AWID's Experiences At This Year’s World Social Forum
AWID was represented at this year’s World Social Forum by two staff members: Cecilia Alemany (Manager of AWID’s Influencing Development Actors and Practices Strategic Initiative) and Sanushka Mudaliar (Manager of AWID’s Young Feminist Activism Programme). In this interview they give a snapshot of their participation and experiences.
By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: Please tell us about this year's World Social Forum and its dominant themes.
SANUSHKA MUDALIAR (SM): The World Social Forum (WSF) 2009 was held between January 27 and February 1. It was held in Belém which is in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The organizing committee reported early in the week that they had registered 92,000 people. The activities at the WSF are organized around central objectives that are defined by the WSF International Council through a consultative process. The WSF’s objectives this year were to promote:
* The construction of a world of peace, justice, ethics and respect for different spiritualities, free of weapons, especially nuclear ones;
* The release of the world from domination by capital and multinational corporations, as well as imperialist, patriarchal, colonial and neo-colonial domination and unequal systems of commerce, by canceling the debt of impoverished countries;
* Universal and sustainable access to the common property of mankind and nature, the preservation of our planet and its resources, particularly water, forests and renewable energy sources;
* The democratization and independence of knowledge, culture and communication and for the creation of a system of shared knowledge and acquisition with the dismantling of intellectual property rights;
* Dignity and respect for diversity, ensuring the equality of all regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and caste;
* The assurance during every person’s lifetime of economic, social, human, cultural and environmental rights, particularly the rights to food, health, education, housing, employment and decent work, communication, food security and sovereignty;
* The construction of a world order based on sovereignty, self-determination and on people's rights, including those of minorities and migrants;
* The construction of a democratic, emancipator, sustainable and solidarity economy, people-focused and based on ethical and fair trade;
* The construction and expansion of truly local, national and global democratic political and economic structures and institutions, with the participation of the people in decision making and in the control of public affairs and resources.
The financial crisis is clearly dominating people’s thinking and analysis across a range of social justice issues. The choice of the Amazon as the venue this year was designed to support the participation of local indigenous communities and place a central focus on the environment and natural resources. The war in Gaza and human rights abuses in Palestine were also very prominent.
Having said that, the WSF involves literally dozens of events happening simultaneously during each session every day so the dominant themes really depended on the sessions attended.
AWID: How and why did AWID participate at the WSF?
SM: There are different views about the value of the WSF and questions being asked about its role and function. We decided to go because it is basically the only open venue for social movements, organizations and initiatives from all over the world to come together. It is a political space that enables networking and discussion, and it convenes important actors within the women’s movement and other social movements. It is a great place to “take the pulse” of current discourses and debates, and to consider the relationship between the women’s movement and women’s rights activists within other social movements. It provided us with an opportunity to reflect on the direction of our work on development issues, aid effectiveness, funding and young feminist activism by learning and listening to others.
CECILIA ALEMANY (CA): Working with DAWN, WIDE, IGTN, REPEM, and Action Aid International we held a panel on alternative development paradigms from a feminist perspective. In this panel, speakers from all the co-organizers presented their perspective on development paradigms and the current international systemic crisis from a feminist perspective. The remaining challenge is how to connect these theoretical debates with the existing strategies that women’s groups are developing at the regional, national and local level.
AWID also participated actively in panels organized by other organizations. This included a panel on Poverty and Rights organized by Amnesty International and Civicus. In this workshop we shared understandings and strategies on how to move towards a human rights-based approach as the way to reduce poverty and inequality. The panel discussion included practical and analytical proposals to go beyond the ”povertology” approach that puts women and girls in a victimized position or identifies them as agents of change responsible for and capable of ensuring development for whole villages or communities. We also participated in a panel on Funding for Adult Education and Gender Equality organized by the International Council for Adult Educators. In this session we discussed how the crisis of the international system as well as the current trends in aid and development cooperation impact on access to funds for education at the national level.
AWID: How did women's rights activists and organizations organize at the WSF, how was their presence felt?
CA: Women’s groups were active in different ways, through their own organizations activities, through the Feminist Dialogues, in common activities organized among partners from the women’s movement and other social movements. So their presence was important, but one’s impression would vary depending on the meetings or workshops attended. There was a cluster on gender equality that was trying to promote some synergies and support among women’s groups activities, but this was not really related to the Feminist Dialogues. In sum, several women’s groups were present in Belém, and there were several centres of interest and articulation.
SM: There were some really great activities and convenings in different spaces across the Forum. Unfortunately there was no Women’s Tent so there was no central meeting place for women’s groups to come together during the week. On the final day, which is reserved for alliance-building and strategizing between groups working on different themes, a Women’s Assembly was held that provided an open space for groups to share important insights and calls to action. The Women’s Assembly also discussed and approved a Declaration.*
AWID: What were your personal impressions of the WSF?
SM: This was my first WSF and it is very hard to sum up all the different impressions I had. It was great to feel the energy of the opening march and the large assemblies and to participate in a process of thinking through, engaging with and sharing ideas about the process of social change. Overall it is a huge and chaotic event, but that in itself was a reminder of the texture and complexity of the work we’re engaged in. At the same time, it was clear that within movements we often talk at cross-purposes, or approach debates from such different angles that it is hard to know where to start the joint conversation.
Also there were young people everywhere! WSF participants were overwhelmingly young, with loads of local students coming just to see what it is all about. It is a fabulous thing for Brazil that so many citizens are exposed to the inner workings and debates within social movements.
CA: I have attended most of the previous WSFs and I always approach it as a moment to see allies, identify potential common actions, listen to what other organizations are thinking and doing and see friends from all the social movements. This time, the distance between the two university campuses where the WSF was being held made it difficult to find people, but the geographic location was really positive. For the first time, indigenous groups’ vision of the world appeared very strongly at the Forum. Their vision of the current crisis is that we are facing a crisis of the model of civilization. The fact that we were in their territory gave them the necessary strength and presence to influence the discourse of all the western - or traditional- social movements.
Now, coming back to our daily work and offices, the challenge will be to not forget that the “right of well being” proposed by the indigenous groups is not so different to the human rights perspective, including women’s rights, and also economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. We speak different languages, and we have different cultures and styles, but the need for social justice, equality, climate change justice and a more equal and democratic system from the local to the global is a common pledge. The way to do it and how, is still an open debate and everyone will find different answers. For those who expected a unique answer or paradigm coming from the WSF, Belém was not the space to go. What we should learn from the current crisis and the past century is that we shouldn’t build an alternative world system on a unique answer or vision.
AWID: What did you take away from the WSF? Are there any particular sessions that stood out for you?
SA: It reinforced for me how important it is that we each carefully consider how the global space relates to our specific area of activism. The fact that there is such active debate on the value and purpose of the WSF is a reminder that social movements haven’t yet fully explored what it is that we want from our global interactions and how we can use them most effectively when we go back to our day to day work.
The inter-movement panel that was organized as part of the Feminist Dialogues was a really thought-provoking discussion. Speakers working on labour issues, farmers rights, LGBQTI and sexual rights, and indigenous organizing together with feminist activists talked about attempts by these social movements to engage with feminism and women’s rights. Speakers were candid about the challenges involved in getting past discrimination, existing pre-conceptions and identity differences, and the difficulties of articulating joint agendas across social movements. The discussion provided some interesting examples of the internal lobbying that is often required to bring women’s rights issues to the table within a movement.
AWID: What, if anything would you like to see done differently at the next WSF?
CA: In spite of the very real political and financial challenges, it would be great if another WSF is held. If so, it would be useful to recover the methodology used in past Forums where the Forum Secretariat identifies similar sessions proposed by different groups and suggests that the groups consider merging and holding a joint activity. Although the merging was entirely voluntary, it often promoted interesting alliances and synergies. Regarding the women’s movement, there is no short answer on how to strengthen our visibility and interaction during the Forum, however it would be desirable to have more sharing of information before and during the Forum and more clearly identified points to meet and network.
