Empowering women with confidence and strength

Catherine Cooke (third from left) pictured at the recent two-day international conference in Vienna discussing the role and empowerment of women in conflict situations. (30412JC2)
Catherine Cooke (third from left) pictured at the recent two-day international conference in Vienna discussing the role and empowerment of women in conflict situations. (30412JC2)

Local woman Catherine Cooke, Co-ordinator of Foyle Women’s Information Network, has recently returned from Vienna in Austria, where she was invited to speak on a global platform on the role of Northern Irish Women. The trip highlighted how the empowerment of Northern Ireland’s female population is internationally viewed as a model of success. JULIEANN CAMPBELL reports...

The aim of the Foyle Women’s Information Network is to provide an essential, safe forum for women from culturally diverse communities of disadvantage to access information, education, training and support by focusing on four specific themes: Women’s Education and training; Women in employment and enterprise; community development and sustainability; and health and well-being.

Catherine Cooke. INLS1111-142KM

Catherine Cooke. INLS1111-142KM

Catherine is actively involved both voluntarily and professionally in many initiatives that aim to relieve tensions within and between interface communities at times of tension.

Her work focuses on cross community and community development, with a particular focus on developing women’s skills.

During her time at FWIN, she has ran many successful programmes including: Women into Politics, Youth Exchanges, Cross Border Youth and Citizenship Project, Single Identity work, Interface, Peer Education/ Peer leadership and the Corrymeela Family Holidays and Changing Relations Programme.

Not only that, Catherine has taken her work with women to a whole new level, having been invited to participate in an international discussion.

Last month, Catherine flew out to Vienna, having been specially invited to participate in the two-day expert roundtable on the role and empowerment of women in countering violent extremism and radicalisation that lead to terrorism (VERLT).

Her knowledge would prove invaluable to the conference.

She explains: “Last year, Maureen Fox and myself travelled out to Vienna to take part in a project called Women Without Borders. So this conference was very much was a follow-up from that.

“It was the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and their language is not the language we might use. They described the conference as ‘The Role and Empowerment of Women Encountering Violent Extremism and Radicalisation that Leads to Terrorism.’ That is basically empowering women to be able to deal with what is happening within a conflict situation and now to empower them to work with their children and within their community to steer them away from getting involved.”

Catherine says the conference was based around the idea of good practices and lessons learned.

“I do believe we were regarded as a good model of practice here in Northern Ireland and there was a good level of understanding when I was speaking,” she says.

“I got a round of applause, and was one of the few speakers who did!”

As this talk was delivered on an international stage, Catherine felt a great responsibility towards the female population back home.

“I really wanted to sell the work of the women in this city, and so I prepared for the trip and the talk really well. I had to speak for 15 minutes and give a power-point presentation too.

“My part was around women’s engagement and empowering women - and basically what motivates women to stand up and take control.

“The conference also talked about gender and human rights, women as policy makers and activists, human right defenders, educators and conflict mediators, and they were were looking for examples of good practice and lessons learned and when where and how a woman played a role.”

Alongside Catherine on this expert panel were representatives from organisations such as Sisters Against Violent Extremism, Women Without Borders, a US Counter-Terrorism Advisor, the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice from the NYU School of Law, a Gender Equality Officer from the Council of Europe.

“When the Rapporteur came back the next day to report back, he said that they would definitely have to look at Northern Ireland for lessons learned - because we’ve been there, we ‘re still going through part of it, and we are learning from it. So that was very interesting.

“He said that if ever there was an example that could be used to illustrate the importance of empowering women, Northern Ireland could be it.”

Catherine remains deeply passionate about her work with FWIN and speaks of the Network’s achievements to date.

“Foyle Women’s Information Network has been set up since 1994 and was established at the time by the Women’s Officer of Derry City Council. She could see the potential of the work of women’s groups in the local neighbourhoods, so the network was set up to try and link neighbourhoods and try and bring the women together every month so they can begin to share info, share good practice, share maybe each other’s premises for training and do joint projects - that was the whole aim. We now work with all the women’s groups within the Derry City Council area.”

Nowadays, FWIN have a membership of 354 women through groups, organisations and individuals whom they send information to.

“We send out a daily bulletin to keep people up to date with what’s happening and funding that’s available.

“FWIN host a networking event every month with around 80-100 women in attendance, held in various locations,” Catherine explains.

“We have an Easter Crafts event coming up, and will have around 100 women attend, and we bring in around 10 facilitators who are skilled in card making, flower arranging, making various crafts,and the women then learn these skills and take them back to their own communities to teach to others.”

“We also have the Women Into Public Life Project, because we all recognise that women are not getting into public life and not putting themselves forward for positions in public life. We have to break that cycle. A lot of women say its about a lack of confidence, so we’ve delivered a grassroots training programme for women who are new and emerging leaders and we are delivering a new strategic leadership programme to women on both sides of the border,” she added.

“For International Women’s Day we held two workshops with a voice coach to help women find their voice. It was all about breathing and the tools you need to speak publicly and express yourself,” Catherine goes on.

The Network also organise regular events, bus-trips, days out and gatherings that encourage local women to interact and derive strength from one another.

If you would like to become a member of the Foyle Women’s Information Network, see: www.fwin.org.uk