JASS Blog Archives for November 2013

by Rosanna Langara on November 29, 2013 on 12:46 pm

“We can make it happen. People need to break the culture of silence. Women’s experiences on undergoing abortion are real and we only need to communicate these to the world. Art performances and film screenings and other creative platforms open spaces for discussion which bring out participation and sharing of experiences and ideas, especially on taboo topics such as abortion,” says JASS Southeast Asia’s Sattara “Tao” Hattirat of Thailand.

Thai women made waves on the occasion of the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion on 28 September 2013 as JASS Southeast Asia (JASS SEA), along with Women on Web Thailand, Women’s Health Advocacy Foundation (WHAF), and independent rights activists in the country organized a public campaign in Bangkok, Thailand targeting young women who need access to safe abortion, as well as their families and friends. It sought to empower women by voicing out abortion stories from women’s perspective.

One of the highlights of the campaign was an outdoor street performance at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center (BACC). The street performance illustrated a woman’s experience on undergoing abortion and the social stigma pressing on her. A young woman, clad in white,Thai street performance represented a woman who had an abortion. One by one, a dozen people put red fabric on the young woman; the red fabric symbolized the harsh judgment of the different social institutions. The performance caught the attention of pedestrians of the busy streets surrounding the cultural center; some of the people in the audience were moved to tears while watching the performance.

An indoor film screening succeeded the street performance. “Tom Hang” a series in “Love, Not Yet”, was the film shown in the screening session. The talk with film director Intira Charoenpura offered insightful comments on abortion and how women who were not allowed to make their own choices suffer. As film makers and directors are considered celebrities, they have the power to shape public opinion; films are effective media to popularize women’s advocacies.

Society continually tells women to act in one way or another, tells us what is appropriate or sinful, however, at the end of the day society does not take responsibility for women – we are left to fend for ourselves. Women should not be marked for the rest of their lives for a decision they make when they are young,” says film director Intira Charoenpura.

Women from all walks of life – activists, community leaders, and mothers of daughters who had abortion, college and high school students and academics – gathered in the ensuing discussion forum. The atmosphere was energetic and touching. It allowed people from different groups to talk about abortion in a public space for the first time.

“Society is a very important part in deciding whether she has a place to stand in society; my kid made her own choice,” says a mother whose daughter had an abortion.

young Thai woman shares views on safe abortionYoung women also shared their views during the dialogue:

“When a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, she is judged as a slut, a bad daughter, and a bad woman. If she chooses to have an abortion, she is stigmatized by the whole society and everyone tells her that it is sinful. Whatever she does afterwards is judged as a result of her ‘sin’ of having an abortion. What we need to change is society – not the women who have an unwanted pregnancy. We need to change society so that women can make choices about their own lives and women can make choices free of judgment and lifelong stigma posing on them,” says college student Nitchakan Hongkanchanapong.

Long-time women activists also offered their valuable insights:

In my entire life of working in this issue, there is no woman, none at all, who wants to have an abortion. No one gets pregnant so they could get an abortion. Legalizing abortion is not ‘free abortion’. It doesn’t make people have more of it,” says Kritaya Archavanitkul, Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR), Mahidol University.

Many grassroots women who joined the event felt empowered; they pledged that they would go back to their communities and promote the cause. Activists from various organizations who joined that day started to plan for future cooperation in promoting access to safe abortion for women.           

From the dialogue, we learned from women who seek safe medical abortion support that they know what is best for them. Pressure from their partners or families could result to uncertainty and indecisiveness among women. There is conflict between what they want and what their boyfriends or families want,” says Thai activist Tao Hattirat, one of the organizers of this event. Tao is active in JASS and is a member of the young organization called TEA or Togetherness for Equality and Action Group.

There were approximately 50 people, 40 of whom are women, who took part in the event. Most of the people who attended were open-minded yet still ambiguous and lack information on the issue of abortion.

As we make abortion taboo, young women who go through it have to face it alone. Being forced to go through this alone poses a physical risk. Emotionally, it’s an exhausting experience when you cannot talk about it with anyone. Family and friends can easily help by coming in, not judging, listening and talking about it,” says Tao Hattirat.

Women students, older members from communities, academicians and NGO activists who came to the campaign activities now stand in solidarity with the women’s cause; the men in the audience likewise pledged to be allies.

