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Women’s Movements Present Alternatives at the World Social Forum

FRIDAY FILE: Initiated in opposition to the exclusive World Economic Forum, the World Social Forum(WSF) has, since it began in 2001, become an important space for civil society movements to propose alternatives to the dominant system, under the banner “Another world is possible”.

By Ana Abelenda and Gabriela De Cicco

Feminist movements have been a key force for change within the Forum, contesting gender blind policies and proposing new alternatives for women’s empowerment. In the recent WSF held in Dakar, Senegal, 6-11 February, AWID joined women’s rights, peasant and indigenous movements who gathered to discuss alternatives to the systemic crisis that is affecting women disproportionately and exacerbating existing inequalities.

The venue for this year’s forum was Senegal, this saw the African context and struggles being at the centre of discussions, but also contributing to the broader global search for alternatives to the crisis of the capitalist system. Thousands of participants marched through the streets of Dakar on the opening day carrying colorful banners, denouncing land grabs, restrictive immigration laws, agricultural subsidies in Europe and calling for respect for women's rights among other issues.

One of the highlights was the speech given by President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, at the opening session of the Forum. Esperanza Huanca, Head of the Depatriarcalization Unity of the Vice Ministry of de-colonization of Bolivia echoed his words saying, “We need to continue to have more forums like this at home, so that we can create and strengthen more social policies and stronger alliances across movements to achieve another possible world”.[1]

According to the organizers 75,000 people from 132 countries attended the WSF, to share their experiences of injustice and resistance, to test new analyses and return home newly-inspired.

Women Proposing Development Alternatives at WSF

The current environment is one where dramatic financial cutbacks in funding, right-wing backlash, and diminishing public spending are the reality. While there are varying contexts across regions there is a common pattern: women are paid less than men, they are the first to lose their jobs in times of crisis, they work in large numbers in the informal economy, they are the most affected by the lack of social security and cutbacks in health and education, and violence against women is on the rise.[2]

The intensifying systemic crisis was the key topic of some self-organized workshops at the WSF. Labor movements reflected on the increasing flexibilization and precarization of jobs and the growing number of unemployed people in the world. Gina Vargas, a feminist from Articulacion Marcosur,stressed the importance of putting the care economy at the centre of these debates as well as the role that women play in sustaining families and communities. Loss of employment, cuts in social policies, and social security cuts have been identified as having a major impact on women and should be on the movements’ and NGO agendas. [3]

Women peasants and indigenous women leaders gathered in Dakar to share and debate the alternative development experiences that are taking place in Latin America from a perspective of human rights, gender equality and women's rights. Participants in the session organized by AWID together with CLOC Via Campesina, Colectivo Cabildeo from Bolivia, Cedem Chile and Action Aid Brazil and partners shared local experiences on food sovereignty, "buen vivir" or "living well" paradigm and agro ecology from a feminist and peasant perspective.

Women from the northeastern Brazilian settlement ‘Esperança e Vida Nova’ in Rio Grande do Norte shared their example of an agro-ecology project which involves the community in fruit processing, made possible with training from Action Aid and the NGO Feminist Center ,According to Emilia, one of the women engaged in the project "Apart from the improvements in nutrition, it also benefits women through the organization of group and increased self esteem.... Each one says what they think and no one is above the other, the day of processing is fun for us. We are working on something for ourselves”.

The principle of food sovereignty, which the international and Latin American peasant movement led by Via Campesina-CLOC (Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo) has played a central role in articulating and implementing, is another interesting development alternative which establishes a link with the women’s rights movement. For Francisca Rodríguez (from the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women in Chile, ANAMURI), food sovereignty is “a principle, a life ethic, a way to see the world and to build it on a foundation of justice and equality”.

Since its inception, CLOC women’s organizations have been fully involved in building a sustainable peasant production process based on the principle of food sovereignty. As Pamela Caro, researcher at the Centre of Studies for the Development of the Woman in Chile (CEDEM), noted, “Discursively, food sovereignty is in alignment with gender justice. The question is how to achieve this recognition in such a way that it is not tainted with the burden of total responsibility for a social function that must be detached from the traditional feminine stereotype in order to transform it into a vehicle of gender empowerment”.

