AWID Forum 2016: Creating feminist futures across movements

by Nadja Schuster

© Petra Rautenstrauch

Nadja Schuster, sociologist and feminist, works with the VIDC on the thematic areas of gender with a special focus on engaging men and boys for gender justice, human trafficking, sex work, migration and development, parliaments and development cooperation and Policy Coherence for Development (PCD). Nadja is also the editor of VIDC’s online magazine Spotlight. The AWID Forum has inspired her work and reinvigorated her belief in the power of intersectional collectivity.

The 13th Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) was exceptional in three different ways. First because it brought together 1,700 feminists, activists, and women human rights defenders from 140 countries, as well as representatives from the donor community, the media, and a few governments. Second because the organizers urged the participants to venture outside their comfort zone in order to open their minds and hearts to new forms of interaction, new concepts of alliances and strategies, and new languages. Simultaneous interpretation for larger sessions was offered in Portuguese, English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian. Third because the forum was hosted by Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil in the midst of a pivotal and challenging political situation for the Brazilian civil society and in particular for human rights activists and feminists, who were dealing with an institutional coup.
The 4-day program was very broad and diverse. Besides the four plenaries, there were umbrella sessions on issues that require an urgent and well-planned strategic response, cross-movement initiatives to deepen engagement across movements, and about 200 participant-led sessions. Key principles for all formats were interactivity and creativity involving different art forms, specifically exhibitions, concerts, dance/cabaret shows, and small fairs.

© Claudia Ferreira

Whereas the first two days of the forum had focused on analyzing current realities and radically disrupting as well as expanding current movement frameworks, facilitators of the third opening plenary from the Fearless Collective asked participants to do something different. Participants were guided through a ritual to step into a space and spirit of imagination. From a village to govern to a village to thrive, each theme was explored by a different panelist, interweaving different threads to create a vibrant vision of possibilities. In the village to govern, for example, Dilar Dirik, a feminist activist from the Kurdish women’s movement who spent the last year in Syria and Iraq, began by asking if there is room for imagination in conflict situations. Her description of the Autonomous Women’s Council formed last year by Yezidi women to build collective strength against vulnerability, as well as the creation of local academies to change the mentality of men, and, of course, the Kurdish women’s movement statement that “resistance is life” suggests that the answer to her question is a resounding yes.
The program not only included a wide variety of formats, it was also thematically diverse. To mention just a few, from child marriage to rape being “used” as a weapon in war, from sexuality education to the right of people with disabilities to sexuality, from how to strengthen the women’s movement for peace to strategies of resistance to religious fundamentalism, from diverse feminisms to men as allies, from Islamic feminism to Trans feminism, from domestic workers’ organizing to sex workers’ organizing, from storytelling as a tool for collective memory to participatory cellphilms for sexual rights advocacy, from environmental to tax justice and their impact on gender equality, from the state’s failure to protect women’s and human rights to the impunity enjoyed by the corporate sector. Below, two crucial issues are further explored for potential collective action.

Corporate and tax justice

Two demands that were commonly agreed upon are that transnational corporations (TNC) should not trade away feminist futures and globalization of capital should be regulated and matched with globalization of solidarity. The binding treaty on TNCs seems promising and the treaty alliance should ensure that communities who suffer most from corporate greed drive the negotiations and are fully reflected in the final treaty. Although this instrument is a big step forward, it’s not enough. The US, for example, has already announced that they will never endorse it.
Kate Lappin from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development explained comprehensibly why shifting from a depth-based economy to a tax-based economy is critical. The former implies a loss of democracy, because social expenditures are kept very low in order to keep up with the high requirements of debtors. Greece is the most recent example of this.
What is the best way to collectively organize to advance this shift? Madeleine Rees from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) called upon all participants to democratize their governments: “We need to start from our internal revolution, which will lead to a community revolution and then the big revolution will follow.”

In this context, a striking new idea that was frequently raised was to organize a global strike demanding the abolishment of tax havens and the reallocation of expenses for defense to social services – the annual defense budget of the 50 largest defense spenders is projected to exceed US$ 1.6 trillion in 2018. Another notion was that opposing capitalism implies not only systemic changes on global, regional, and national levels but also changes to our lifestyles by learning from indigenous people.

Men & feminism

Why is it important to involve men in achieving feminist goals? If we want to change the patriarchal system, the corporate power, the gender hierarchy of international financial institutions and international organizations, we need men in important positions who proactively promote gender justice and equality for all. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister and Minister of Youth, strongly advocates for a feminist future at every opportunity, as recently in the UN General Assembly, making him a role model. If we want to combat gender-based violence, to make our societies inclusive and to advance peace, we need men, women and LGBTIQ to join forces. If we want to end child, early, and forced marriage by 2030 (SDG 5.3), we not only need to legally ban them but also aim for transformative behavioral changes of husbands, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers.


How to move towards a feminist future?

How do we construct collectivity? As Tonya Haynes from the University of the West Indies of Cave Hill (Bahamas) puts it: “One movement for all,” referring to a plea for intersectionality and a strong alliance between women’s, youth’s, workers’, sex workers’, LGBTIQ, land rights’, migrants rights’, and feminist men’s movements. Technology (internet tools, videos, cellphilms) and arts are very useful for advocating for commonly and globally agreed upon feminist goals.
The AWID Forum allowed us to better understand the state of the different movements globally, as well as the particularity or similarity of the contexts in which they operate. A common thread in several countries around the world are governments that are not defending the rights of their citizens but promoting exploitative growth and thereby widening the gap between the wealthy and impoverished. In many cases, the government acts as an accomplice of the oppressor. This situation drives us to seek new ways to join forces, advocate, and provide support. In conclusion, I would like to quote Audre Lorde, who encapsulated it: “There is no such thing as single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives” (27 September 2016).