Three days after the action, community leaders and activists who attended the event reported back their initiatives to further the cause in their communities or line of work. Some of them planned outreach activities on access to safe abortion. This unexpected result was well-received by the organizers of the event.

As for the next steps, Thai women activists are planning to duplicate the campaign in the communities and open up a space for information sharing and empowerment and promote it through social media. Indeed, the discourse on safe and legal abortion is gaining ground in Thailand.

Thailand paves the way of opening a sensitive topic like abortion. As the campaign gains momentum, Thai women can raise the issue and demand their government to provide accessible, safe, and free health service for women.

organizing team safe abortion campaign in Thailand

Photo Credit: Morn Kamon, Sumon Unsatit

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by Valerie Miller on November 13, 2013 on 12:12 pm

What a gathering! I just got back from the JASS leadership course in Nicaragua with some 34 women activists from Mesoamerica—that part of the Americas that reaches from Panama all the way up to Mexico and everywhere in between.

What a courageous and marvelous mix of women! Indigenous community leaders fighting to hold on to their ancestral lands and protect the environment in the face of voracious mining companies and destructive dam projects. Rural women fighting similar battles around natural resources and women’s rights. It was a powerful gathering of energy, joy, sharing and analysis that lived up to the Spanish name for JASS’ Mesoamerican education and research program, La Escuela de Alquimia Feminista. Ah, such a challenging name to translate into English. The School of Feminist Alchemy. How do you explain that one? How do you share the magic—the transformative qualities and bonds that such a process generates? This photo perhaps says it all. The School provides truly miraculous moments of collaboration, creativity and critical inquiry—all focused on building and strengthening women activists and their movements for justice. Add some good music, dancing, singing and a few bad jokes and—abracadabra—wonderful synergy and solidarity.

For four days, the lovely grounds of La Cantera, a Nicaraguan popular education organization, inspired us with its tropical beauty and attentive staff. At the center of our light and airy meeting room, we placed a simple clay pot, quite generous in size, along with with a big wooden spoon for stirring—all surrounded by colorful flowers. These became our tools of magic alchemy. Day one went like this. As women identified the professional and personal support and challenges they experience in their work, they wrote them down on color-coded cards, shared them and then put them inside the large clay container and stirred. At the end of each session, the cards were drawn from the magic mix, and then sorted. They served as a written record of both our individual and collective learning. As we continued, every session produced insights that ranged from how to handle conflict to how to move a political agenda forward. Each time, women brought their contribution to the pot and mixed their experiences and wisdom together. By so doing, everyone felt that each contribution was being recognized and transformed into something greater and ever more powerful. Simple symbols that convey such meaning! Moments that bring women together across their differences into a community of solidarity and common purpose.  

As we said goodbye, one Mayan saying resonated across the room, affirming the deep connections we share with all of life and each other. “You are me and I am you.” A traditional greeting in Mayan communities, these words honor each person and the web of life and love that sustains and nurtures our planet, our cosmos, and our humanity. Together we become one with all life forms—from the birds who awaken us at dawn and the butterflies who cheer our mornings to the rivers that give us fresh water and the moon that brightens our evening skies. Inspired by this vision, we give the best of ourselves in each encounter, creating new energy and beauty to guide our many paths.


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by on November 7, 2013 on 12:44 pm

There’s an act of defiance in going onstage...

We are standing in the garden of Katswe Sistahood’s office in Harare. It is 29°C, the sun beats on our foreheads until we’re shiny with sweat and our clothes are soaked through. There is a group of young women performing a series of exercises. Breathing heavily as they jump in one spot, and then shift into seamless choreography, high kicks slice the air, swan-like arms raised to the sky, sturdy legs in squats that make them unmoveable as mountains no matter what comes at them. Then they are laughing, breaking into a chorus of ululating greetings, they weave amongst each other in predetermined order before they freeze, statue-like, and the first speaker begins her monologue, voice strident and her gaze laser-focused on some point we can’t see—but she makes us want to look, to look at her and with her.

The Vagina Warriors have been meeting for roughly four weeks. The nine young women who hail from low income housing settlements (high density suburbs) began their journey in the crucible Katswe calls “pachoto”—where women come together in their groups, sometimes ten and other times as many as sixty in a single space, to talk about life, share the issues that are troubling them, grapple with some of the painful and difficult things they are faced with on a daily basis. In these spaces, women also laugh, joke, and enjoy the simple pleasure of just being themselves.

