Interview With Miriam Nobre Coordinator Of The International Secretariat Of The World March Of Women (WMW)
The WMW is an international feminist movement that connects grassroots women and individuals to eliminate the root causes of poverty and violence against women. AWID spoke with Miriam Nobre, Coordinator of the International Secretariat of the World March of Women (WMW) based in Brazil, to learn more about their work on peace, demilitarization, and violence against women (VAW) and how these issues connect with the economic system as well as the ways women can (and are) pushing for transformation.
Interlinkages between militarism, violence, conflict, and economic power from a women’s rights perspective will also be addressed at the upcoming AWID Forum in Istanbul, Turkey 19-22 April 2012.
AWID: First, could you explain how the WMW defines the concepts of VAW and militarism?
We started preparing our Third International Action by systematizing —with the participation of our National Coordinators— our analysis, demands and commitments in relation to our four action areas: common good and public services; peace and demilitarization; women’s work (for women’s economic autonomy); and violence against women. Let me extract a few paragraphs from the texts on "violence against women" and "peace and demilitarization" that summarize our views on these topics:
“Violence against women is structural – it is an inherent feature of the patriarchal and capitalist systems – and is used as a tool of control of the lives, bodies and sexuality of women by individual men, groups of men, patriarchal institutions and States. Although it affects all women as a social group, each violent act has a specific context, and we have to understand how, when, and why violence against women occurs.
The general belief about violence against women is that it is an extreme or isolated situation involving individual people. Whereas, on the contrary, it affects us all because we all have experienced fear, changed our behaviour, and limited our options due to the threat of violence. Another common idea is that violence against women is a problem limited to low social classes and to “barbarian” cultures, but we know that this kind of violence is transversal, that it cuts across all social classes, cultures, religions, and geopolitical situations. Although violence against women and girls is more common in the private sphere – as domestic violence, be it sexual, physical, psychological or sexual abuse – it also occurs in the public sphere.” (WMW, Violence against women, 2010)
“War, conflict and militarisation are expressions of violence made natural within the patriarchal and capitalist systems, and the means used by these systems to maintain their dominance. It is commonly recognised that militarisation of the world is on the increase due to the fact that world military expenses have experienced a real growth of 45% over the last ten years. The tendency to expand continues: from 2006 to 2007 countries’ average military budgets have increased by 6%. In 2005 the United States had 737 active military bases in other countries, staffed by 2,500,000 people (soldiers, etc) in 2007, military expenses of the United States represented 45% of world expenses. A more recent phenomenon is the considerable increase in the number of private mercenaries: of a total of 333,000 soldiers in Iraq in 2007, 180,000 were members of private security companies.
Moreover, militarisation reflects the division of roles within patriarchy: the concept of masculinity is associated with violence and arms, which is reflected in the idea that women need the protection of men and of the army.
Women have always suffered the harms of war: psychologically, socially, economically and physically. As such - from ancient times to the present - the mass rape of women has been an integral part of war. Women and their bodies are considered spoils of war, as an exchange currency (the fight for the control of women’s bodies – a resource in the same way as any other – being regarded as legitimate motive for conflict), as soldiers’ entertainment, as a battlefield (her body being identified as enemy territory), etc. In all these cases women are relegated to a level of object and regarded as the property of men.” (WMW, Peace and demilitarisation, 2010)
AWID: Based on your experiences and after the mobilizations that took place within the framework of the Third International Action, how has the global context of multiple crises - including economic, financial, food, water and environmental crises - impacted militarism, the perpetuation VAW and, equally, peace efforts across the world?
We can start with a few examples. Financial capital is detached from the real economy. That is to say, its value is no longer given by investment in the production of goods and services where human labor creates value. Capital increases thanks to financial transactions and speculation. Capitalist actors are constantly looking for spaces for profit. Such is the case with the "dot-com" companies related to the Internet and with the real estate markets. When one after the other went bankrupt (or even when they were just announcing a possible closure) capital was already being moved to other sectors such as the land market or the commodities market of primary products. These moves cause a raise in the prices of food and land and increase pressure on common lands such as native forests and smallholdings.
