Mixed Reviews on Space for Gender

Posted on 10 February 2011 by admin

By Thandi Winston

DAKAR, Feb 10 (TerraViva) – The road to the large green tent is dusty and rather confusing, but once you get there you are immersed in a babel of women’s voices. The tent, hidden away in the wind and dust, some distance from the main World Social Forum events, has become the unofficial women’s tent at the WSF.It took a few days to establish itself, but it has become the place to go to hear women’s voices. Physical space has been a contentious issue following the cancellation of many of the venues, and gender activists led by the World March of Women felt the need to claim a site where women could speak freely without having to negotiate discursive space.

Both young and older activists checked in frequently here at this sometimes chaotic spot, with some women shouting passionately or playing drums, while others listened intently to the issues being discussed.

Marching at the opening of the World Social Forum. Credit: Abdullah Vawda/IPS

Under its green fabric, a colorful and vibrant debate has been bubbling, covering the plight of women in the conflict-struck region of Casamance in the south of Senegal,  gender-based violence, the difficulties in organising young women around issues of sexuality, HIV/AIDS and other challenges they face in patriarchal societies – and the perceived marginalisation of women’s issues at the World Social Forum itself.

Whilst some applauded the tent’s spirit, others worried that it stood as a symbol of women’s issues being marginalised in the wider context of the Forum.

The assembly where declaration is read has already come under fire that it might not  fully represent the voice of all women. perhaps at an event of this magnitude you will never get everyoen to agree on binding way forward

Fatima Aloo, a veteran Tanzanian activist and feminist, said the WSF has been a great platform for women who want to raise specific issues. “I have been impressed by the type of debates. For the first time, Africa is debating imperialism and the crisis of capitalism [and its effects] on the people.”

She said African women and their feminism have always been rooted on the continent. “I think the state of feminism is very much on the rise because African women have set their own agenda. It’s not been on anyone else’s terms.”

Not everyone agrees with Aloo’s assessment, however.

Amina Mama said most of the debates here about building Third World solidarity have “almost completely ignored what is happening with feminism and the women’s movement.

“We had people from Egypt interesting with very interesting presentations,” said the Nigerian feminist scholar and activist, “and they would list all the social forces that need to be mobilised – except the women’s movement.”

Mama, who chairs the board of the Global Fund for Women, contrasted the WSF experience with that of the African Feminist Forum held in Dakar in October 2010. “As a feminist – 30 years I’ve been involved with this – it concerns me that there’s still a parallelism going on. At time I felt as if i was in a time warp. I think that social movements have to take this up more seriously.”

This view is shared by Zimbabwean Tendai Makanza from the organisation ANSA (Alternatives to Neo-liberalism in Southern Africa ). “I think if you look at the number of events taking place at the WSF, I do not get the sense that gender or women’s issues are part of the discussion. It is very disappointing.”

The World March of Women was instrumental in establishing the green tent. The organisation is an international feminist action movement connecting grassroots groups working to eliminate the root causes of poverty and violence against women.

Brazilian Julia Di Giovanni, a WMW activist, admits that it has been difficult to organise events that focus on the women’s movement.

“We have had to work very hard to ensure grassroots voices are heard. We brought women from Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to talk about gender-based violence and impact of the military on women.

“This has been a main focus for WMW and the Forum provided a safe space for women the talk about the impact of violence.”

Italian activist Francesca Rossi told IPS that she found the the testimonies about gender-based violence and listening to African women’s voices rewarding.

“It is important to hear from grassroots groups what is happening on the ground. I found it informative and I want to salute the women of Africa. They are brave and should be supported in their different causes.”

Sara Longwe, a feminist activist from Zambia said that “Gender-based violence is still seen as a health and welfare issue. We have to talk about it from a power point of view. It is about power relations. Women are speaking about it and the laws in different countries cannot deal with the violence.”

Young women at the WSF said they felt excluded and marginalised.

Cristina Calvo Alamillo from the Mujeres Fundacion (Women’s Foundation) based in Madrid, Spain said, “Young women are not being heard at the WSF. But they too are fighting to ensure young women are heard or at least given the space to raise their concerns.”

Her organisation is hard at work to “ensure African and Spanish organisations work together to empower young women in order to strengthen their capacity”.

“Young women have plenty of ideas but its difficult because of societal pressure to either get married or to have children.”

“We want to help organisations to create space for young women to empower themselves.”

A young American student, Colleen Brewster, told IPS that she found the WSF interesting and the varied of debates taking place.

Despite the gains women have made towards gender equality, it seems women have had to fight hard to be heard at this year’s WSF.

Mama summed it up like this: “Coming to the WSF is a way of replenishing, and to challenge the brothers, remind them of what is happening to women and try to bring them along.

“It is the younger generation that I think has a grasp of the issues and we must help them run with it.”

The final days of the World Social Forum are devoted to “convergence workshops” which will try to produce common positions and pave the way forward on the thematic issues.



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