Established in 1919, WILPF Australia is one of WILPF’s oldest Sections.
Over the years, the Section has been heavily involved in activism and advocacy calling for demilitarisation and denuclearisation. It is also a leading voice for the advancement of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and more recently has joined the campaign by women’s groups for climate justice in Australia.
From 16 to 24 July, WILPF Australia will host WILPF’s 33rd International Congress! To learn more about the Section’s history, its current priorities, and its hopes and expectations for Congress, we spoke with Janette McLeod. A member of WILPF Australia and WILPF’s International Board, Janette also serves as WILPF’s Asia Pacific Alternate Representative.
Q: Can you tell us about the history of WILPF Australia?
A: WILPF Australia’s history goes back to 1915, the same year WILPF was initially founded as the International Women’s Congress.
During the First World War, two women’s peace groups were formed in Australia to oppose the country’s participation in the conflict, especially conscription for overseas service, and to advocate for a negotiated peace.
Representatives of both groups attended the 1919 Congress, which officially formed WILPF, and on their return to Australia the Australian Section of WILPF was established. Because of the size of the country, WILPF groups were established separately in several Australian cities; while they worked together where possible, it wasn’t until 1962 that they all formally joined together to form a National Section.
Between the two World Wars, WILPF Australia participated heavily in the disarmament work of the international organisation – including collecting 117,740 signatures for the world disarmament petition initiated by WILPF, the highest percentage per capita in the world!
After the Second World War, opposition to nuclear weapons was one of the Section’s main priorities, as central Australia – in particular remote Aboriginal communities – was used for nuclear testing, as were many Pacific Island countries. WILPF branches also joined with the anti-Vietnam movement, holding silent vigils in most states.
WILPF also supported the rights of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the 1950s onwards.
Today there are approximately 150 members in seven of Australia’s eight states and territories and virtual communications enable active participation by members outside the capital cities.
Q: What are some of the Section’s current focus areas? Have your priorities had to shift and change in light of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and other emerging challenges?
A: All of our work is guided by WILPF’s International Programme, with several key focus areas including militarism, climate change, and Women, Peace and Security.
In 2019, WILPF sponsored research into the increasing militarisation of Australian society and the resulting report – Militarisation in Australia: Normalisation and Mythology – provided the impetus for our current demilitarisation campaign, which is one of our primary areas of focus.
The report highlighted the dramatic increase in defence spending in recent years and the parallel militarisation of Australian society, evident in the increasing use of domestic military operations in government responses to natural disasters, such as bushfires and floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Section also recognises that climate change is driving the increased natural disasters in our country and several members have joined WILPF’s international Environment Working Group.
We are recognised as one of the leaders of the Women, Peace and Security agenda in Australia. Our work in recent years has built on WILPF’s initial direct advocacy around UNSCR 1325 to advance engagement with and inclusion of civil society in the drafting of Australia’s first National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security. The previous conservative government did not see this as a priority, and it has been difficult to engage the women’s movement more broadly with this issue.
Moving forward, one of our biggest priorities in this area is the need to reframe Women, Peace, and Security – and for feminist analysis to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on peace and security for Australia and regionally, as well as help people see that climate change is one of the greatest threats to our overall security.
Opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear power also continues to be a priority for WILPF Australia. The Section works closely with ICAN to advocate for Australia to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Most recently, WILPF has become part of the broader movement opposed to the military’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines, which will be stationed in Australia as part of the new (2021) AUKUS military agreement between Australia, America, and the United Kingdom.
During the national election in May 2022, WILPF Australia advocated for voters to consider foreign policy priorities when making their choice at the ballot box and sought responses from government and opposition on our priorities. And in terms of WILPF governance, many members of WILPF Australia continue to be heavily involved in the governance side of the organisation.
COVID-19 restrictions on travel, both within and to/from Australia, meant that activism was reduced in 2020 and 2021, but the Section moved to increased virtual communication for Board, Branch, and member meetings. Restrictions are now lifted and in-person meetings have resumed as much as possible.
Q: WILPF Australia is hosting Congress this year! What does this opportunity mean to you and what are you most looking forward to?
A: This will be our second time hosting Congress – the first was in 1989!
Although it’s not the opportunity we thought it would be when it was originally scheduled to be in person, we’re throwing our energy into preparing for a successful online Congress.
In particular, we have so enjoyed working with Aunty Rhonda Collard-Spratt, a Yamatji-Noongar artist and elder on the land of the Jagera peoples in the state of Queensland. Aunty Rhonda created a special painting for Congress which reflects its theme as an inspiration for everyone attending.
Several of our members have been closely involved in preparations for Congress, including serving on standing committees for the formal decision-making part of the event and developing a panel discussion called “Voices from the Asian Pacific: Working for Peace, Denuclearisation, and Demilitarisation,” which will include representatives from WILPF Sections in Japan, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand and members from Polynesia.
Our delegates and other attendees are very much looking forward to seeing the other workshops during the week between formal sessions.
Q: What do you want to see for WILPF coming out of Congress?
A: I hope WILPF emerges from Congress with an even stronger sense of its vision and mission and how they can be achieved through the actions taking place at the Section level. We have a lot of new Sections and Groups joining WILPF, and I would love to see the renewed vision and mission truly shared by all as we work towards our collective goals.
I also hope we will be able to strengthen some of WILPF’s governance functions, which play a crucial role in ensuring the organisation is able to work effectively towards its vision and mission.
Q: What’s next for WILPF Australia?
WILPF Australia will continue to be guided by the new International Programme, which is set to be approved at Congress.
We’ll continue to push forward our advocacy related to demilitarisation, Women, Peace and Security, and denuclearisation, including our ongoing work with ICAN. We’ll engage in advocacy to demand our new national government move (at least some of) the money from military to disaster mitigation – including responding to climate change and disaster mitigation. And we will continue to lobby the new government for robust and transparent debate around the need for a more inclusive foreign policy, which recognises the complexities of regional and international relationships.
WILPF Australia also recognises that we must work on building a more diverse membership. While in recent years we have maintained a steady younger membership of 10 to 12 members, the Section continues to be mostly comprised of white women over the age of 50. A minority of members are first- or second-generation migrants or refugees from continental Europe and Indigenous members over the years have been a very small proportion. So we will place a special focus on enhancing member diversity in the months and years ahead.
Learn more about WILPF Australia by visiting their website. If you’re interested in getting involved with WILPF, consider joining your local Group or Section or starting one in your country! If you want to stay in touch with WILPF, subscribe to our newsletters and follow us on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.