JASS Blog Archives for September 2014

by on September 30, 2014 on 8:58 am

Ask a roomful of people to stand up if any of them have ever experienced violence personally or know of a woman who has experienced violence. They’ll all stand. Ask this same group if they or the women they’re thinking about have ever experienced justice—what justice tastes like, what it feels like­­ and almost every single woman in the room will sit down.

When activist, Ananda* of the One in Nine Campaign led this exercise at a recent workshop in which I took part along with over thirty activists from all over the world, every single person in the room (including the two men) stood up for the first question. The second question garnered a slightly more interesting response: two people were left standing, one was a white woman from Canada and the other was a land rights activist from just outside Johannesburg, South Africa. I didn’t get to ask either of these women why they kept standing, and the circumstances of the cases they were thinking of but it got me thinking.

We talk about justice all the time as feminists, but what do we actually mean by it? How do we even begin to imagine what justice looks like?

We’ve fought for laws. As of 2013, Zimbabwe “[has a] (new) constitution[s] which generally [has] good frameworks to promote and protect women’s rights” (Everjoice Win, Between Jesus, the Generals and the Invisibles, 2013) but this has not stopped 1 in 3 Zimbabwean women from experiencing physical and/or sexual violence. South Africa has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions that grants full marriage equality and protection to LGBTI citizens and yet there have been over 30 reported murders of lesbians in the last fifteen years.  A lot of our struggles for justice take place at a high policy level: we go to the United Nations; we leverage conventions like CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and craft protocols on this, that and the other. These strategies are powerful and critical to our feminist movements. But they have their place, and in isolation, disconnected from movements of women and men working together to create alternatives, they aren’t going to take us where we need to go.

For me, I’m asking myself, what does justice look like in my body (which is coded as ‘female’)? What does it look like when I navigate my sexuality within my largely conservative family and communities? What does it look like in our churches? What does it look like when we negotiate condom use with intimate partners? What does it look like when a woman walks down the street at the end of her day and gets heckled by a group of hwindis (minibus taxi drivers), and instead of speaking up and telling them off, she swallows her words and pulls into herself, walks a little quicker and tries to quash the fear churning in her stomach because we all know what ‘happens’ to women on dark streets? More than that, we know what ‘happens’ to women who walk on streets in broad daylight.

Unless we’re ready to confront and define justice as it cuts across every part of our lives and every fragment of our identities so that we can live in dignity, free from even the threat of violence and discrimination, to the fullest of our ability, capacity and desires—then we’re never going to achieve it, not really. And unless women, those on the very frontlines of struggles for gender justice, are right at the table, dreaming up alternatives and crafting a different way to imagine a ‘just’ world then nothing’s going to change. We can make all the laws and policies we want; we can spend all day picketing on the streets; we can spend our nights praying on our knees for some god to make things better—but it won’t matter.

C-A-U-T-I-O-N: Feminist justice is NOT comfort food…

I’ve looked askance at the recent (but not entirely new) efforts to re-brand feminism, package it in ever shinier, glossier trappings that are more palatable and comforting. It’s the kind of feminism a small and privileged elite can swallow with a cup of tea every morning and never have to think about for the rest of the day.

It takes multiple forms like a mythological chimera—it might be a well-known fashion magazine notorious  for its overwhelming whiteness and heavy-handed airbrushing that doesn’t do much to promote body diversity claiming to be “deeply feminist” or it might be a recently-launched global solidarity campaign helmed by the U.N., #HeforShe, that posits that one of the biggest reasons to care about gender equality and women’s rights is because of how much patriarchy hurts men. Now while it is true that patriarchy hurts everyone, putting men at the centre of the conversation isn’t going to help the feminist cause. Why? Because men have been at the centre of the conversation for centuries and we can all see how well that’s worked out for us. A fact someone ought to tell Iceland’s foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, who just announced that his country (along with Suriname) would be hosting a "Barbershop" conference in January 2015 to bring "men and boys" together to talk about gender equality, particularly violence against women in a "positive way."

