Plenary 1: Women Organizing And Transforming The World
This Plenary highlighted the absolutely critical need for women’s movements to engage with and explore current and possible alliances with other social movements such as the disability, youth, Indigenous and LGBTQI movements.
Organised by: AWID
Geetanjali Misra, Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), India.
Lydia Alpizar, Executive Director, AWID.
Cindy Clark, Acting Executive Director, AWID.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya.
Mijoo Kim, Women with Disabilities Arts & Culture Network, Korea.
Monica Aleman, International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI / IIWF), Nicaragua.
Listen to Geetanjali here
Good morning everybody. I am Geeta Misra. I’m the president of AWID and the executive director of CREA. It’s my pleasure to welcome all of you to the 11th AWID forum in Cape Town: The Power of Movements.
I want to start with a word. A word that was born in South Africa, where we are gathered today to talk about the power of movements. A word that evokes one of the most monumental struggles in the world – the struggle against apartheid, or the system of racial segregation that was in place in South Africa for almost 50 years.
The word I want to open this AWID plenary with is “Amandla” – a Xhosa and Zulu word that means “power” and when accompanied with “Awethu” (“Amandla Awethu”) means power to us, or “power to the people.” These are words that had the power to shift power, like other words that come to mind.
“Azaadi” – the Hindi word for freedom – is another such word. It was the rallying cry for India’s struggle for independence from the British, and is now part of the women’s movement in India, where I come from. Of course, words do not bring about social change by themselves. But, as the British playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Words are sacred. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
I’d like to evoke the power of movements that have nudged the world a little by sharing some of the popular slogans we associate with them. These slogans are not just words. They represent the claims of people fighting for social justice on various fronts:
- Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!
- Make love not war
- The personal is political
- Women’s rights are human rights
- Women unite. Take back the night.
- My body, my choice!
- Pleasure me safely
- Love is a human right
- Silence = Death
- We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.
- Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.
- Don’t talk to me of sewing machines. Talk to me of workers’ rights.
- Yes We Can!
- Another world is possible
As these slogans tell us, social movements are rooted in fighting a diversity of oppressions and injustices. Social movements can be local, national, regional or transnational. They can spark off anywhere, and they can be seeded anywhere: on the streets, in shanty towns like the South African shack dwellers movement; in university coffee houses like the student movement against the Vietnam War; in workplaces like the Solidarity movement in Poland; in areas where people are being displaced by so-called “development” projects like the Narmada dam in India; or on the internet through sites like moveon.org which channeled global resistance and outrage against the war on Iraq. They can take place where there is democracy, in situations of occupation like Palestine, and in countries where we assume there is no space to create a struggle. Women in Iran, for instance, started building a movement in the early 1980s when Khomeini’s regime had dismantled nearly all the rights that women had secured between 1900 and 1979. All they had left was the right to vote, but even in this small crack, they organized themselves. Disabled women in New Zealand and India have organized to make sign language an official language in those countries.
In the public imagination, social movements are often associated with simple acts of resistance: women hugging trees in northern India instead of allowing them to be cut as part of the environmental Chipko movement; a black woman, Rosa Parks, travelling in the whites-only section of a bus as part of the American civil rights struggles; students going on hunger strikes in China to protest the murder of a sympathetic general secretary; anti-nuclear activists mounting vigil at radioactive sites like Chernobyl; protesters against HIV chaining themselves to fences so that they can’t be dragged away. While these acts of resistance become the public face of movements, the movements they are part of run much deeper. In this sense, movements are like icebergs: a bit of it visible on top, the rest of it held together as an invisible mass.
There are many ways to think about, understand and conceptualize social movements: as a vehicle for ordinary people’s participation in public politics, as a process by which ordinary people make collective claims on others, or as politics by other means – often the only means open to relatively powerless groups. When the African-American author Alice Walker says, “I have a rage in me to defy the stars,” she is talking the language and concepts of social movements.
But rage and refusal are not enough. The heart is not enough. The head must also be allied. This is the second thing that all movements have: a political analysis of oppression. When a Dalit or low-caste woman says she can’t love someone outside her own caste not because of “purity” issues, but because she is not free to make her own sexual choices, she understands her political condition. When a lesbian woman says she can’t introduce her lover to her mother because of the stranglehold of heteronormativity, she understands her political condition.
The good thing about political conditions is that they can change. All social movements are about overcoming asymmetries of power, about shifting power from the powerful to the powerless. But when social movements aim to shift power, they do so with the goal of equity in mind. The aim of making women powerful is not to make men powerless, but to ensure that women also have power. The power to make our own decisions. The power to ensure that political, social and economic resources and opportunities flow to us. The power to set agendas.
But it is not enough for us to shift power outside of our movements. We need to ensure that power is shared within our movements today, so that our movements do not become monoliths presiding over hierarchies of oppression. Whose struggles do our movements represent? Do they represent all our collective struggles, or those of the more powerful amongst us?
