Women Conscientious Objectors in Belgium
By Rebecca Gumbrell McCormick
At the end of 1985 the Mouvement International de la Réconciliation — International des Resistants à la Guerre (MIR-IRG), one of the Belgian affiliates of the WRI, together with the conscientious objectors’ group Confederation du Service Civil de la Jeunesse (CSCJ), launched an appeal for Belgian women to declare themselves COs. Since then, several women have sent requests for conscientious objector status to the Minister of the Interior, who has rejected them all as “non-recevable”. What are the reasons for this seemingly fruitless action?
The Belgian demand for the extension of conscientious objection to women, and others not covered under current legislation, is based on the desire to extend the protection of CO status to all those who share the philosophical objection to militarism of COs. At present, men who have been exempted from military service for another reason, such as having done development work in the Third World, foreigners resident in Belgium, and women, are not subject to conscription, and cannot register as COs. The CO’s statutory right not to bear arms, serve the military, or work in the defence industry, is not now granted to others with the same moral conviction.
At the same time, Belgian citizens now exempt from conscription are specifically included in a 1984 law on “civil protection” which permits the Ministry of the Interior to assign citizens to “tasks of general interest” in the event of national emergency. Without the protection of CO status, there may be no way for these citizens to refuse tasks with a military application or organisation. This law has been challenged on a number of grounds, and has never been put into practice.
More important at present is the lack of legal defence for those not granted CO status against other forms of militarisation, particularly in employment. A former conscientious objector may not bear arms or be employed in an arms industry or in any other work with a military application, until he reaches the age of 45. During that time, he is therefore protected against any demand from the unemployment service that he accept a job, for which he is otherwise qualified, in the defence industry. No one else has this automatic protection. For all those who have come to reflect on the moral dilemma of work in industries that produce nuclear weapons or supply arms to dictatorial regimes too late to demand CO status, it is an injustice. For women, who cannot register as COs, it is also a clear case of sex discrimination.
For these and other reasons, the Belgian peace movement and CO groups have decided to demand the extension of conscientious objection to women and others not covered by the present law. In 1983 the Socialist Senator Lydia De Pauw-Deveen proposed a series of reforms of the CO statutes, including its extension to women. Her reforms were not voted into law, but won the support of many women legislators not associated with the Left or the Socialist Party.
COs and peace groups have now decided to pursue their campaign by calling on women to file for CO status. Those who have written to the Ministry of the Interior so far have stressed their opposition to defence work and nuclear weapons, and their support of the same moral and philosophical principles as COs.
The following letter was written by a woman named Josiane:
Since May 1 1985 I have been unemployed. I do not now have the right to refuse employment in the arms industry or in any industry requiring the bearing of arms without losing my unemployment benefits. As a social worker by profession, I have observed the decline in the national budget for jobs in the social sector, despite its contribution to development and to a better way of life. Our national defence policy promotes the arms race ... arms which can destroy our planet dozens of times.
I do not feel protected by the perpetual nuclear threat, especially since last March, we have had nuclear missiles in our territory. I am now seven months pregnant, and it is my duty as a woman to protect life and to act in consequence. I think that it is necessary for Belgium to envisage a system of effective defence to provide for the genuine security of persons, their fulfilment and democratic freedom.
The holocaust threatened by our current system must be prevented. The only sensible and life-affirming course is to stop this suicidal arms race, find an intelligent manner to recycle our missiles and remove their destructive capacity, and spend our money instead on a serious defence; one which promotes the welfare and potential of adults and children at all levels, gives suitable work to young people, and looks for ways to convert our arms industries.
It is too soon to tell how many more women will ask for CO status. If the campaign succeeds, women may still not be legally accepted as COs, but they will have come to play a more active part in the male-dominated Belgian peace movement, thereby greatly increasing its effectiveness. Furthermore, the demand for CO status for women would fit into the broader campaign for conscientious objection to defence work, conversion of the arms industry and the development of a new popular defence strategy. This campaign, in Belgium and in many other countries, has done much to broaden the scope of the peace movement and connect it with other forces working for social change.
There are however a number of pitfalls in this campaign. Most importantly, it could be seen as indirect support of the principle of conscription. CO status for women would imply the acceptance of alternative civilian service, because rights imply obligations. Alternative service is rarely the genuine peace service its advocates intended, and in fact often creates low-cost competition with regularly-employed workers in the social sector — many of them women. Not only that; their demand for CO status might be used as an argument for the actual conscription of women into military service. In the end, the campaign would have created new obligations for women while leaving in place one already in force for men.
This eventuality would truly be a step backwards. However, without denying the force of this reservation, is it not also true that to do nothing in the face of the growing militarisation of society would be to take two steps backward? In Belgium, legal protection is needed against the law forcing tasks of a potentially military character on women, and others not now subject to conscription; in many countries, such protection is needed for all those forced to undertake tasks with a military application in the course of their work. CO status would help both groups.
Furthermore, alternative civilian service, despite is shortcomings, might give women an opportunity to play a more active role in the political and social sectors where most COs are affected.
As an argument, the demand for conscientious objection for women is a far better basis for a positive campaign for peace and equality than the popular view, the logic of which is not immediately apparent, that women as mothers, nurturers and so on are especially great lovers of peace (as in the letter above). Instead of seeking to maintain women in a special category, the demand for the broadening of the concept of conscientious objection promotes equal rights for women and greater rights for everybody, and provides at least one of the moral and legal weapons needed to fight back against militarism in society.
Despite the above reservations, the Belgian campaign merits our further reflection and argument. It could contribute to the greater involvement of women in the struggle for peace in many countries, and lead to broader and more effective campaigns.
Printed originally in WRI Women No 1, Jan/Feb 1987, the newsletter of the Women’s Working group of War Resisters' International. At the time of writing, the author was vice-Chair of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, but she says in a footnote that the views expressed in the article are her own.