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Building feminist knowledge through popular education

Popular Education (PE) is a Latin American approach designed in the 60s by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire[1].  It is non-formal education that identifies with the struggles of different oppressed groups that has been adopted by social and political organizations across the continent as a tool for social change. AWID spoke with Argentinian feminist popular educator Claudia Korol, member of Pañuelos en Rebeldía[2] about how PE is used as a tool to create feminist knowledge and open up discussions in mixed-gender organizations.

AWID: How does the Pañuelos en Rebeldía team understand popular education (PE)?

Claudia Korol (CK): PE inspired education initiatives within movements as diverse as the Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. In Argentina, different organizations use it for political, literacy, health and popular communication trainings. As the Popular Education Team of Pañuelos en Rebeldía[3], we understand PE to be a political-educational proposal by movements struggling against different systems of oppression: capitalism, colonialism, and hetero-patriarchy. In our experience within these struggles, popular education is part of grassroots organizing processes and its educational dimension is being built on the relationship that emancipatory experiences create between theory and practice.

In our work we come across different contributions for decolonizing feminism, which promotes a radical societal transformation, small and big revolutions, and builds the power of those "at the bottom" along with feminist and grassroots power. We try to contribute to building autonomous organized subjects, aware of oppressions, capable of acting to end them and to create a horizon of freedom.

Popular education is also a horizontal dialogue among different forms of knowledge, a path towards collectively producing knowledge, which questions mainstream modes of transmitting knowledge that reproduce colonialism, patriarchy and other forms of domination. In order to do this, we use teaching resources such as art, play, psychodrama and theatre to promote different ways of thinking about, and of feeling the world, so the entire body is involved in the process of teaching and learning.

AWID: How do you build feminist knowledge using popular education?

CK: PE is based on a dialogue between different forms of knowledge. So, as feminist collectives and women's spaces  (involved in social movements or not), and sexual dissidents' collectives begin to use PE in their work, they challenge existing feminist knowledge based on new practices, ideas and experiences. This questions more than a century of feminist experience and legacy, while also building new knowledge out of these practices, as new generations or social groups that used to be estranged from feminist thinking are integrated into them.

We have found powerful possibilities for dialogue among feminist collectives in different grassroots organizations, seeking new ways to engage in politics, and confronting male and machista ways of exercising power, that go beyond the fragmentation among organizations. Being active in different movements we discover that the incidences of men taking over an organization's voice and political life repeat themselves in very similar ways, which is why we facilitate workshops to challenge machismo in our own collectives.

A feminist perspective grounded in the body-territory and in a critique of daily life enriches the perspectives of those movements. One of the outcomes of these trainings is to expose violent men who are part of different organizations. "Outside he is like Che, and at home, like Pinochet"[4] is a slogan women repeat. They  discuss the commodification of bodies and bring other sexuality-related issues like sexual exploitation and trafficking of women to discuss at home with their male partners. We are also revisiting issues like the invisibilization of domestic work and how it  plays out in social movements when the criteria used for assigning tasks reinforces the sexual distribution of labor.

AWID: Which women's groups do you work with? And how do you work with them?

CK: We work with women in mixed-gender social organizations like piqueteras[5] peasants, workers and students. In some cases we work in women's spaces but also in gender spaces that include women, lesbians, trans persons and travestis We are implementing a cross-organizational feminist training initiative through feminist popular education workshops bringing together about 250 women[6] from Argentina. It also includes women from the socio-environmental assemblies fighting against mining and the establishment of a Monsanto plant in Argentina, Mapuche[7] women and other Latin-American networks like CONAMURI - [National Organization of Rural and Indigenous Women] from Paraguay, Movimiento Sin Tierra from Brazil, Peoples' Congress from Colombia, World March of Women and feminist collectives from Peru, to name a few.

