Thursday, 1 September 2011

Apprehension and hope: women activists ignored, women leaders unite

Every so often I feel like relinquishing my human rights advocacy and running a donkey sanctuary until I die. Indeed, there is a donkey sanctuary nearby. The donkeys are free to roam until they stray beyond their owners’ territory and discover that the region is staked out with electric fences. At the hub of each set of fences is a small, easy-to-miss generator, ticking sharply as the current flows, producing strong deterrent lines of power. The donkeys are friendly but have learnt not to approach the wires because the kickback is too painful. So they stay in their enclosure, pretty and mild, staring blandly from a safe distance.  

That is what it’s like being a woman and that is why I’ll never stop being an activist despite the fact that activism is sometimes depressing, repetitive and exhausting. The alternative is a life of passive acceptance, even safety and contentment, in a seemingly nice environment ringfenced by lines of power and territory, limitation and demarcation, definition and imprisonment, which we did not choose but were born into. We have had no say in the shaping of the world because our ideas were ignored, overruled by force or diminished by the threat of force.

I will risk the pain of the kickback for the prospect of freedom. This is daunting because it requires the rising up of the few against the many, the active minority against a passive majority, the incensed against the complacent, the inspired against the unquestioning. Activism is a chore and a weight, not a thrill. Only when one speaks up does one realise just how much antagonism and resistance there is, fuelled by surface complacency, fuelled by the deep misogyny, racism, militarism, capitalism, individualism and labour exploitation which have made the world what it is.  Activism is a full time job which I and many other people do in addition to our actual full time jobs – jobs which are often themselves poisoned by the types of discrimination and bigotry I mention.

Despite this, millions of women work tirelessly and fearlessly all over the world, fighting the machismo which has warped society for women, girls, men and boys in too many countries to mention. But is their work being ignored? I have been contacted recently by numerous international women’s charities. One woman wrote on behalf of  “a network of organisations focusing on women's rights and conflict.” They work with the UK government, making sure that its peace and security practices safeguard women living in countries affected by violent conflict. They are shortly to initiate a campaign on women and Afghanistan and want to “mobilise British activists to hold the government to promises made to Afghan women when the UK went into Afghanistan ten years ago.”  The woman continues,

The UK and others are involved in discussions about transition out of Afghanistan and we and the women's rights activists that we work with in Afghanistan are really worried that women's rights will be seen as something negotiable, disposable or unimportant in the rush to leave.
Women’s human rights have always been seen, in her so-apt phrase, as negotiable, disposable or unimportant, not only in war zones but in all areas of life. Her message echoed another email exchange I had this week, with a woman from another charity. I admire this charity hugely as it focuses on working with women’s specific local enterprises, co-operatives, programmes and projects in multiple countries, instead of ‘swooping in’ to provide an all-purpose altruism plan. Each project is tailored to the needs and strengths of women in that country, in that region, in that context, at that time, whether it be developing agricultural skills, empowering girls in education, bringing more women to participate in existing political and electoral practices, developing trade and economic skills, establishing apprenticeships, educating women about their rights, tackling domestic violence and much more. The woman from this charity wrote, in a thought-provoking and inspiring email,

One of our big priorities for the coming year is to build links with the UK feminist community and help to make connections between the women’s movement in Britain and in the countries we work in. It’s a source of endless frustration that even the most well-intentioned coverage often leaves the brave and inspiring work of women’s organisations in the developing world out of the picture.

These phrases – being left out of the picture, being disposable and unimportant – reflect how women are treated, how women are represented and what is thought about women, even amongst people who claim to be progressive. This holds whether we are survivors of injustice or activists against it or both. So the global abuse and exploitation of women is ignored; and when women mobilise globally to act against abuse, that is also ignored.

It is easy to sink into despair when reading these messages because one has the feeling that for all women’s seemingly infinite reserves of resourcefulness and strength, the men and women in power still behave as though we do not exist in any meaningful way. We are exploited for our bodies as providers of labour and use of different kinds – administrative, organisational, agricultural, sexual, domestic, nurturing of children, caring towards the ill, supportive of older relatives – and this labour is unacknowledged, underpaid or unpaid and undervalued.

