For AWID, the opportunity to organize a major international forum on Women’s Rights and Development links to the core of our mission by responding to the urgency to promote stronger and more coordinated engagement and action by women’s rights advocates, organizations and movements to more effectively advance women’s rights.
The selection of “The Power of Movements” as the theme for AWID’s 11th International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development in November 2008 responded to our belief that building collective power is key to advancing feminist agendas, as well as our experience that this process does not happen on its own - we need to make it happen. Diverse women’s movements and women’s organizing have played a key role in the achievements related to women’s rights and gender equality worldwide. One part of the analysis that drove our selection of the Forum theme was that women’s movements in many places and contexts around the world have been ‘holding the line’ in the last several years, making limited progress in some areas and feeling hard-pressed to adapt strategies to an increasingly adverse context. This suggests the need for women’s rights activists to urgently rethink how we work together and who we work with.
For example, we see significant successes of indigenous women’s movements in recent years, but in spaces with mainstream feminist activists, their advances are not commonly recognized as part of our common cause. Thus AWID’s aim was to place a broad diversity of activists at the center of the Forum agenda so that participants would be pushed to look to the varied array of experiences and expressions of women’s organizing, and through that recognize the broader possibilities for alliance-building. While a rich array of feminist and women’s organizing processes and movements has emerged in the last decade, there have been limited spaces to discuss their implications or to think about what other processes we could create or learn from.
With this Forum, we purposefully aimed to turn the lens inward: on ourselves, our organizations, our strategies and our ways to go about building collective power. We wanted to look at how we might organize and mobilize more effectively. We also wanted to firmly resist the increasing pressure on women’s organizations to move away from movement building to project-oriented approaches that focus on delivering so-called ‘concrete’ or easily quantifiable outputs and services. We wanted to create a space for women to re-focus on strategies that build collective power to challenge the roots of gender discrimination and other forms of social exclusion and oppression. We recognized the risk in this approach: in the face of so many contextual challenges and setbacks, to focus on ourselves might seem a luxury we can scarce afford. However, we believe that it is precisely because of the challenging context that creating space for discussion and strategy development was and continues to be an urgent task, in order to strengthen our organizations and movements as a means to build collective power towards a more just world.
The Forum was designed with the hope of advancing the following six outcomes:
- Greater understanding of what movement building is, why it’s important, and what we can do to strengthen movement building processes
- Significant steps to overcome the fragmentation within women’s movements, focusing in particular on issues of diversity and inclusion.
- Advancing conversations and thinking among diverse women’s rights advocates on elements of a shared political agenda (that is, an agenda to transform power relations, broader than a particular issue or identity).
- Expanded strategic alliances with other social movements, connecting in particular with women’s rights advocates within these movements.
- Significant visibility and engagement of young women in key debates and strategies of women’s movements, contributing to more effective multi-generational movement-building.
- The revitalization (meaning having participants leave with a renewed sense of commitment and energy, inspiration, as well as new allies, strategies, and ways of thinking and acting) of women’s organizations and movements generally but also very particularly in Africa, the region where the Forum was held.
To craft the Forum agenda, AWID drew on the experience and insights of the 31 members of our International Planning Committee to help us select sessions and frame the plenaries. With their guidance, we aimed to ensure a diverse offering to match the diverse interests of participants. Session themes covered economic and social rights, education and culture, sustainable development, multigenerational organizing, overcoming fragmentation and alliance-building, constituency-building, organizational strengthening, sexual rights and reproductive rights, HIV and AIDS, communications and technology, violence against women, conflict and post-conflict/peace-building. We aimed to build the Forum as a feminist space, valuing the relevance of individual women’s stories and experience as part of the broader collective process of constructing knowledge. Identity, body politics, sexuality were thus consistently critical themes that emerged and axes for talking about experiences with power and movement-building
For the first time, AWID, led by our Building Feminist Movements and Organizations (BFEMO) strategic initiative, developed some core content as a foundation for Forum discussions. Changing Their World – Concepts and Practices of Women’s Movements proposed definitions of a movement, and particularly what constitutes a feminist movement, and analyzed core elements of movement strategies. Changing Their World was sent to all Forum registrants via email prior to the Forum and printed copies were made available in English, Spanish and French on-site.
The present document shares AWID’s perspective on the Forum: what we believe was accomplished, what we learned, and how we will be taking these lessons forward in the planning of the next AWID Forum. We are drawing on internal debriefs, results of the post-Forum on-line evaluation survey (591 responses received – almost a 33% response rate), interviews and many informal conversations with Forum participants. We’re in the process of conducting a ‘year-after’ evaluation of the Forum, which will help us further understand its impact. We’ll also soon be receiving reports from the 25 Forum seed grant recipients and learning from their experiences.
The circumstances under which the Forum took place were less than ideal for AWID with the absence, due to serious illness, of our Executive Director, Lydia Alpízar Durán for four months preceding and during the Forum. Yet the AWID staff, Board and members of the International Planning Committee worked together very effectively to organize a successful Forum.
After analyzing a range of information collected about the Forum and participant experiences, it is clear that the AWID Forum created an inclusive space for diverse expressions of women’s organizing and also contributed to opening up or advancing several sensitive internal debates—on NGO-ization, competition, power dynamics within women’s movements—that are critical for our organizations to address head-on. Also, the 2008 AWID Forum is remembered as a space that contributed to positioning multi-generational movement-building on the agenda of many women’s organizations, their allies, and donors. Naturally, many questions remain, but feedback we have received affirms that the Forum made a useful contribution, expanding possibilities for alliances and collaborative action.
The opportunity to bring close to 2,000 diverse women’s rights activists together is all too rare and the stakes are high for ensuring that a Forum is a good use of resources—both financial and human—on the part of organizers and participants. We are committed to continuing to strengthen the Forum, both substantively and methodologically, so that it can serve its valuable purpose well. Our sincere thanks and appreciation go out to all of those who participated in Forum 2008, to the donors that provided financial support, and to everyone who contributed to making it a great success. We are very much looking forward to applying the many lessons from that experience as we prepare the next AWID Forum —we hope to see you there!