Which brings me to the last two things that all movements share: a belief in the power of many, not one. A belief in we and not just I. While a single act of resistance can spark a movement, it is not itself a movement. Movements are about collective claims. But whose collective claims are we talking about? Whose people’s movements? Can we think of a women’s movement without women? A labour movement without workers? An LGBT movement without lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered women? A student movement without students? A Dalit movement without Dalits? No.
Many of us enter movements through the organizations we work in. As feminist activist Srilatha Batliwala reminds us, organizations are sites from which movements are built and supported. But organizations, even though they are part of movements, are not in themselves movements. Movements operate at a scale that no single organization can operate at. Since so many of us belong to NGOs, here is a question for each of us: How do we locate ourselves? Do we see ourselves as part of an organization? Or do we see ourselves as part of a movement? Or as part of both?
This is an important question because it relates to what we see as our final goal. Are we working on sexual harassment – or domestic violence or access to land and water or whatever we do – as an end in itself? Or is it both an end in itself and a means to transform power relations between men and women? Is it enough for us to put water resources near a low-income community and increase access to water – or do we also question who is responsible for collecting that water? Is it enough for us to ensure that land is redistributed to a landless family – or do we stop and wonder why that land cannot be placed in a woman’s name? Is it enough for us to ensure that a woman has a job – or do we ask ourselves why she can’t decide how to spend the money she earns?
All of us work to change things, but the question is really this: how far do we push change? Up to what level? Many of our organizations provide services, valuable services, to our constituents. But do we see these services as ends in themselves? Or do we see them both as ends and as means to actualize rights? In our own NGOs, do we see ourselves as doing the work of movements, getting to the roots to create radical, fundamental change? Or do we see ourselves tinkering with the symptoms without pushing through to the roots?
An emerging challenge to movements is “philanthrocapitalism” – the belief that business principles can be applied to the search for social transformation. Philanthrocapitalist donors have money and are prepared to put it into social change – but they are impatient for solutions, data and results, and they believe that change can happen like that. Instantly! In a jiffy!
Everything we know tells us that what creates lasting change is the slow, lasting power of movements, but creating this change takes generations. My grandmother got married when she was 16 and never worked for a living. My mother got married when she was 24 and worked for a living until she got married. Marriage is not on my agenda, and I can’t imagine a situation where my livelihood depends not on my own two hands, but on someone else’s.
A century ago, who would have thought that women would vote, something we take for granted in some places today? That’s the power of movements. Or even that we’d take for granted that women are human? That’s the power of movements. Half a century ago, when slavery had ended but segregation was in place, who would have thought that the next president of the United States of America would be an African-American man? That’s the power of movements.
“All of you, the participants, are the heart of the forum” Presentation by Lydia Alpízar Durán, Mexico/Costa Rica (by video link)
Welcome! Bienvenue! ¡Bienvenidas y Bienvenidos! to the 11th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development: The Power of Movements! On behalf of the International Planning Committee, AWID’s board and staff, I want to welcome you and let you know how excited we are at opening the forum today.
On the next four days, we hope to build together a space where we can all, in a candid and friendly manner, discuss critical issues for the advancement of our women’s rights agendas. Through plenaries, breakout sessions, dance, music, debates, workshops and much more, we will have the opportunity to learn from one another, to challenge one another and, most especially, to dream together about how to continue building collective avenues for action not only between us, but also with other social movements.
It is not a secret for anyone here that women’s movements have contributed to some of history’s most significant transformations, particularly during the last four decades. It is not a secret either that none of the changes that we have achieved to advance the women’s rights agenda could have been accomplished without women organizing, mobilizing and pressing for these changes.
These diverse forms of collective action, which we have used through time, have been effective so far. But a historic moment has come, and the context has shifted significantly in such a way that many of our strategies no longer seem to work, or don’t seem to have the same impact any more. In many parts of the world, and at different levels, there seems to be a stagnation in our organizing. Likewise, some of the successful strategies we’ve used in the past – particularly those around mobilization and grassroots organizing – seem to have been replaced by other activities and expressions. It is perhaps time to look back and see which of these earlier strategies should be reincorporated back into our political organizing.
We should also look sideways and learn from the diverse forms of collective action that are being used within emerging women’s movements that are full of vitality and wisdom. We must continue to dream big and be creative in finding new ways to work together on truly inclusive movements. We need to develop new forms of collective action that can help us advance women’s rights in a significant way in this 21st century.
It is clear that there are many challenges within our context, but there are also a lot of opportunities in a world where change is a constant. Among the challenges we face are the current economical and financial crisis, the rise of the military, the strong and rising presence of religious fundamentalisms, the increasing inequality that results in thousands of people living in poverty, the food crisis, the prevalence of war, and climate change, to name just a few.
In order to face these challenges and advance our agendas, however, we first have to address a different set of challenges: those that are internal to our organizations and movements. Some of these challenges are fragmentation and overspecialization, resource competition, lack of funding, discrimination among ourselves, unsustainable ways of practicing our activism that are detrimental to activists’ health and stress levels, the difficulty of building spaces that are truly inclusive, and the lack of mechanisms to help us overcome our differences and solve conflicts.
