Women’s Movement Building: Lessons From Transitions to Democracy
FRIDAY FILE – AWID and Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) recently launched two initiatives that aim to share and build knowledge and awareness about countries in transition to democracy; and the need to ensure that all citizens, including women, are enabled to participate in these processes is essential to guaranteeing rights for all.
By Angelika Arutyunova
As the world continues to watch the wave of uprisings across Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) nations, AWID and other women’s rights organizations around the world, together with our partners in the region, strategize on how to best hold the line to ensure that women’s rights are not jeopardised, while maintaining meaningful spaces for women’s rights activists to actively participate in the transition processes.
Women have been active participants on the front lines of protests and uprisings in the MENA region, and yet following the protests they become invisible from processes of forming new states and are excluded from decision-making roles, responsibilities, and positions in the aftermath of the uprisings. Except in rare cases, men dominate leadership positions in transitional structures, including the constitutional reform and electoral committees (1). The uprisings in MENA have also resulted in strong and immediate backlash against women and women’s rights. The rise of religious fundamentalist leadership with renewed patriarchal agendas aiming to roll back previous gains of the women’s movements, even in countries with longer histories of women’s rights such as Tunisia, has been alarming.
In this challenging context of backlash, where women and their rights have come under attack and are used as bargaining chips during the transitions, women’s rights activists have been struggling to forge ahead a democratic future inclusive of women’s rights and equality. Burdened with daily human rights violations, lack of resources and tools, organizational tensions and constant attacks on them as activists, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) want to be better equipped with knowledge and tools to enable them to effectively and proactively engage in these fast-changing environments.
Given the urgency that the context presents for women’s rights activists in the MENA region, over the past year and a half there have been some meaningful contributions to the movement in the region from ally organizations around the world.
Strategizing with a focus on movement building
Recognizing the timing and location, the AWID’s 12th International Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, attempted to maximize the Forum’s utility for activists from the region to share their experiences and insights with a diverse international group, as well as to build meaningful bridges of solidarity and exchange with women’s rights activists who have been through similar transition processes in different regions.
Almost 100 women’s rights leaders from over 18 countries in the MENA region, as well as activists from Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, attended the pre-meeting consultation on Women’s Rights in Transitions to Democracy: Achieving Rights, Resisting Backlash planned by Women’s Learning Partnership, who also led planning and preparations of the Forum Strategy Session devoted to strategizing around women’s rights and transitions to democracy (2). At this pre-meeting, activists and scholars shared case studies of women’s rights status, progress, limitations, and key areas of strategizing during democratic transitions.
The Women’s Rights and Transitions to Democracy: Achieving Rights Resisting Backlash (3) report integrates insights from both the pre-meeting consultation and the Strategy Sessions in order to elucidate the context of the struggle for women’s rights in the MENA and articulate key strategies that have been effectively used, need to be developed, or could be leveraged during diverse transitions to democracy, as they continue to unfold and in the future.
Throughout the various meetings, the issue of fragmentation among women’s movements, separation from other potential allies in civil society, and underdeveloped communication and awareness-raising strategies were highlighted as some of the key obstacles. To address these concerns, three major areas of strategic action emerged, including: promoting deeper analytical and conceptual deliberations and discussions about political transitions, enhancing the participation of citizens, and highlighting the need for broadening the base of support for women’s and feminist movements’ narratives and demands.
Addressing an information need
Two important initiatives have resulted from these convenings and conversations, to fill the gap identified - a lack of information sharing and knowledge bridging among feminists across the regions that experienced similar uprisings; particularly along south-south and east-south lines.
The Online Resource Women’s Rights and Transitions to Democracy: An Annotated Bibliography, recently launched by AWID aims to collect relevant experiences and practices of feminists from around the world engaged in similar, if not identical, struggles towards the democratization of their countries with a gendered lens and feminist politics. The intention of the bibliography is that it become an important knowledge bank from which activists can draw, learn from, and engage with. It is hoped that this will provide an opportunity for women’s rights activists in the MENA region to learn from past experiences of promoting women’s rights in contexts of transitions in other parts of the world as well as from the current experiences of their peers. It also intends to strengthen ties to women’s rights movements and activists in other regions. It reflects an aspiration for women’s rights organizations and activists to share their experiences and insights across regional boundaries.
Global awareness campaign
As part of their own commitment to expand global awareness about importance of women’s human rights and women’s rights activists in the times of transitions, this July WLP is launched the campaign Stand with Women Who Stand for Democracy.
The campaign, which includes online and offline activities, “is meant to raise global awareness that democracy will not be achieved – in the MENA region nor elsewhere – without the full participation of women, who are half the population, and equal human rights for all citizens.” Activists are encouraged to join the campaign and take action by becoming Campaign Ambassador, signing and circulating the campaign petition, or hosting local or virtual film screening of the film that is a big part of the campaign, produced by WLP, Because Our Cause Is Just. It is an eye-opening documentary about the struggle of women in countries experiencing the so-called “Arab Spring.” “The film reveals how women in the Middle East and North Africa region are continuing to fight for the right to be part of their countries evolving political systems. Award-winning filmmakers Deb Bergeron and Kim Connell conducted powerful interviews with women who are defending human rights and seeking progress on the ground in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. By examining the consequences of inequality, the film underscores the connection between the fate of democracy and the future of global security in the post-9/11 era. Because Our Cause is Just ends with a way forward: the realization of men and women in the region that democracy without rights for women and minorities is not real democracy, and that only real democracy will bring dignity and peace to their nations and to the world.” (4)
The hope is that both of these initiatives support the immediate needs of activists in the MENA region and build global awareness on the issues and that they provide a reference and broad framework to assess reactions and responses to the particular challenges of such upheavals, as well as support learning, connection, and action across women’s movements on a global level.
1) This and other context points are drawn from the report from Pre AWID Forum meeting on Women’s Rights in Transitions to Democracy: Achieving Rights, Resisting Backlash, collaboratively organized by AWID, the Equality Without Reservation Coalition, Global Fund for Women and Women’s Learning Partnership
2) With inputs from AWID, Global Fund for Women, and the Equality without Reservation Coalition
3) Look out for the full report coming soon
4) Campaign Info – Stand with Women who Stand for Democracy.