Roughly a month ago, this particular group of Vagina Warriors began preparing for an adaptation of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Each warrior crafted monologues based on her own lived experiences, finding her own voice and narrative. It’s an intense process that involves not only theatrical training but also the telling of stories that are gradually whittled and sculpted into monologues, war cries, songs and dances—all of which the warriors will perform on Friday November 8th at the Harare’s biggest theatrical venue.

But this is not just about entertainment, it’s about something deeper.

“There’s an act of dfiance in going onstage,” says Rudo Chigudu, “Because everything about our stories is private…. When young women get married they’re told, ‘Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,’ [yet] the woman next door knows you’ve been beaten because you ran down the street half naked. But you’re still supposed to pretend that it’s [violence] this very private thing and you’re supposed to contain it. There’s something in saying, I’m sick and tired of pretending, that my life is private when there’s nothing private about it and the privacy is actually killing me. This private space is where I’m violated most and I can’t be silent about that anymore.”

Feminist politics tell us that the personal is political and that the divides between the private and the public realms of our lives are indistinct and, often, an outright fiction. We are told that sex and sexuality are private matters, the sort of thing to be discussed only between “husband” and “wife” behind the bolted doors of the bedroom. When we dare to bring dangerous issues—sex, sexuality, violence, women’s bodies—into the public realm, we face stigma, vilification, and even more violence. We are told how to have sex, and with whom, the when and the why are handed to us from rulebooks (literally and figuratively) someone else (a man or a god who is always a he) determined and wrote.

It’s here where the transgressive power of what the Vagina Warriors are doing sits. They don’t just whisper about taboo issues, the ones we’re not supposed to talk about at all—they scream, they shout, they blow the doors wide open. They sing, they laugh and they dance. What’s more, the vagina monologues developed from their own personal experiences and herstories are the nexus of a radical process of transformation and, to its fullest realisation, movement building.

“It’s not about entertainment or making sure people get the shock,” says Talent Jumo, “Sometimes we don’t celebrate the journey itself and what it does to people—to the women in our spaces.” This transformation can only be made visible by looking at the process of developing the vagina monologues, by examining the stories and the story behind the stories.”

We all spend a lot of time in women’s rights and development work talking about “change” and “measurable impact.” We clock hours and hours calculating the percentages and the neat little numbers of direct reach we’ve accomplished year in and year out as proof that our strategies and plans are working. But when we are talking about change—real change, the kind that sits at the heart of movement building, it starts here in the lives of women and in safe spaces where women can come together to reflect and reclaim their own stories and lives. 

As Shereen Essof asks, “How do we transform silence into voice? How do we transform disempowerment into power? How do we shift the private into the public so that the private transforms the public and it’s not just inserted into the public realm? How do we transform lives in terms of the journey and the community? How do we transform [experiences that are] horrific into something that reclaims a sense of beauty and agency, that can catalyse other people in their journeys?”

katswe sistahoodThis process of transformation is not easy or straightforward. Its victories can’t be measured with a ruler (most of the time)—but they are real even as they can be intangible. It’s about power. The power within when a woman realises that she matters, that her voice matters and that she can speak out. The power to effect change, whether it is in her personal life, in the home, the workplace. The power with other women to carve a different vision for the world they inhabit and make it real together.This kind of transformation begins at the individual and reaches beyond into families, communities, societies, it lights a fire and sparks revolutionary change.

One last word from the Vagina Warriors:

You don’t realise it when things are changing but when you think back to when we started four weeks ago and now—it’s different women. You can see it even in the body language and how a warrior carries herself. The process itself is therapeutic, when they’re ready, they bring more and more of themselves. There was one vagina warrior who, when the process began, all she would say was, ‘I just need to find my father. Because there’s nobody else in my life. There’s this man who disappeared when my mother got pregnant. Then my mother died and then my siblings died. There are no relatives, I have nobody. I feel that if I find my father, maybe he has children and then at least I can have a family.’ But yesterday, a month after we began, she said: ‘If [my father] didn’t care enough to be there then why do I think that finding him is going to do anything? The people around me are my family now… so why do I keep searching for this shadow?’

Katswe Sistahood & the Vagina Warriors supported by JASS, Hivos, AWDF (African Women’s Development Fund), the Netherlands Embassy and UN Women will present the Vagina Monologues at the 7 Arts Theatre in Harare, Friday November 8, 6PM.

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