This forum is an opportunity to go beyond rhetoric when it comes to these challenges, and to be open to listening and being challenged on our diverse standpoints and opinions. We need to go beyond the very frequent conversations that we have over coffee (or tea) or in meeting corridors about these issues. We need to give priority to the challenges around women’s movement building so that we can effectively advance women’s rights in this current juncture. Together, we need to find new or renewed movement building strategies that are viable and concrete and that, first and foremost, increase the impact and ability to transform the world we live in.
If there is anything I love about the forum it’s that it is a collective initiative. AWID facilitates the organizing process, but the majority of the content and program is jointly defined with dozens of diverse organizations from different parts of the world working at different levels. The forum is itself an exercise in what is possible when we work together, and how we can benefit from contributions coming from diverse women’s movements.
All of you, the participants, are the heart of the forum. The success of this forum wouldn’t be possible without your active participation and your commitment to create a space where we can all grow at different levels and increase the effectiveness of our struggles to advance women’s rights around the world. This time around, we have an unprecedented number of registrants, around 2,100. This means that we have had to do some contortions to be able to accommodate hundreds of “extra” registrant participants. This is why we are asking for your cooperation, patience and tolerance to ensure that the majority of participants have a significant experience, with enough space to grow, contribute and be inspired.
Before summing up I’d like to recognize Cindy Clark, who temporarily took over the executive direction of AWID last June and along with that responsibility, the challenging task of leading the team during the last months of forum organizing. It is also important to recognize the work and support that we have received from the International Planning Committee and the board. I’d also like to recognize our brilliant forum manager, Caroline Sin, who is the magician behind the logistics and other key aspects to ensure the forum’s success. And of course, I’d like to give special recognition to my colleagues who are part of the AWID team, all of whom have worked tirelessly, with a huge commitment, to make of this forum a reality.
I wish you all an excellent forum and I’m very much looking forward to talking with many of you about your experiences and learnings at the forum. Many thanks!
Listen to Cindy here
Geeta and Lydia have spoken to why “The Power of Movements” is such an important conversation for us to be having at this particular moment in time. I want to tell you a little bit more about what you can expect from the days ahead.
What are we trying to accomplish? Under the guidance of our International Planning Committee, made up of 31 women from 21 different countries, we have tried to shape this forum around [a number of different] goals.
[First, we want] to contribute to a greater shared understanding of how we can strengthen our movements. Why is this important? As Geeta and Lydia have said, it’s because we believe that movements – that the collective, organized power of women and their allies – are crucial for realizing women’s rights. We also know that feminist and women’s movements are tremendously diverse, and that there is much to learn from those varied experiences as well as from the experiences of other social movements.
We also want to come away with some ideas for how we might overcome some of the fragmentation within women’s movements, pushing ourselves to re-think how we link across sectors, issues and identities. We hope to identify elements of a shared political agenda, to find common ground in our vision of the changes we’re trying to achieve in the world. Can this vision, this broad political agenda, be a common platform from which we build solidarity across the many issues on which we work?
We also want to generate insights into effective ways of working multi-generationally, that value contributions of activists of all ages and ensure visibility and engagement of young women. [And finally], we want to come away with a renewed sense of energy and inspiration – and on that point, there’s not much more to say other than look around you ... The energy in this room is amazing and inspiring.
So how do we hope to achieve these goals? As Lydia said, this is really a collective process, and the results will depend on each of us. Ultimately, the insights, the knowledge that is constructed here, are only possible thanks to what every one of us brings and offers into the space.
We will have a rich diversity of voices in the plenaries as well as in the sessions, as you’ve no doubt seen in the program book. The plenaries aim to provoke and stimulate, to spark ideas. Today we’ll hear some critiques, and insights, of movement experiences that will push us all to think about our own organizing. Tomorrow’s plenary will reflect on some of the internal challenges and dynamics in our movements that need to shift. Sunday will be a conversation around the strategies women are using to organize even in very adverse contexts. Finally, we’ll come together to close the forum with some reflections in the plenary on what we’ve heard and learned, and what that tells us about the future of movements.
The sessions will expose us to a dizzying array of experiences and ideas – the most common complaint that we get about the forum is that there’s just too much going on. But at the same time, there is overwhelming interest and so much to share. We received over 1,000 proposals this year for only about 160 session spaces. On this point, I strongly encourage you to attend at least one session that would appear to have little to do with your routine work, whether it’s on a different issue, or from a different region. I have often heard from participants that those are the sessions that they find most valuable.
So who is here today? Who are we sharing these conversations with? This is the largest AWID forum in our history, with a total of almost 2,200 people registered. We’re still seeing who’s shown up to get the final numbers, but right now I can tell you that of those registered:
- Forty-three percent are from Sub-Saharan Africa, including 11 percent from South Africa
- We have about 10 percent each from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe
- Six percent are from South Asia and another six percent from East and Southeast Asia
- Six percent are from the Middle East and North Africa
- Five percent are from Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States
- Three percent are from the Pacific
We also have 144 different countries represented, which is also a record for us. And 20 percent of the women registered are under the age of 30.