We deserve much more than this. We are human beings with thoughts, experience, ideas and innovation on our side. We have a physical and mental strength that men should revere instead of exploiting. We wish for our ideas about the world to be heard and our vision for a nonviolent world society to be acted upon. More than that, women and men – and more importantly, girls and boys – deserve to grow up on a planet which has not been destroyed by violence, abuse, greed and cynicism.

I do not believe hope is lost, but perhaps it is hidden. In the background of activists’ despair is a women’s movement which is millions strong and encompasses everyone from student groups and grassroots activists to international world leaders. I have recently been informed of an annual gathering of extremely influential women from all over the world, who unite to look at a range of international issues affecting society. The Women's Forum for the Economy and Society, which meets from 13th to 15th October, is not dealing specifically or exclusively with women and conflict or the aftermath of war but aims to covers all major leading-edge global issues. Speakers include Christine Legarde  of the IMF, Emma Bonino the Vice President of the Italian Senate speaking about violence against women and the Nobel Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi speaking about the Arab uprisings. These delegates and many more are participating in a powerful event whose roster of talks is impressively far-reaching. The calibre of the speakers and their combined social, intellectual, cultural, political and economic clout gives me faith that when these women decide something, it will happen.

The Women's Forum for the Economy and Society is the first international summit of its kind and will be celebrating its 7th anniversary this year. This year’s meeting focuses on “How our world is changing, and what we can do to shape this change.” It is a shaming indictment of the international political system that thousands of years into human ‘civilisation’ it is a unique selling point that a major – even crucial – forum actually has “women’s voices and perspectives... featured along with their male counterparts in plenaries”. I urge you, activists, media, students, journalists, interested parties, to cover it, watch it, attend it, support it. It is proof that though we may feel we are on the margins, ignored by the mainstream, these powerful women are thinking, talking, communicating and pledging constructively with confidence and solidarity.

Here you will find outlines of some of the debates and panels happening at the event and here is a list of just some of the speakers’ biographies. Both are taken from the official press materials provided to me. Typically, this being an event which foregrounds women’s intellect, energies and capabilities, it packs an enormous amount into three days. There are sessions on climate change, new technology, social media, women on boards, energy resources, political economy, religion and secularism, scientific research, violence against women, bio-ethics and more.

I would add one reservation to my celebration of this event, which I hope to be reporting from in full next year: it tacitly accepts and promotes the fundamentally individualist, capitalist, corporate basis which I mentioned earlier and assumes that ‘success’ and ‘power’ are largely achieved by and exercised through commercial endeavour in a hierarchical organisation whose winners can then philanthropically shower down their benefits on the people below once they have achieved sufficient standing themselves. There is even a session on the failure of global capitalism to ensure equality – and one of the speakers is the Executive Vice President of NestlĂ©. This is no huge criticism. I only mean to point out that the power being discussed, shared and used here is mainstream and predisposes a stability, wealth, moderation and centrism on the part of the societies, industries and countries represented on the panels. The forum generally has a business, government, commercial, legislative, entrepreneurial and powerful leadership approach rather than a humanitarian, communitarian or activist campaigning basis, although some few NGOs and philanthropic groups are represented. It is broadly accepting of established sources of financial and political power. The majority of speakers are drawn from international corporations, banking and technology groups, the global media including the Wall Street Journal and Reuters and various extremely high level government bodies including those representing women world and state leaders. There is a gala dinner hosted by Barclays and Cartier are hosting its annual Women’s Initiative Awards. But, hey, you know, capitalism. You can’t survive in it – but it’s everywhere.

And finally...the sheer numbers of powerful, dynamic, articulate, unafraid women present in all of these debates, whatever the topic or format, shows that when TV, live event and radio producers who ignore women bleat that women are shy, unwilling, incapable or absent, they are lying.

For journalist colleagues wishing to cover the Women’s Forum, press details and interview requests should go to Briar Burley: