Women Organising And Transforming The World
It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since the 2005 AWID Forum in Bangkok – but the long-awaited 11th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development began today, November 14, 2008, in Cape Town, South Africa. By Rochelle Jones.
As people moved into the auditorium, the atmosphere was electric. There was a feeling of anticipation and excitement – this is AWID’s biggest Forum ever. Over 144 countries are represented at the Forum, with 20 percent of participants under the age of 30, and 43% from Sub-Saharan Africa. The room was animated with colour, murmurs, laughter... This is what a room full of 1900 feminists looks like.
Belief in the power of many
Geeta Misra’s introduction painted the landscape for ‘The Power of Movements’ – the Forum theme. Several questions were in the air at this Plenary – How do we understand movements? Why do movements matter? Why is it important for us to be having this conversation now? Movements are local, national, regional and transnational – they occur at any and every level – in coffee shops, in workplaces, across regions, and on the internet. They take place in any context, under a democracy or dictatorship, and they emerge from the small spaces and cracks. Simple acts of resistance such as a black woman sitting in the “white persons only” section of a bus can provide a public face of a movement, but a movement is much bigger than this. It is like an iceberg – only a small part of it is visible. Movements also exist on a continuum. Muthoni Wanyeki highlighted this when she spoke of the her-stories of the movements for social change in Kenya, South Africa and Africa. The lessons we learn from the paths already forged and from our sisters before us are what nurtures our current movements. This sentiment was continued by Monica Aleman later in the Plenary, who reminded us of the roads already travelled, and spoke of Indigenous women’s struggles in Latin America.
Geeta suggested five common elements amongst movements: a feeling of injustice; an understanding of oppression as a political condition; the desire to change political conditions or to shift power; the belief in the power of many; and the presence of the powerless. She also touched on one of the goals of this Forum – which is to advance conversations and thinking among diverse women’s rights advocates on elements of a shared political agenda. Are our issues an end in itself or do we question the structures of power that create inequalities and injustice for women? Power relations within our own movements are important also – are we inclusive enough? Are the voices of the marginalised really incorporated in our work?
From her family’s home in Costa Rica, AWID’s Executive Director, Lydia Alpízar Durán, asked us to learn, to challenge ourselves and to dream. The Forum is a space for us to discuss crucial topics, and advance our agendas. This is critical for women’s rights because we are no longer having the same impact – there is a need to regroup, to look behind us at what we have previously achieved, and to look to our sides to see what our sisters are doing. Movements matter - we need to overcome fragmentation and create new forms of collective action in the face of constant change, increasing inequalities and poverty, conflict, climate change and fundamentalisms. Movements matter because as Muthoni highlighted - the gains that we have made for women’s rights in Africa such as legal guarantees and protections and increased political participation – are the exception rather than the rule.
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. Mijoo Kim talked about what it means to be a woman with a disability within a feminist movement, and reminded us that disability issues are feminist issues. According to Mijoo, approximately 325 million women worldwide have a disability, and yet policies to accommodate disability are almost non-existent. Our ‘hidden sisters’ are with us in the struggle for women’s rights, and yet the intersection of disability with women’s rights is barely visible in our movements. Mijoo referred to the work of care givers for people with disabilities – a majority of them women – to illustrate this intersection, and asked “why haven’t women’s movements recognised this?” Do we see the disability first, and then the woman? In particular, Mijoo talked about how women with disabilities are perceived as asexual – something that has a huge impact on their rights. An important message was that women with disabilities are not asking to be included in feminist movements – they are here and are claiming their space.
Similarly, Nadine reminded us of “the rules of feminism that you don’t mess with” – and that is, feminism cannot exist without ALL women – heterosexual, as well as LGBTQI. All our struggles are connected and we suffer the same oppressions. Nadine used the controversial word CUNT as a word that is necessary to feminist movements – a word that has been used against us, and that many women are terrified of. Reclaiming the word as something positive, she explained:
C = Creativity. We can reinvent the feminist wheel over and over again – but we need to make it personal. Personal connections change our lives. We need to meet each other as women – not as representatives of our organisations and projects.
U = Unity. None of us are free until all of us are free.
N = Numbers. We need to mobilise as many women as we can.
T = Time. Continuity is key – and multigenerational dialogues are incredibly important to the future of our movements.
Monica Aleman also spoke about the need for diverse feminist movements to come together and move forward. Highlighting Indigenous women’s renewed hope, she stressed the importance of coming together in the principles of solidarity, interculturalism, diversity and multigenerational dialogue.
We can, we will, we dare
A theme that emerged in the Plenary from all of the speakers was that the AWID Forum is the space and time to take change into our own hands. In Nadine’s words: “This is the room that can change the world”. We are facing new and difficult challenges, with persistent, protracted conflict, crises in democracy, fundamentalisms, increasing inequalities, poverty and injustice. Lydia stressed that it is now more than ever before that we need to give importance to the challenges that face us. We need to think big, question power, and create new visions for feminism. AWID can facilitate the process of organising, but it is what we all do with this space that will make the difference. How often do we get the chance to come together like this?
So what is the ‘power of movements’? According to Geeta, it is the “power to use the power we have but don’t always know that we have”. This power is slow and lasting – it is not the quick remedies that we see in what she termed “philanthrocapitalism” where funders are willing to put money into social change, but impatient for results. Women’s rights activists are tired and stressed, but despite this (and because of this), Lydia asks us to dance a lot at the Forum, celebrate our differences and toast to the health of all of us. As Nadine exclaimed, it is the personal connections we make here that will energise us and remain in our hearts when we go back to our work.
Listen to the presentations here
Geetanjali Misra, Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), India
Cindy Clark, Acting Executive Director
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 here (Spanish only)