While we celebrate these amazing numbers and the fact that so many of us have come together, we also know that not everyone who wanted to be here could be here with us. Some who had planned to travel were unable to come, whether for health problems, family issues, or unexpected visa problems.
Finally I just want to recognize and appreciate the investment that each of you has made in coming here. You have left homes and loved ones, you have taken many days away from your work and routine. I know you’ll have piles of emails when you go home. Let us not then take this moment, this coming together, lightly. There are far too few opportunities such as this.
“We can inspire most profoundly through hope rather than fear” Presentation by L. Muthoni Wanyeki, Kenya
Listen to Muthoni here
Welcome everyone. I was asked to situate this forum and its theme, The Power of Movements, in an African context and to say why movements have been and continue to be important to us, and what impact they’ve had on the continent.
Despite recent setbacks, it is fitting that the AWID forum is in South Africa because of the role that women played within the anti-apartheid struggle. Geeta talked earlier about slogans, and I think we all remember that slogan, “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.” There are many lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle as well as from all that has happened since. Many of us didn’t think apartheid would end in our lifetime. But apartheid did end, and it ended because of the power of movements, both here in Africa and elsewhere.
Why the focus on movements right now? I think many of us have been inspired – despite the many frustrations – by our engagement with the World Social Forum process over the last couple of years. I think it has provided a space both within the World Social Forum itself as well as in debates that happened afterwards nationally, [where we] vocalized our own critique of the way in which women’s organizing and mobilization has evolved. But although this focus on movements seems to be new, or seems to have gained more energy over the past couple of years, it really isn’t new.
I want to focus today on some African stories to talk about the successes – which also all raise their own challenges – of women’s organizing and mobilization. I would like to talk about women’s organizing and mobilizations in four different phases.
First, of course, was the phase of the anti-colonial liberation movements from the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s. There were many examples, all across the continent, of African women leading in traditional religious or spiritual resistance to colonialism. I think here for example of the prophetess, Me Katilili wa Menza of the Giriama in Kenya, who led her people in an uprising against the British colonialists. Then there were the African women allied with the political associations. I think of Mary Wanjiru, a woman who upon the arrest of Harry Thuku of the Gikuyu Central Association, said if the men could not lead in protesting his arrest, she would. She was one of the first women shot down in the protest against that arrest. And of course there were African women who worked with and in the armed struggles. There was a field marshal, Muthoni, of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, the Mau Mau.
Women played many different roles in the armed struggle – not just feeding the fighters as it’s often presented – at great personal cost. My own organization supports many of the female detainees of that struggle in their search for reparations.
The second phase was post independence, from the 1960’s through to the 1980’s. We saw national women’s organizations often allied with, or explicitly linked to, ruling political parties. We saw the growth of immense numbers of community-based women’s groups all across the country. Many focused on income generation and women’s livelihoods. We saw African women in academia and the arts begin to question women’s place within nationalist struggles, and to begin to express their own identity as African women, which was often at odds with cultural interpretations and nationalist readings of our history. We saw the beginning of Pan-African feminist engagement with the rise of pan-African feminist organizations – the first one being in the 1970’s, the Association of African Women in Research and Development. We saw also, during this period, great engagement globally.
Of course, we all know Africa hosted the third World Conference on Women in Nairobi. I think it’s important to point out that this conference took place just three years after our coup d’état. There was very little organizing at the time, but Kenyan women came together across all kinds of divides.
The third phase was what we refer to in Africa as the second liberation, the movements for political pluralism all across the continent in the 90’s. In this phase we saw the rise of autonomous women’s organizations moving from service delivery to advocacy on all kinds of fronts. We saw women play very leading roles within the democracy, governance and human right movements, as well as within the emergent opposition political parties. I think here of Wangari Maathai, who we all know, and her struggle to preserve public space at great personal cost. I think of the mothers of political prisoners (whose work led to the creation of the organization, Release Political Prisoners) who protested using traditional forms of protest in a very difficult political time. We also saw, in this period, the move from income generation and micro-credit strategies, to a focus on national political economy and the beginnings of attempts to work on gender budgeting and on questions of structural adjustment, and later on post-structural adjustment poverty reduction processes and development financing, including questions of debt, investment and trade.
Which brings us to the present, supposedly post-second liberation period in the new millennium, but deciding in fact that the second liberation has still not been achieved. Yes, we have seen the rise now of new organizations within the women’s movement – organizations addressing questions of gender identity and sexual orientation, which is extremely difficult to do and deathly in some contexts. They are finding solidarity within the broader women’s movement in Africa – which is new – on the basis of questions of equality as well as the struggle for reproductive rights. The question is, what did we get from this immense panorama of organizing and mobilization?
