.  As she ably stated “art brings human rights to life.” Rights are not tactile; terms such as peace, human rights, and justice are intangible. Quilting enables participants to concretely explore those rights.  She spoke of Pasos Peace Museum’s Children’s Rights Quilt Project, a collaborative effort and adventure where children can contribute “one scrap at a time” as they explore and learn about their human rights as expressed in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. For more information regarding Pasos’ Children’s Rights Quilt Project go to http://pasospeacemuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Pasos1stcurriculum1.docx.pdf.

Gerson’s presentation addressed the third mission of the symposium – promoting civil society’s actions in upholding justice.  She expressed the need for reclaimative justice tribunals, what she describes as cooperative collective actions which arise during and after a crisis or catastrophe. Like communities in New York City in 1911 and Dhaka 2013, citizens affected with similar devastating events must come together to demand that governments address the loss of life and a worker’s right to a safe working environment.  Justice is a fulfillment of a promised right.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King so eloquently expressed in the Civil Rights movement justice is a claim, a promissory note, on the bank of moral justice. Gerson reminded us that civil society tribunals are like quilts, for just as each panel represents a part of the greater whole, so each reclaimative tribunal which demands justice and accountability allows disaffected individuals and communities to become full participants in the larger human society.

After the presentations, Reardon and Gerson facilitated group discussions on the range of actions which could be undertaken to address the unjust working conditions in the world’s textile and garment industries. “The actions recommended by the groups fell into three general categories: education of the general public and in the schools; civil society initiatives that individuals, community organizations and social agents could pursue; and, political and legal steps to require enforcement of fair labor standards and criminal accountability for the violation of fair labor standards.” (Reardon, Action Report, 3/23/2015).

This symposium addressed social justice issues in the workplace by exploring the safety and security concerns of employees, in this instance mainly women workers, and the duty and obligations that the employers have to provide a safe and secure workplace environment. All agreed that the security and safety of employees should be priced into any product or service that the individual or corporate employer provides. The proposed actions delineated in the symposium’s summary report seek to provide the mechanisms through which a safe workplace environment can be secured for all workers, both women and men.

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