The concept of "buen vivir" or “living well” has gained momentum in Bolivia having recently been included in their Constitution. But the challenge to connect this alternative model with women's rights is immense for indigenous women peasants. The concept existed prior to colonial rule and has been defined as a "community way of thinking" which criticizes consumerist society and individualism, proposing a model of ecological awareness that emphasizes the need to build a harmonious relationship with nature. Esperanza Huanca, an indigenous woman leader of the Ayllu community in Potosí, Bolivia stressed the importance of women's ancestral knowledge, “because it contains ancient wisdom left by our ancestors, and incorporates new learning’s from modernity in the struggle to rebuild territory, forms of organization and forms of production, confronting trends that degrade the environment and threaten livelihoods".

The dominant discourse among indigenous women focuses on the concept of complementarity or"chachawarmi"[4] which seeks a balance between women and men. However, this does not mean there are no obstacles to overcome, “There is no possible decolonization without fighting patriarchy and vice versa. We must decolonize the social, economic and political relationships in order to emancipate our peoples and break the patriarchal power relations that subjugate women" said Martha Lanza from Colectivo Cabildeo, a women peasants’ organization from Bolivia.

Reflections and moving forward

In order to embrace the urgent need for structural change and to pave the way forward, 38 Assemblies of Convergence took place from 10-11 February. The Assembly of Social Movements and the Women's Assembly were two of the main highlights.

A working group comprising women from different organizations drafted a “Letter of solidarity with women’s struggles around the world” taking into account the debates held during the six day WSF. The content of this letter was presented as a declaration proposal to the Women’s Assembly on the morning of 11th February. Among other demands, the letter rejects attempts to maintain the current system at the expense of women, saying No to intolerance and persecution of sexual diversity and cultural practices that damage the health, body and soul of women as well as condemning all forms of violence against women. Read the complete letter here.

The spirit and mood of the forum was well captured in the declaration of the Assembly of Social Movements which called “to build another kind of globalization, made from and by the people, and with the essential participation of the youth, the women, the peasants and indigenous peoples”

Inspired by the struggles of the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt, the Assembly of Movements called for March 20th to be declared a day of international solidarity with the uprisings of the Arab and African people; they also called for October 12th to be a "Global Day of Action Against Capitalism”, to express in myriad ways the rejection of a system that is destroying everything in its path.

On reflection, Dolores Sales, a woman indigenous peasant leader from CONIC in Guatemala said, “The WSF is a space of convergence of struggles and resistances that gives us the opportunity to learn from other realities very similar to ours. It is a space that unveils the destruction of capitalism, a space where we gather forces and discuss alternatives and strategies to defend livelihoods and mother earth."

Pamela Caro from CEDEM Chile added “As reflections and conclusions start appearing after the Forum, we need to promote global civil society awareness to help us push towards the changes we want, at the institutional level, but also at the cultural level, in public policies, but also in private social relationships; in the street and at home. "

Emilia Jomanilis from Action Aid Brazil shared her thoughts , "In this complex context in which we have globalization and homogenization on the one hand, and fragmentation on the other, the WSF allows these different processes to approach in an attempt to enable counter hegemony to speak in a common language, and louder for the whole world to hear"

For women’s movements,the WSF was a space to strategize and build alliances with groups which may not be traditionally linked to gender issues, such as indigenous movements, the peasant movements, and the environmental movement, with the view that without gender justice and respect for women’s rights another world is not possible.

[1] Personal interview with Alejandra Scampini,manager of AWID’s Strategic Initiative: Influencing Development Actors and Practices for Women’s Rights, who attended the WSF.

[2] For an in-depth analysis see AWID’s briefs: “The impact of the crisis on women”.

[3] Based on impressions by Alejandra Scampini

[4] The idea of chachawarmi refers to the mutually beneficial roles of men and women, a harmonious and complementary use of the strengths of both sexes.The mamas and the tatas, the native female and male leaders, appear to be equally powerful”