I want to focus on two really critical gains for us. First is the question of legal guarantees and protection at the regional level. [In the aftermath of] the movements for political pluralism there has [emerged] a new impetus for regional integration. The new African Union’s Constitutive Act, the protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which is a legally binding human rights treaty, and the Solemn Declaration, are all extremely important regional tools for all of us to use, to advance the struggle for equality on the ground. [The second is the increase in women’s] political participation. We have seen of course the first female president in Africa, in Liberia, and over 50 percent political representation [of women] in Rwanda. I’m just going to repeat that: over 50 percent political participation of women in Rwanda. And about 30 percent in [other] countries including South Africa and Uganda, thanks to tools such as affirmative action and proportional representation systems.
But, we are at this meeting knowing that these gains in terms of just numbers are exceptions rather than the rule. We are here knowing that these gains have yet to translate to [meaningful change] on the ground. We are seeing persistent, protracted conflict in areas where we thought peace agreements had been concluded: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur in the Sudan, Northern Uganda. In all of these conflicts, the forms of sexual violence wreaked on women are extreme, horrifying and seemingly unceasing. We are also seeing real crises in democracy.
I come from Kenya and I won’t reiterate what happened in Kenya earlier this year, but Kenya was not unprecedented. Zimbabwe still has to be resolved and there is a democratic crisis, I would say, even here [in South Africa], even though it’s a crisis of a different kind. We’ve seen economic growth averaging about seven percent across the continent. But inequality within countries on income grounds, on regional grounds – which are always experienced either in terms of ethnicity or religion – and on gender grounds are now so clearly a question of security and stability that equality is finally on the public policy agenda. And we know that inequality will worsen given the seismic global shifts we have seen in this year – from food, to fuel, to the economic system.
I want to conclude by pointing out what this means for all of us. I think more than ever it means that our struggle is not just about more women, not just about the lowest common denominator. It is about maintaining a vision to move forward and galvanize around. Geeta spoke earlier about the need for a political agenda that is based on an analysis, a rigorous analysis of oppression. And I think the lesson from – forgive me – Barack Obama’s campaign, about which much has already been said and much more will be said, [is that] our vision must not alienate or consistently be based only on our victimization. We can enable and we can inspire most profoundly through hope rather than fear – and by giving a sense that all of us are able to contribute and be part of a different future.
So yes, we have to acknowledge and analyze rigorously our oppression, but we also have to put forward the best of our strategies [so that we can] move towards a new day. I would just conclude by saying, I think the democratic and economic crisis that we are in provides an opening, an opportunity, and the question is whether we are ready to seize that opportunity through the movements to which we all belong.
Listen to Mijoo here
My name is Mijoo Kim. I am a woman with disabilities in an electric wheelchair, as you can see. It is a great honour to speak to you on behalf of women with disabilities all around the world. I appreciate that AWID [has given] attention to the issue of the women with disabilities. They also have helped and encouraged women with disabilities to participate in this forum. Thanks so much.
I would like to say that disability issues are women’s issues, and that the movement of women with disabilities is the women’s movement. I [want to begin by] asking you a couple of frank questions. What does disability mean to you? Does it mean something strange and unfamiliar, pitiful and poor? Who are the women with disabilities? Are they just people with disabilities to you, or [are they] women living in the same world as you live in, as women?
The United Nations estimates the [percentage of the] population with disabilities to be 10 percent of the 6.5 billion people throughout the world. [That means] there are approximately 325 million women living with disabilities in the world. However, despite these significant numbers, policies accommodating requirements and desires of women with disabilities are almost non-existent. Responding to this bleak reality, the UN refers to us as “hidden sisters.” Issues of women with disabilities are nowhere included in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and as a result, women with disabilities have not been active recipients of the benefits generated by related policies in each country.
Why have women with disabilities been invisible in the women’s movement? This is a question that I have [been asking] during the past 15 years with my work in Korea and internationally. Are disability issues related only to women with disabilities? No! I can say definitely no. Disability issues are women’s issues, because family members with disabilities are a women’s issue. If a member of your family has disabilities, the role of caregiver [to that family member] is usually assigned to women.
In some countries, people wonder whether a [woman] who gave birth to a child with disabilities has some defect. In many cases these women face physical and mental violence [within] their families. The concerns of these women have not been taken up anywhere in disability or women’s movements. I think of my mother, who has born a heavy burden for 42 years – her child, me, who got poliomyelitis when I was 11 months old. My mother’s whole life has been [devoted to] my life. She has lived as a woman with disabilities, like me.
Secondly, 80 percent of women with disabilities have acquired disabilities [because of] disease, accident and environmental factors. Disabilities are no longer an issue only for persons [who currently have] disabilities. Many countries suffer from malnutrition, famine and war or conflict situations, [circumstances that often lead to people becoming] disabled. These circumstances mostly affect women or children.
[Third], jobs related to care-giving are for “second-class citizens” and generally assigned to women. Most of the people working in the social service industry, caring for the aged and people with disabilities, are women. They are asked to work hard for low pay. In developed countries, jobs related to people with disabilities are often done by immigrant women who have few other options, and who, as a result, [are vulnerable to] unfair treatment or sexual harassment.
