• Friday, September 19, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Breaking the silence: Stories from Fiji and South Africa, AWID

    By Wendy Harcourt*

    How do sex workers speak out in an increasingly violent island state where authoritarian decrees make their work illegal? How do women who have been violated find the courage to speak out when deep control of women’s sexuality and femininity is emblazoned as part of a nation’s culture?

    The fact that we can even ask these questions points to the undoubted successes of the transnational women’s movement to raise awareness of violence against women. From an invisible and unspoken reality of so many women in the home, the streets, in peace and in war, violence against women has become a recognized crime and violation of human rights. Women have worked hard even in very dangerous situations to break the silence and protest. When women, girls or any gender identity understood as ‘different’ are violated and attacked there can be no true democracy.

    Marginalized women who are discriminated as ‘other’ such as sex workers or members of the gay community are now at the centre of courageous human rights campaigns.  But too often, well meaning supporters, professionals and writers outside the situation become the interpreters, the ‘translators’ of others’ pain or discrimination. They listen and then tell the stories channeling them into good policy, academic thesis and newspaper articles.

    All such channels are needed and have ensured that campaigns to end violence against women, support sex workers rights and end discrimination against gays are now part of the general struggle for human rights. But what about the stories behind those polished pieces, learned debates and policy goals? What about the voices of the women themselves, the untranslated the story ‘as it is’? How can women get the courage to speak out, learn the skills to share and change their lives through their own narratives?

    Handing women the wherewithal to speak about their own situation has been precisely the goal of the MDG3 Funded Association for Women’s Rights (AWID) project which has granted women’s groups from around the world the chance to tell their stories and broadcast them widely.

    AWID is one of those rare organizations that reinvented itself in tune with the times. The current incarnation of AWID was shaped precisely at the time when women’s right activists were jaded with the big jamborees of the UN conferences of the early 1990s and were looking for a dynamic way of organisaing that moved beyond the traditional ‘add women and stir formula of development cooperation. AWID in providing an inclusive platform for women’s movements around the world has become a major transnational feminist forum which has promoted southern-led ways to empower women from all walks of life.

    AWID’s creative support for the new, and the marginal voices of women’s groups working on the ground was given a huge boost by the MDG3 Fund which enabled  AWID to give 24 innovation seed grant for 2009 -2010 (chosen from 250 applicants who attend the AWID Power of Movements Forum in 2008). Two of the grantees stand out.
    The Rainbow Network of Fiji  implemented The “Sound of Silence” Project involving 15 participants of the women’s marginalized community, sex workers and the gay community. The narratives were told in a visual and verbal format with women learning to use digital technology in order to reach out to all levels of the public. The project was not without its dangers. During the process a Decree was passed by the military government stating that sex work was illegal. Sex workers experienced physical intimidation from both the police and the military. Anonymity and security of the participants had to be ensured. The courageous speaking out, knowing that they risk being jailed, or worse, if their identity was found out, puts these digital stories on the cutting edge of ‘body politics’ ending the ‘sound of silence’.

    At the Saartjie Baartman Centre, Cape Town, South Africa eight women used film to assist in healing their experience of gender based violence in a four-day digital filmmaking training course. Working with a professional filmmaker, participants recorded their stories in DVD film that was then shared with women’s rights organizations throughout South Africa. The resulting digital book with the striking and beautiful images of the 8 women goes beyond the victim image of VAW to empowerment. Especially in South Africa where complex social issues, racial and gender based form a difficult background to speaking out, these testimonies to strength of women and the power of bearing witness.

    The culture of rape is rife in South Africa. The world reeled at the polygamous South African President Jacob Zuma being acquitted of rape in 2005 and his statement defending rape as a Zulu custom. The captain of South Africa’s football team Eudy Simelane was gang-raped and beaten and stabbed. Simelane a politically active lesbian was, according to activists, the victim of so-called “corrective rape”, where men feel they have the right to punish or “cure” a lesbian’s sexual orientation.

    In standing up and refusing to take part in the culture of consent women are challenging deep and dangerous patriarchal practices. As Synnov Skorge, Director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre stated

    “Storytelling is a cathartic process… By sharing the stories, these women are offering a lifeline to other victims of abuse. They’re showing them a way out.”

    *Prize winning feminist researcher Wendy Harcourt gives the inside stories from 10 projects of the MDG3 Fund

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    Following the successful Power of Movements Forum held in Cape Town in November 2008, AWID disseminated a “Call for Proposals” to all Forum participants interested in applying for a $5000 “Innovation Seed Grant”. The Rainbow Network of Fiji and the Saartjie Baartman Centre are 2 of the 25 organisations that benefitted from these grants. The seed grant recipients represent the most creative and audacious proposals and come from a variety of regions around the world, on projects ranging from a Feminist Tech Exchange in Mexico to a Freedom Fone to end sexual violence against women and women rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    The next AWID forum will be taking place in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2012. The theme of the Forum is “Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice”. The Forum hopes to explore how economic power is impacting on women and the planet, and to facilitate connections among the very diverse groups working on these issues from both human rights and justice approaches so that together we contribute to stronger, more effective strategies to advance women’s rights and justice. To find out more about the Forum please visit http://www.forum.awid.org/forum12/.

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