I’m sure I don’t have to say it but I will anyway: any conversation about inequality that deliberately excludes the voices of those most affected is an incredible waste of valuable time, energy and resources.

The first thing to realise is that these trends aren’t coming out of nowhere—backlash takes multiple forms and this is just one of its more insidious and sometimes less obvious one. After all, what better way to demobilise feminist movements for transformative change and genuine gender justice than co-opt the political term ‘feminism’ and co-opt feminist spaces so that some people can feel more ‘welcome’.

There has always been and there will always be a push from the mainstream and whoever defines it, usually white men, to make feminism less scary. Less thorny. Less messy. Less challenging. And far less demanding on all of us in forcing us to question ourselves and our privileges—whether they be of racial, gender or sexual identity; social standing, location or class.

Any time we hear that message it should rouse a red alert alarm in our heads because guess what? Feminism was never meant to be this easy. Feminism isn’t always about leaving us with a nice warm feeling in the pit of our bellies (although that’s great, and in a violent and frankly terrifying world, it’s cool to feel good about something). 

It’s on me to deal with my privileges, to confront and unpack them just as it’s on you to grapple with yours. We can’t allow hurt feelings to get in the way of that individual and collective project. 

I’d like to go back to JASS’ most recognisable rallying cry because it’s always resonated with me but it didn’t really hit me until this latest onslaught on feminism why.

Caution, women crossing the line.  It’s a warning sign. It’s a foghorn blaring and it’s telling the world that we’re coming. We are going to transgress the norms of what it means to be ‘woman’ and blow up your binaries, we are going to break your institutions and rules and build new ones, we’re going to carve out the meaning of justice for ourselves—and if you won’t give it to us, we’ll just have to take it. You are probably not going to like this and you’re probably going to try to stop us, discourage us, beat us back into the tiniest box you can find where we’ll sit down and keep our mouths closed like ‘good women’—

But we will keep coming.


*Ananda requested that her name be withheld.

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by Lisa VeneKlasen on September 25, 2014 on 11:35 am

As a global capital, New York City is accustomed to high-level discussions on earth-shaking issues. But something different is happening. 

Two events in a single week - the UN Climate Summit and the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples along with discussions on new global goals on development and women and girl's human rights, are rocking even the jaded city. Deeply interrelated, these events raise debates that will determine what kind of a world we live in this generation - or even a few years from now.

Add to that, the People's Climate March on 21 September, where more than 310,000 people took part in what's been deemed "the largest climate march in history," and we could have what historians call a "defining moment".  It's not that we shall see big decisions come out of any of this. The wheels of international bureaucracies are slow and creaky, and the differences profound.

Far more important than the official declarations will be the real dispute: Who gets to decide and how?

There are some voices that have been silenced for centuries - in the home, in the community, in governments. These are the voices of indigenous women.  Unless these voices gain strength in the discussions and deliberations, no decision -  no matter how enlightened it may appear - can be balanced, informed or legitimate.

And we'll also miss out on some of the most innovative and effective solutions around. Without fanfare and against all odds, indigenous women are developing practices that can be replicated to confront the toughest issues of our day: climate change, inequality, development, democracy and security.

To give some examples: Maria Ricca Llanes is a young, indigenous woman from Cordillera region of the Philippines. She works with a regional alliance of women's organizations that delivers relief and helps rebuild communities devastated by a series of off-season typhoons linked to global warming.

indeginous women at climate change marchOn the other side of the world, Felicitas Martinez, an indigenous Me'phaa, works to counter poverty and government neglect in her home community in one of Mexico's poorest regions. She's a member of the community police, an indigenous law enforcement and justice system that has proved to be far more effective than corrupt government security forces in controlling crime and ensuring justice.

Up north, the indigenous women at the forefront of Idle No More, a First Nations movement set off by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s dismantling of environmental protections, have become headline news as they push back to protect rivers and forests, making important legal gains in reasserting their historic rights. 