Why haven’t women’s movements recognized these issues as part of their agendas, when they are so closely tied to women’s rights? It is because women have assumed that disability issues belong to someone different from them. Why aren’t women with disabilities accepted as women? It is because many activists see only the disability and not the woman.
Women with disabilities have been rendered invisible not only in women’s issues but in disability issues too. Women with disabilities are more likely to be discriminated against than men with disabilities. There is also gender discrimination within the disability community. [Many disability rights activists do not] expect women to be leaders [in the disability rights community].
Sexuality – or asexuality – is also [a] big issue [for us]. It is widely documented that women with disabilities are typically seen as asexual. The body of a woman with disabilities is not considered a sexual body. Before we married, my husband’s friends asked if he was really willing to give up sex for the rest of his life. It never occurred to them that I am a sexy woman. (Applause and whistles.) Thank-you!
It is not enough to describe the gender inequality [experienced by] women with disabilities as simply a problem within the disability community. The disability intersects with gender inequality and produces severe forms of discrimination against women with disabilities. But it’s not [as linear as] adding a “disability” factor onto a “gender” factor. Rather, it’s a totally different, harder-to-fight discrimination that only women with disabilities experience. We have to understand the particular circumstances of women with disabilities [in order to] build alliances.
Let me talk about women’s shelters for example. In the case of a woman with a hearing impairment, she can’t even get a counselor, and her case can’t be registered without a sign language interpreter. In the case of a woman with a severe disability, she can’t even get into a shelter if there are steps or if the bathroom isn’t accessible for her. Do you really think this is still a “women’s shelter?” The idea is not to make separate shelters, but to ensure that we all know how to build spaces that are inclusive of all women, including women with disabilities. Yet even among women with disabilities, there are questions about whether we should seek alliances among women without disabilities.
I believe we have to grow our movements. We will strengthen them through empathy, by listening to one another, learning about each other and better understanding our situations. Look at this 11th AWID forum. There is a desk to support participants with disabilities. There is the support of volunteers and personal assistants, accessible transportation. Women with disabilities are organizing sessions and speaking on panels. [But] there is still more to be done to even further improve the next AWID forum.
I am not asking women’s movements to incorporate women with disabilities. I am on this plenary to remind you that we are already here: we are already part of women’s movements. Women’s movements have to look inside, at our own diversity, and listen to minority women’s voices. The international movement of women with disabilities is strong and rapidly growing.
In 2006, the UN General Assembly approved the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which has a stand-alone article – [article] six – on women with disabilities. This convention establishes the principle of equality between women and men and includes strong language against violence against women and girls with disabilities. Countries that ratify this convention will be expected to then act to implement it. This year, 2008, is the first year that this convention will go into effect. It opens a new horizon for us, and I want to share this important news with all of you, with the women at this forum.
From this moment, I will try to find our voice in women’s issues, and I very much hope you will remember issues of women with disabilities in your workshops. We can build a broader and stronger women’s movement together. I hope when you go back to your home, your organizations and countries that you will remember that the issues of women with disabilities are core to women’s movements.
Listen to Nadine here
OK. I had to stand up because I’m really excited and I can’t keep sitting in the chair. I’ve been super excited for this forum for about a year now. You should see the view from here – this view is incredible.
I do most of my work in Lebanon and in Arab countries, but I only have 10 minutes, so I’m not actually going to talk about what we do, how we strategize, and the politics around that, because it’s very important for me to speak to you about what I think are the criteria for a movement to become and call itself feminist. There is one word that I think is absolutely crucial, and that word is “cunt.”
The word has been used against us so harshly and so disgustingly that we find ourselves terrified of that term. We don’t like it. We don’t like to talk about sexuality. We don’t like to talk about ourselves as sexual beings because our vaginas have been made to seem, even to us, like they are dirty [and] should be hidden [from] classy, nice forums like this. But I believe very strongly that cunt is absolutely, absolutely necessary to the feminist movement. And I’ll explain why.
The “C” is for creativity. It’s for reinventing the feminist wheel over and over again. There is no one way of organizing, and there is no one structure to follow. Many times when we organize in NGOs or in networks, we follow and we replicate the same exact patriarchal systems that we fight against. We bring them into our movements, and we become so obsessed with paperwork and structures and formalities that we forget that we can think very creatively about things.
I’m sure that most of you came here because you want to network, because you want to meet other organizations, because you have a pitch to make to the funders, because you want to learn about other things happening. [You want] to get as many pamphlets as you can and go back home. But I am asking you today to [take] a very creative approach to this forum, and to make it really personal. Because personal connections change our lives.
You know, my life is not going to change if I get to know one of your projects or programs, or if you tell me “Hi, I’m from this organization” and start telling me about everything you do. [But] my life will change if I meet you as a woman, and you meet me as a woman, and we share this bond and this experience, and we ask about each other personally. We ask about feminism that is personal to us. That’s what I think is the coolest thing about this forum, that we can talk on a personal level. I know there are 2,000 participants, but we need to make these personal connections. Because there’s nothing professional about feminism – I don’t like the word professional. And I don’t like how we deal with it very formally as if it’s this distant concept.
So, creativity is in talking to ourselves, and listening to ourselves, and also in comforting each other. Because all my friends who came here and I are very tired – raise your hand if you’re very tired as well. See, we’re all extremely tired and exhausted, and this is the place where suddenly all of that makes sense right? We come here and we watch these videos and we listen to these speeches and we think OK, now I remember why I did this in the first place. Now I remember why I’m so tired. This is the place for us to talk together, and to congratulate each other, and to get to know each other as human beings, as women.
Now the “U” is for “unity” – and unity is very important. I heard someone speak last week who said that none of us is free until all of us are free. And I thought that was such a perfect quotation – that none of us is free until all of us are free. If you look at the forum program now, you will see this overwhelming diversity [in terms of] the topics and the issues that are covered. We’ve got incredible forces against us – you all know this. We’ve got institutions and the governments and the media. Everything is playing against us. All these systems, visible and invisible, are against us. And the only people we’ve got [to address these forces] are the people sitting right here in this room. If you look around you, these are the people who will support you, who will help you, who will fund you, who will give you the resources that you need. This is the room that can change the world.
You see I believe in feminism. I’m in love with the word feminism. I believe in feminism like some people believe in god. I believe that [feminism] is fluid enough to be reinvented and reconstructed and debated and discussed until four in the morning. New things can be constantly brought into it, and new things can be kicked out of it. But the great thing about feminism is [that] we can play with that fluidity. And the great thing about movements is [that] a movement doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s everywhere at the same time – like god! It’s nowhere specific, but it’s everywhere. And the great thing is that nobody, not even the most powerful person in the whole world, can kick you out of the movement. Which is great! Nobody can come and say, “I denounce you, you are kicked out of the movement.” We create the movement ourselves – it’s not an NGO, it’s not a program, it’s not a coalition, it’s not a network.
But at the same time I also believe very strongly that there are some rules of feminism that you can’t mess with, you know, like Sarah Palin claiming she’s a feminist. There are some issues about feminism that you cannot mess with, and one of these issues is that there cannot exist a feminist movement without the lesbians. There cannot exist a feminist movement without transgendered people either. Otherwise, it would be called a homophobic movement. Otherwise, it is not a movement that caters to all women – it [is a movement that] chooses the women it caters too. And we all know that you can’t break that rule about feminism. Feminism cuts across all issues, all classes, all races, all gender identities and sexual orientations. That is a basic rule of feminism.
Only last week I was at a conference for the International Gay and Lesbian Association. I was trying to convince the LGBT people that feminism is important to them. You know, they don’t like feminism very much. I was trying to convince them we have to incorporate feminism into the LGBT movement. And then, a week later, I come here and try to talk to you feminists and tell you that we need to include the LGBT movement in our struggle.
I’m really happy about what Muthoni said about the context in Africa. I’m really happy that the gays and lesbians of Africa are getting the support from the women’s movement. I would like to urge all the women’s organizations everywhere around the world, in Asia and Africa, especially in the Middle East, to take on lesbian issues as their own women’s issues. Because all the struggles are connected. All the struggles [around] sexuality are the same. The same oppressions against our bodies. And it is against these oppressions that we have to fight.
Now, we’ve done the “C” and the “U.” The “N” is about numbers. Numbers are very important. This is not a slow and elitist revolution. This is a revolution where we need millions and millions of people. We need to bring them on. What the Obama campaign has taught us [is that] regardless of the politics, when we have enough numbers, when we deal with all the different layers of oppressions, we can get everyone together. People we never thought we could [bring together] can come together [and] can join this movement.
Finally, the “T” is for time and continuity. Here I’d like to talk a bit about multigenerational dialogues. A lot of the time, we come to these places as young feminists and we meet these icons, these great leaders who we’ve read about and googled. We read your books and we’ve had your posters in our rooms as we grew up. And then we come here, and we meet you.
You know, I acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of giants, of amazing women. But sometimes, sometimes those giants can be really annoying. And sometimes, sometimes the giants don’t want you to stand on their shoulders. But the thing that we have to understand is that young women are absolutely critical to this movement, and we are not just going to open the space for them. They are going to come and they are going to claim the space, especially at the forum. Yesterday we had a Young Feminist Activist day where we had multigenerational women come together. They’ve got this really cool concept, which is those pink scarves that people are wearing. If you believe in multigenerational organizing you need to get yourself a scarf – there are hundreds of them. I didn’t wear mine because it’s too pink!
There are also lots of activities and murals and caucuses, and I would encourage you, if you’re a young woman, to join. But also if you’re from an older generation. And I would encourage you to talk to each other and to go to the panels that are not directly related to you. So if you’re a straight woman, if you’ve never met a lesbian, there are hundreds of wonderful lesbians here. Meet them, get to know them a little bit, and ask them about their lives. If you’re a young woman, go to a woman who has been around for 20 or 30 years and ask her how she is, and ask her how she’s doing. Ask her why she came into feminism in the first place. These are the personal conversations we need to create – this is what’s important in this forum.
