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Wind of Change

By: Jill Tellez

“A Society that is without the voice and vision of women is not less feminine, it is less human”.    
  Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

St. Augustine's

Growing up in Derry in the 60’s, Catherine Cooke only knew a life that included The Troubles.   During that time, there was a mass exodus of Protestants from the City to Waterside and from there her early life would be lived polarized and in isolation from the Catholic citizens of Derry other than going to church at St Augustine's on Sundays.   

As a segregated community, they felt stuck and were fixed on the beliefs of what they were fed by the government and the media.   She was also raised to believe you did not challenge the government even if you did not like the way things were. 

The Shirt Factory Horn - courtesy of BBC Northern Ireland
Like many other women in Derry, Catherine’s first job was at a shirt factory, Desmond’s in Drumahoe.  And for many women, this was also the first time they were in an environment with an opportunity to engage with women who were different, from “the other side”.
In the late 80’s, now a mother of two young children, a bomb went off three doors down from her home.   Her growing concern for her family’s safety allowed her to be receptive when other women in her neighborhood began knocking on doors in an effort to gain community support to stop the violence.   She first began by contributing to donations for children’s events.  She was then approached and agreed to do typing for the grassroots community organization for peace.  She took a course at the Magee campus in community development and spent 20 years volunteering in this mother’s group. 

 Courtesy of Free Derry Museum
For the past twenty-five years, Catherine has been an integral part of the regeneration and community relations toward peacebuilding  in Derry.   There were times others challenged her by saying, “who elected you to speak for us, or who do you think you are telling us what we should do, or who do you speak for?”  With her strong commitment to build peace, she would tell them she no longer wanted to be part of two cities – there is only one Derry.    As a volunteer, one of the projects she is most proud of is the Interface Forum that she spearheaded – a mobile interface monitoring forum to help reduce tensions and keep people safe on each side of the interface.
In her efforts throughout the years, she came to realize that women have been the glue that kept the families and communities together during The Troubles .  She knew that there were other grass roots organizations like hers in each of the 21 diverse neighborhoods of Derry.   In 2004, she became the link between the neighborhoods and formed the Foyle Women’s Information Network (FWIN) – The Walled City Community Partnership.

In eight short years, FWIN’s membership is at 350 women.  The board consists of 21 women, one voice from each neighborhood in Derry.   The organization’s mission is to provide a safe forum for women from culturally diverse communities within Derry to access information, education, training and support.  FWIN is instrumental in encouraging crucial dialogue to take place in tackling inequalities collectively and for information to be linked to all of the other grassroots organizations that were previously operating in isolation.    
As part of International Women’s Day, 108 women took part in training workshops to help ensure more women ‘find their voice’ and are ready and supported to take leadership roles in public life.  The workshops included voice coaches and learning the art of public speaking.  

Women's Manifesto - then and now

Working to achieve gender equality, FWIN was again part of a coalition who created a Women’s Manifesto:  Equality Standards for Women and the Economy, Childcare, Decision Making, Education, Reproductive Health and Violence Against Women.  

Catherine’s role in connecting and empowering women to build relationships, not political parties, has been extremely effective and applauded on international stages, most recently in Vienna at a conference on 'Empowering Women'.  
 Catherine Cooke truly is part of the wind of change for peace in Derry.  

Peace Bridge over the River Foyle - Derry, Northern Ireland



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