Just Associates (JASS) has worked with women like Maria and Felicitas throughout the world. Many fight corporations that are polluting or illegally occupying their land. We see disconcerting similarities throughout the world: the mining boom, for example, has set indigenous women up against transnational companies, often backed by governments eager for the foreign investment with total disregard for basic environmental and labor standards.

Many pay a high price for their community activism. In Guatemala, indigenous communities held community consultations and voted to reject large-scale mining projects on their land, as is their right according to international law. Indigenous leader Lolita Chávez, Guatemalan K’iche’, and a group of her sister activists were ambushed on a bus by a group of men armed with machetes and knives. Four of the women were wounded. Lolita also has an arrest warrant out against her for her work in defense of the communities' right to be heard.

There's a clash of worldviews here. It's no coincidence that indigenous territories contain the vast majority of the earth's remaining natural resources. Indigenous communities have a long tradition of conserving and respecting Mother Earth.  And within those communities, women play a key role in transmitting cultural knowledge, adapting to often difficult conditions and maintaining a balance between the environment and human needs.

The rush to exploit those resources as thoroughly and quickly as possible is foreign to them. As one woman from the lush Guna Yala in Panama (Graciela) remarked about developers coming into her islands, "When they see green, all they see is money."

Indigenous women remind us that it's time the colour green took back a living connotation. We have to at least balance economic interests with longer-term considerations, and with a healthy respect for other people and other living things.

We're hearing many opinions, ideas and controverting facts bandied about over the next few days. In the end, it comes down to who is allowed to speak and be heard. Whose voice matters.

Taking into account indigenous women's voices is not just a question of historical justice after centuries of discrimination, although that's important. It offers the  opportunity to tap a millennia-old source of knowledge that has been constantly evolving. Far from the podiums, in small villages in mountains, lowlands and plains, indigenous women are innovators in developing new solutions to the most pressing needs of today's world.

They've been muted by centuries of racism and sexism, but many courageous indigenous women have travelled to New York this week to speak out.

We can't afford not to listen.

This article was originally published on openDemocracy.

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by Everjoice Win on September 10, 2014 on 9:37 am

A Look at Positive Women’s Organising in Malawi, 2005 to 2014

It is hard to conceive the magnitude of what Malawian women activist leaders with whom JASS works and the hundreds of women they represent in their communities have accomplished through their organising and the Our Bodies, Our Lives Campaign for Better ARVs.

The numbers are certainly there with over 6000 people directly reached by the campaign; awareness-raising radio programmes and talk shows that reach approximately 75% of Malawi’s 16 million population; women activists in 22 districts of the country advocating not just for access to treatment but also for targeted healthcare that responds to women’s needs without discrimination. That’s not all, women activists are also standing up in their communities to access the kinds of resources they need for survival in a context that is increasingly difficult for women economically, and challenging their local leadership and chiefs to make provision for women’s livelihoods so that they can lead fulfilled lives.

But these numbers and achievements only tell a fraction of the story. What of the personal, what of the individual women and collectives and their experiences and stories of transformation? Of women like Judith, a woman activist leader from northern Malawi, who proudly declared at a recent campaign meeting:

“I know now that I must not remain in the master’s house [code for patriarchal society that oppresses women; based on Audre Lorde’s The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House] and I know how to move out from it. In my community I have helped many people who have been violated. They don’t go to the village head, they come to my house because [they know I will fight for them]. That’s why I call myself ‘the local lawyer’.”

Or Tiwonge, who stood up to the chief of her district when he refused to give HIV positive women access to vital seeds and fertilisers:

“The rage I felt in my heart, the anger at being belittled catalysed my courage, consciousness, and integrity to the fullest; this made me rise in rebellion against what obeying the chief, it prompted me to reject all the rewards for such obedience.  Having seen that my position was not shifting, he agreed to declare his status openly. He apologised to the community and today he talks and behaves like an HIV activist.”