If we do that I’m sure we’ll leave here richer, more empowered, feeling energized. We can go back home and actually have the change that we need, to do the things we want to do. Thank you very much.
“We indigenous women have come here with renewed hope to share our experiences with you” Presentation by Monica Aleman, Nicaragua
Listen to Monica here
It is an honour to be here. I am here as a result of the roads you have travelled. Sisters, leaders of the world, I welcome you today and pay tribute to the road walked by our women ancestors. I welcome you today in honour of the struggles we have lived. I welcome you today with deep emotion and a spirit for change.
I will begin by acknowledging the presence of my indigenous sisters from all parts of the world who are here today, of my Afro-descendant sisters, and of my Nicaraguan, Latin American and Caribbean sisters. Today we honour the memory of thousands of young, old and wise indigenous women from the American continent who are actors and promoters of profound structural reform. [They are working] to change the relations of power in our countries so that all of us – indigenous, Afro-descendant, mixed blood – can enjoy the rights for which our ancestors struggled.
On behalf of indigenous women, I would like to acknowledge our sister Lydia [Alpízar] who is a visionary for promoting, as the central objective of this AWID meeting, the visibility and potentiality of women’s struggles around the world, and for promoting dialogue among women from diverse movements, women who have founded their work on ancestral struggles.
We indigenous women have come here with renewed hope to share our experiences with you. We are the products of the struggle of Domitila Chungara, an indigenous woman who, together with other miner sisters and brothers in Bolivia, began in 1963 to create the foundation for a profound transformation of the Bolivian state. They articulated the class, ethnic and gender struggle of the 20th century, which today is materialized in the women’s movement [called] Bartolina Sisas, in Evo Morales, and in the new constitution with the challenge to transform the relations of power in a Latin American country.
We are the result of the struggles of Dolores Cacuango, an indigenous woman from Ecuador. She was wise, a teacher, and a loyal defender of the struggle to end the discrimination that her people suffered. She was an advocate of the first programs of bilingual and inter-cultural education. These programs [were among the first to] consider culture and identity as intercultural foundations for the promotion of relations of respect and co-existence among different cultures.
We are here to follow the steps of our older sisters, Rigoberta Menchu Tum from Guatemala, Mirna Cunningham from Nicaragua, Tarcila Rivera Zea from Peru, Commander Ramona from Mexico, and Nina Pacari from Ecuador, among many others. They taught us that, as women, we are bearers of the rights achieved by the struggles of all women. However, we cannot enjoy such rights if the collective rights of our peoples are not recognized. As indigenous women we can only enjoy our rights fully if the rights of all indigenous peoples are also recognized.
The struggle for our rights has been fundamental. There are thousands of experiences of indigenous women who sacrificed their dignity and their lives so that today we can be here with you. In my Miskita community, in the autonomous region of the North Atlantic in Nicaragua, I remember some of these women. Vivi Dilia is one of them. She knows about medicine. She has been the midwife for almost all of the women in my town. She knows of plants. She learns from dreams, and she speaks with the spirits who today guide the vision of my people. When she was 14 years old she had to leave her community, which at the time was affected by hunger and a lack of food, because the collective territories were being occupied by a transnational banana company dedicated to monoculture. But Vivi has [since] regained her dignity. She lives proud of her wisdom because we achieved multiethnic autonomy with the revolution in the 1980s.
Today, however, women in Nicaragua, like in many other countries in our continent, confront regression and threats in the exercise of our rights. The rights of women, like the rights of indigenous peoples, continue to be the product of political negotiation. We cannot allow the political persecution and harassment that feminists and other social leaders in Nicaragua are experiencing, [perpetrated] by a government that self identifies as “leftist.” Violence and repression against women who struggle for and defend human rights are forms of control that governments utilize in many countries to block our way and negate our rights.
As indigenous women, we also come here to share our capacity for intergenerational dialogue. As young indigenous women we want to follow the teachings of Doña Virgilia, a spiritual leader of the Mayan people in Guatemala who used to say that indigenous women need to deal with topics such as sexual and reproductive health, gender, and social justice. She used to say that we need to be transparent and share the fact that in many of our communities there are diverse sexual options, respecting the mission that all human beings have according to their respective nahual. The same used to be said by Amaranta, a Mexican Zapotec woman active in the struggle against HIV.
We have come here representing the International Forum of Indigenous Women, which articulates the indigenous women’s movement of North America, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We have come here conscious of the economic challenge we confront today, knowing, however, that the women of the world have come a long way. Feminists and women who struggle for our rights opened the path on which we walk. Many of you have been our teachers. Today we tell you, however, that we can boost our struggle if we find ways to work collectively to move the movement forward.
We are here to take a step forward in the continuing construction of a feminist movement that is diverse and that has principles like solidarity, interculturality, diversity, and that has an intergenerational character. Sisters, the challenge is on the table, and change is in our hands. Thank you.