* The full declaration follows below:
World Social Forum 2009, Belém do Para, Brazil
Women’s Assembly Declaration
In the year in which the WSF joins with the population of the Pan-Amazon, we, women from different parts of the world gathered in Belém, reaffirm the contribution of indigenous women and women from all forest peoples as political subjects that enriches feminism in the framework of the cultural diversity of our societies and strengthens the feminist struggle against the patriarchal capitalist global system.
The world is currently experiencing various crises that demonstrate that this system is not viable. Financial, food, climate and energetic crises are not isolated phenomena, but represent a crisis of the model itself, driven by the super exploitation of work and the environment, and financial speculation of the economy.
We are not interested in palliative answers based on market logic in response to these crises; this can only lead to perpetuation of the same system. We need to advance in the construction of alternatives. We are against the use of agro-fuels and carbon credit markets as ‘solutions’ to the climate and energy crises. We, feminist women, demand a change in the production and consumption model.
In relation to the food crisis, we affirm that transgenic foodstuffs do not represent a solution. Our alternatives are food sovereignty and the development of agro-ecological production.
With respect to the financial and economic crisis, we are against the withdrawal of millions from public funds to rescue banks and businesses. We, feminist women, demand employment protection and the right to a decent income.
We cannot accept that attempts to maintain this system are made at the expense of women. The mass layoffs, cuts in public spending in social fields, and reaffirmation of this production model increase the work involved in reproduction and sustainability of life, and thus directly affect our lives as women.
To impose its domain worldwide, the system resorts to militarization and arms; genocidal confrontations are fabricated that reduce women to spoils of war and use sexual violence as a weapon of war in armed conflict. Entire populations are forcibly displaced, forcing them to live as political refugees. Violence against women, feminicide and other crimes against humanity are committed on a daily basis in armed conflicts, while perpetrators enjoy total impunity.
We, feminist women, propose radical and profound changes in relations among human beings and with the environment, the end of lesbophobia, of hetero-normative and racist patriarchy.
We demand the end of control over our bodies and sexuality. We claim the right to make free decisions in relation to our lives and the territories we inhabit. We are against the reproduction of society through the super-exploitation of women.
We express our solidarity with women in regions of armed conflict and war. We add our voices to those of our sisters in Haiti and reject the violence perpetrated by the military occupation forces. We support the Colombian, Congolese and countless other women who resist – on a daily basis – the violence of military and militia groups in conflict in their countries. We stand together with Iraqi women facing the violence of the US military occupation.
At this current time, we express our particular solidarity with Palestinian women in the Gaza Strip under military attack from Israel, and we join the struggles for the end of war in the Middle East.
In peace, as in war, we support the victims of patriarchal and racist violence against black and youth women.
Equally, we express our support and solidarity to all sisters in their resistance struggles against hydroelectric dams, timber and mining companies and mega-projects in the Amazon and around the world, as well as those who are persecuted as a result of their legitimate opposition to this exploitation. We unite with those struggling for the right to water.
We stand with all women criminalized for the practice of abortion and defend this right. We strengthen our commitment and join together in actions to resist fundamentalist and conservative attacks, in order to guarantee that all those women who need to, are entitled to safe and legal abortion.
We support the struggle for accessibility for disabled women and for the right of migrant women to freely “come and go”.
On behalf of all these women, and of ourselves, we continue committed to the construction of the feminist movement as a counter-hegemonic political force and an instrument for women to achieve the transformation of their lives and our societies, by supporting and strengthening the self-organisation of women, dialogue, and networking between social movements’ struggles.
On 8th March and during the Global Week of Action 2010, as women around the world we will unite in our confrontation of the capitalist and patriarchal system that oppresses and exploits us. In the streets and in our homes, in forests and the countryside, in our struggles and the in the spaces of our daily lives, we will maintain our rebellion and mobilisation.
Belém, 1st February 2009