This pressure is not exerted solely by market mechanisms (i.e. an investor comes in and offers a certain amount of money to the people who live on the land), but also by mechanisms of power, as actions by armed groups to expel communities from their lands. Also certain disturbing situations are on the rise such as the eviction of widowed or separated rural women from their land or putting pressure on them to marry their brothers in law (a practice called levirate). Communities that had already abandoned levirate end up going back to it again, just as the resurgence of witch-hunting in some cases is a way to expel women from their land, or the eviction of many elderly women considered unproductive is done in order to liberate land for speculation.
Regarding the impact of the financial crisis in the cities, here are some of the things we said in the preparatory context analysis document for the International Meeting of the WMW:
“Once again, women remain invisible within the debate around the crisis: male unemployment is highlighted, while the fact that women have only kept their jobs because their insertion in the labour market has always been based on less rights and lower wages is ignored.
In general, the crisis is being used to justify the undermining of workers’ rights, the reduction of their salaries, and mass redundancies in the public sector, where there is a high concentration of women workers.
In the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, work remuneration within the Gross National Product (GNP) continues to decrease in relation to the remuneration of capital. We have observed changes being made to pension and social security programs in those countries where they exist, as part of the structural changes that are taking place. These changes are having a larger impact on women, who were already discriminated by these very same systems that do not recognize social reproduction as work.” (WMW, Socio-politic-economic context. Text for debate, 2011)
Another example is the reaction to the social indignation protests resulting from the crises. The idea that the working classes are "dangerous classes" and that poverty should be handled by the police is reinforced. The criminalization of poverty and of social struggles is reflected in sexual violence against women, as we have seen in Mexico, Honduras or Guinea. Sexual violence is used to make women remember that public space is not for them and that when they cross the borders outside their homes, they are exposed to risks in a real battlefield.
The occurrence of sexual violence after climatic-social disasters is also worth noting. However, we should be careful with how we handle this fact. Mainstream media often tends to advertise and promote chaos and justifies the intervention of the army. But in those particular times, what people need the most are quick actions of support and shelter that are much more effective when they rely on local organizations.
AWID: What are some of the lessons the WMW has learned from the work challenging militarism and VAW? What have been some of the urgent needs/demands women/feminists have been raising?
As part of the Third International Action we decided to do public actions in conflict zones with the participation of many women. National actions were carried out, for example in Mali, a demonstration on May 22 brought together women from all over the country in the Northern region of Gao, an area considered Al-Qaeda territory. Actions in Pakistan on March 8 took place in Islamabad, even though there had been a terrorist attack the day before. The European regional action in Istanbul gathered women from 22 countries, with Turkish and Kurdish women reoccupying the streets after hostile actions from nationalist sectors. The regional actions in the Americas and Asia were undertaken in front of military bases used by U.S. armed forces. In Colombia, the regional action of the Americas was built with the Social Movement of Women against war and for peace. We then joined the 14 missions of solidarity in the conflict-affected communities across the country. And finally, the closing action took place in the region of Sud Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Every time we go back to this experience, we draw new lessons. Our perception of the extent of militarism has increased. When planning the actions in Islamabad and Istanbul we were not as careful as we were with actions in Palenquero (Colombia) or Bukavu (DRC) because apparently there was no open conflict in those zones. It seems that we need to be increasingly prepared and have security measures because militarized zones move very quickly. Our WMW members in Quebec and our allied partners "Rebelles", a group of young Canadian women, suffered intense repression during the G20 meeting in Toronto. The presence of international events that can be socially challenged exposes the militarization of the spaces. It was interesting to see our sisters in Haiti and DRC sending messages to the government of Canada to condemn the repression and lack of democracy. The war is in many places.
Our actions aim to strengthen women as collective subjects and change the correlation of forces that maintains inequality and oppression of women. In conflict situations, forces are unbalanced because the armed groups -and those in alliance with them- are stronger by definition, and are thus more likely to impose their views and interests. Our challenge is to interfere in this game of power, and maybe change the rules of that game, without exposing women living in those communities to excessive risk having in mind that they will continue to live there after we are gone. Each step involves an evaluation based on the trust we have in local women's groups. The problem is that in these contexts, conflict sits in the very communities and groups themselves. Thus, one of the first tasks is to restore or build new trust in situations where we cannot afford to make a false step.
We believe that we can only change power imbalances in a substantive way if we build an autonomous movement. There is no universal model that says how you build movements, but there are starting points from which to build on. One of those is to rely on women and the everyday strategies they develop to move in that reality. Another is to encourage their autonomy of thought and the construction of agreements.
In that sense, we understand there is an urgent need “to relate the increased participation of women in negotiation processes to the affirmation of a political agenda that confronts the causes of conflict and also of attacks on human rights and women’s integrity. As regards the issue of militarization, the real challenge today lies in building a women’s agenda, which expresses the voices and experiences of grassroots women as well as feminist, anti-capitalist views.” (WMW, ibidem, 2011)
To this end, we need to expand our dialogue with other feminist organizations and movements working on militarization. We have very good experience in building common strategies that articulate different perspectives and action with La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth in the field of food sovereignty. Yet, we do not feel there are similar practices of alliance work in the feminist movement working at the international level. We once organized joint activities with another feminist movement that works on militarization in a day of action against NATO. We had high expectations of paving the way towards a process of dialogue to build common strategies. But what ended up happening was that WMW delegates were registered in the mailing list and were considered as part of this other movement. In short, certain characteristics of the women's rights movements -like changing identities and lack of structures- prevent, or at least complicate, the establishment of alliances and common strategies where different initiatives could converge.
AWID: How does the WMW work view/understand the linkages/relationship between neoliberal globalization, violence against women and militarization? What are some of the actions that WMW has taken that speaks to this interlinkage?
WMW activists use different perspectives to analyze the oppression of women in the current context. Some work with the idea of systems that feed one another: patriarchy, capitalism, racism. Others work with the idea that capitalism is based on the sexual division of labor and men's control over women's labor, their bodies and desires. Activists are really interested in understanding how these inter-relationships and interconnections happen, not as a theoretical exercise, but to raise awareness on the everyday practices of women and men and on how to overcome injustice, oppression and exploitation.
We understand that neoliberal globalization expands market relations to all areas of human life: the relationship with our body, the relationship between people and between people and nature, our experiences, our way of comprehending the world. Everything becomes business and our first identity becomes that of consumers. Despite the ideological discourse that states the figure of "consumer" equals all (including men, women, white and black people alike) with money as the guarantee of access to goods and services, the truth is that women, afro descendants, and other minorities have less money and less access to services.
This process is quite violent because of the injustice that comes with it, or, to use its own terms, its "imperfections", are hidden by the discourse on the (lack of) individual capacity or (lack of) entrepreneurship. In addition, there is the fact that neoliberalism created and/or increased inequalities also among women and among black people. The imposition of the market model around the world is given by the dissemination of the discourse that justifies it, but also by wars and repressive actions.
One of these "imperfections" experienced by women is the way care is organized. The need for care that we all have is solved by putting the burden on women through their overwork; by the work of women who migrated from poorer regions (of the world or within countries). That is to say, by increasing the differentiation among women, in a context of privatization and precariousness of health services and education and lack of food services or care service for the elderly.
Another "imperfection" is unemployment. In countries like Colombia or Mexico, many young people are pushed into the army or into drug trafficking for lack of other employment alternatives. Thus, the socialization of the violent and aggressive male is needed. Borrowing the terms proposed by Jules Falquet, our present times are marked by men in arms and women in services - care services. This reinforces a dual and hierarchical gender identity. 'Fragile' Women need the protection of the "strong" men, and men are "superior" because they are armed.
In our platform for action, we seek to reshape the sexual division of labor and build equality for all as a condition for peace with justice.
AWID: What do you think are the needs in terms of building and strengthening analysis of these interlinkages? What are some of the gaps feminist movements need to consider in order to raise awareness and address the root causes of militarism and VAW?
When we fail to consider the causes of militarization and violence against women, we are more susceptible to the pitfalls posed by an uncritical strategy of "gender mainstreaming"—what I call the policy of incorporating gender issues to structures that are themselves based on inequalities and exclusions. Traps are, for example, the fact that the UN Security Council resolution 1325 is being reduced merely to meet goals for women's participation in security forces (UN peacekeepers) without examining the role that these forces are playing in the places where they are deployed. These forces are being increasingly seen as forces of occupation defending the interests of Western governments. Another trap example is the reduction of the struggle against VAW to punitive measures, reinforcing what US feminists like INCITE, Women of color against violence, are calling "the prison industrial complex". This may have results for some women, but not for all.
At the same time, we have to build our actions in the world as it is today. We know that the State is patriarchal and violent; nevertheless, we expect it to react against violence against women. Moreover, the police that enforce many of the policies demanded by us also repress movements, and are socially and racially biased. That is a contradiction, but for many women, the only way they can defend themselves against violence in their communities and in their families is to rely on the State, which represents an external and superior power.
At the end of our action in South-Kivu, we went to Mwenga, a community about 5 hours drive from Bukavu in an area taken by armed groups. We decided to go there to break the isolation, to rescue the memory of one man and 14 women who were buried alive in October 1999 and to echo the cry for justice from that community. For this activity, we negotiated the security scheme with the Congolese government. And the government, in turn, negotiated with MONUSCO (United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC) the logistical and security support. We understood that given the objective conditions that we were in, we had to do it that way or we couldn't do it at all.
To act in the concrete reality is to make it move and act in a field of contradictions. Our only guarantee is to act in collective processes and to keep alert our capacity for self-criticism. Within the women's movement, a certain degree of self-praise is common as compensation for the permanent disqualification by men and patriarchal institutions. I still think self criticism is much more useful.
AWID: What would an alternative development strategy – grounded in economic, environmental and gender justice - look like? At the international/global level, what are some of the strategic spaces for feminists (and other progressive actors) to mobilize and push for change (i.e. the WTO? The G8)?
Our strategy is to build an international feminist movement with the ability to respond to the context situation at the local, national and international levels. International solidarity is our safeguard to act in increasingly harsh contexts. The alliance with other social movements is a core part of our strategy. We act so that feminism is part of the analyses, proposals and forms of action of those who challenge the existing order.
In this process, we are building alternatives. It seems pointless to speak of them detached from their context. There are initiatives in a certain community that have enormous power for transformation while if they are applied to other communities, they would be a simple patch. The substance of revolution sits on collective subjects and their enormous creativity that flourishes in certain historical moments. As part of the women's movement for over 30 years, and having had the possibility of visiting many places, I've seen the flame of revolution lit many times. How to build strength to stabilize these advances over time and expand them to other places? This is an everyday task.
But there are moments of strong symbolic character. The massive presence of activists in the actions against the WTO in Seattle in 1999, were the result of years of resistance and boosted a movement of movements. Feminists, like us at the WMW, feminist anarchist groups and others, actively participated in this conflict. While we acted to dismantle the WTO and build integration alternatives based on complementarities and reduction of asymmetries, other feminist groups aimed to incorporate women's rights or a gender perspective in the WTO.
An evaluation of these experiences is needed because we are seeing it again in the climate negotiations. While we at the WMW and other feminists work against fragmentation, enclosure and privatization of nature, other feminist groups are pushing for women to have access to market mechanisms such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) without questioning them. It will also help us reflect on strategies related to militarization. Within the women's movement, there is increased perception of the economic causes of armed conflicts. But how does this translate? Is the answer to monitor the actions of transnational companies such as the proposals on "conflict free" certifications for minerals done by auditors? Or struggle for people to have sovereignty over their land?
Social movements hold in their agendas many alternatives to the crises and militarization. For example, proposals to reduce military budgets and invest in basic services in the communities; strengthening the negotiation and conflict resolution processes by communities and with the participation of women. As the slogan says: “Power to the people. Another world is possible and we know how”.
AWID: How/where can people learn more about your work?
The story of the World March of Women between 1998 and 2008 is told in the book: The World March of Women. A Decade of Feminist Struggles.
The texts of the four fields of action of the WMW: common good and public services; peace and demilitarization; women’s work (for women’s economic autonomy); and violence against women. http://www.marchemondiale.org/publications/libro1998-2008/en/
To learn more about the closing action of the Third International Action in Congo, go to:
To read the complete text of context analysis, go to: http://www.marchemondiale.org/structure/8rencontre/context/e
 Read more about the Third International Action from the WMW here: http://www.mmm2010.info