Judith and Tiwonge are just two examples of the radical steps women are taking in their communities as leaders, as change agents not just in their own lives but in their households, their communities, their districts and their country.Women activists at the JASS Malawi Feminist Movement Builders School

We asked Everjoice Win, JASS Southern Africa (JASS SNA) advisor, to reflect on the parts of the story which she’s experienced as someone who took part in the initial conversations  about JASS’ HIV agenda in the southern African region way back in 2005-2007 and who is now involved again, working alongside women activists through JASS SNA’s feminist movement builders’ schools. In Malawi, JASS has hosted three regional feminist movement builders’ schools with over 60 women from across the country, as popular education spaces that grapple with critical issues such as power, feminism, feminist movement building, sex, sexuality and HIV treatment literacy for activists.

Maggie Mapondera: Given your experience with JASS’ work in Malawi, from the beginning to the schools you have co-facilitated (the latest regional school took place in Blantyre, Malawi in August 2014), what are your thoughts?  What has struck you?

Everjoice Win: As you know, I was involved in the beginnings of this conversation going back to 2005, when at the time (and not just in Malawi but in the region as well), there was a concern that although the world had woken up to “discover” women living with HIV and that these very women were on the frontline of the struggle given they were the most affected on multiple axes—when it came to money and programming, there was very little happening. At the time, JASS was not the only organisation grappling with how to work with positive women and indeed with women on all sorts of issues.

For me coming from that time [at the nascent stages], seeing now all the women organising, women standing up as a collective, individual women whom I’d met in 2007 who’ve come so far in their journeys. And when you say that, a donor or other development people immediately want to ask, “Give us some ideas? Give us indicators? What has changed?” And that is always so difficult to describe because you have to have been there, then and now, and you have to have seen this woman, how she was speaking then and how she’s speaking now, what she’s speaking now compared to what she was speaking about then and to whom she was speaking.

And for me that’s been phenomenal.

We can talk about an individual woman, Judith or Tiwonge or Linnah but it goes beyond them, they serve as a proxy. And, it’s not that she was downtrodden, face-down, poor—or whatever other words people like to use—at the time. Even at the time, she was a leader in her community and already working with women, already identifying critical issues in her community. Economically, you could see signs that she and many of the women were struggling, they would talk livelihoods, the money they didn’t have, their farming activities and how they were struggling to sustain those because they couldn’t get the inputs they needed. But these weren’t front and centre of the conversation.

And now I’ve participated in conversations with women where the words “donor” or the words “if only the government would do X, Y and Z” aren’t heard. In the school and in the campaign meetings, it is women driving the process, the conversation is framed as “this is what we are doing and this is how we are doing it” and “this is what we demand.”

There’s a difference there.

Someone like Judith or Tiwonge understands where decisions are made, how they’re made and who makes them. She is doing an analysis of her context, she is examining what has changed in her district now that alternative ARVs have been made available for all Malawians, she is assessing whether the Ministry of Health is delivering on its commitment to ensure access to ARVs in health clinics at the community level.

It is women talking about the action they took, or thinking about strategies to take action together.

For me just that experience has been empowering—to see women making demands of the institutions that have power over them.

That said, although I’m talking about how far women have come, at the same time, I am struck by just how much we still have to do and the mountains women have to climb. Here we are in 2014, in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Africa Rising and all of that, and there is a woman who has nine children who doesn’t know how her body works. And if she does, there are very few places where it’s okay to talk about her body—to talk about pleasure and pain, sex and sexuality.

And that makes me ask: what exactly are development practitioners doing? How are certain approaches short-changing women by telling them only half the story—maybe not even half?

But you can see in the feminist movement builders’ schools how women take to concepts, how they use them to analyse their own lived realities, identify how power (invisible and hidden as well as the usual suspects like the government or the police) is the crux of the matter. Because we all know that the government can provide ARVs and have them be available, the truth is that unless women are in a place to take those ARVs, make use of them [without discrimination], then it isn’t going to work. The schools are three days’ long, which means they are just the beginning of a conversation—an important beginning.

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