We also work with broader networks in Argentina like the Campaign against different forms of violence against women, Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, Socorristas en Red [Relief Network], and at the regional level with other popular education initiatives like Red ALFORJA in Central America. At the international level we are part of Marcha Mundial de Mujeres. We also accompany initiatives by and for women imprisoned or judicially persecuted, house (domestic) workers and migrants. This accompaniment work is part of feminist pedagogy and allows us to unpack how patriarchal violence is expressed in our bodies and the particular ways in which it is deepened by its interaction with racism and poverty.

AWID: Why is it important for Pañuelos to work these topics in non-feminist spaces?

CK: We understand that feminism starts with concrete bodies that seek emancipation, but it is not possible to achieve it from an individual-centered logic. This is why we seek to expand feminist awareness beyond our immediate frontiers. Ruled by the violence that is imposed on us on a daily basis, the patriarchal system recreates itself again and again through the media, the educational system, churches and the State. We want to see feminist influence growing stronger in social organizations, institutions, the media and the learning and teaching systems. The goal of ending the patriarchal system of oppression will not be achieved by a few selected feminists. It is a task that demands that we broaden our strength and influence until we complete it.

AWID: How do you evaluate and follow-up to see if there has been a growth in feminist spaces for discussions or if the realities of those taking part in your workshops or meetings have started to change in any way?

CK: In the case of Argentinean collectives, the follow-up happens organically as we keep meeting in new training processes and in collective actions (marches, demonstrations, campaigns, mobilizations). There we can see those topics that have already been integrated into the collectives' thought, as well as the new emerging issues. One interesting fact we can evaluate after a decade of work is that most of the organizations we have worked with, initially with small women's collectives organizing within them, today call themselves "anti-patriarchal". These are mixed movements that started working in broad terms for "social change" and today understand that one of the dimensions of that change is dismantling patriarchy.

One of the achievements is that an ongoing relationship has been built with those groups: for the last eight years we have been taking part together with them in the Argentina National Women's Conferences, and promoting a space within the Encuentros (conferences) called Latin American Feminists in Resistance. We also support an open radio in those Encuentros, providing information about them from a feminist perspective and confronting the heteronormative and patriarchal discourses which also circulate through the women's movement when it becomes so large (the most recent Encuentros have gathered around 30,000 women).

A result of these processes is the emergence of anti-patriarchal men’s spaces within those movements that discuss, rethink and challenge hegemonic masculinities. We also notice that sexual dissidents' collectives are increasingly understanding their practices from a feminist perspective.

In our view, this collective 'walking together' is creating a feminist current that is being identified as grassroots, community-based feminism. One of its distinctive features is to be a direct-action feminism that operates in streets, prisons, grassroots neighborhoods, workplaces and education facilities, as well as in people's homes and beds. It is a militant and creative feminism that uses art as a way to communicate. It is boundary-less, linking our bodies and territories across the continent and beyond... standing by Palestinian women, Kurdish women and those anywhere in the world whose lives are being overrun by wars, invasions or the violence of religious fundamentalisms.

[1] Freire's works include "Education, the practice of freedom", "Pedagogy of the oppressed" and "Pedagogy of hope: reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed".

[2] The name of this group refers to different types of scarves ("pañuelos") worn by Latin American women in their struggles (like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Zapatistas).

[3] Pañuelos en Rebeldía started its work in 2000 as the Popular Education Team at the Universidad Popular Madres de Plaza de Mayo [Mothers of Plaza de Mayo's Popular University] and adopted its present name on December 20, 2013.

[4] Che Guevara, one of the leader of the Cuban revolution and Pinochet, former dictator of Chile.

[5] When neoliberal policies were implemented in Argentina in the 90s, women and men excluded by them took to the streets and roads to protest. They were called "piqueteras/os" (from "picketing"). They are still organized as a grassroots movement active throughout the country.

[6] The organizations are Frente Popular Darío Santillán, Movimiento Popular La Dignidad, Frente de Organizaciones de Base, Corriente de Organizaciones de Base La Brecha, Colectiva Feminista Las Bartolinas, among others.

[7] Indigenous peoples living in Southern Argentina and Chile

Latin America