CLIMAX IN CAPE TOWN: A global wave of women leaders crashes ashore in South Africa to strengthen movements of women
After 30 hours in flight, at last I am home. Yet, honestly, at AWID, in a sea of 2,200 women from every corner of the earth, I felt more at home than I have in a long time.
At every turn, I found an oasis of sparking minds wrapped with headscarves, turbans, beaded caps, pink scarves, and horn-rimmed glasses framing bright eyes. The conference halls and passageways rang with Swahili, French, Portuguese, and the warm tongue “clicks” of Xhosa and Zulu. There were bursts of shouting and laughter at long last reunions, hugs and ready grins that spoke a sisterhood above any language.
I even turned to Leah Okeyo, my beloved Kenyan colleague and said, “It’s too early to go home, I wish I could live on an island for years with these women – to deepen our understanding and creativity.” To which she laughed and replied, “Ah yes, but until we all begin to wreak havoc, because you know we can!”
And so havoc was wreaked at “The Power of Movements”, the first AWID conference in 3 years. But it was the most uplifting and transformative kind. The kind of havoc that turns the old, destructive power structures upside-down, and unfurls something new and palpable.
There were many climaxes.
FEMINIST TECH EXCHANGE
The first climax was the pre-summit Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX) with over 90 women leaders who gathered to “take back the tech”. The summit kicked off in a fury of record winds – the fiercest wind Cape Town had experienced in 40 years. Throughout the AWID conference FTX women were everywhere, trading blog links, video and audio recording key moments - and grasping each other’s hands with the special human bonds that had formed over their 3 day intensive. Bonds that will surely strengthen across the “wires” long after.
Although I could barely pull myself away from the World Pulse booth, where we oriented and registered hundreds of women and men to tell their stories on PulseWire – I at last broke away to a main plenary where they were announcing “a special surprise.”
The surprise turned out to be a roof-raising tribute to the recently-passed legend, “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba. We all had lumps in our throats and cameras flashed as we danced together. Each of us knew that there could not be a more fitting way to pay homage to her legacy – surrounded by a movement of women in her homeland of South Africa.
There were decadent desserts everywhere at every lunch, dinner and tea break, and I am now going through withdrawal from the cascading tortes, custards, and fruit mousses. The message was clear: hard-working women need some indulgence!
MARCH AGAINST VIOLENCE
Over 800 women took to the streets in a massive march against violence against women and to call for greater state accountability in the prevention of and response to gender based violence. The march was organized by our awesome booth neighbor - the One in Nine Campaign, a South African advocacy coalition of 26 organisations. The name stands for the one in nine women who actually report rape in South Africa.
But it was the final plenary crescendo that was the most electrifying to me. It featured young leaders looking ahead and started off with a BANG.
Sindi Blose, a community educator from Durban, took the mike and said, “I am going to speak for 5 minutes and demonstrate for 5 minutes.” She said, “In the midst of all this pain, in all the violation of our rights – I feel great. And don’t you all feel good about yourselves?” As the cheers rose, she jumped up and began to sing a local song. She said, “Do you recognize this song?”
The hall filled with boos and hisses from our South African sisters who called out “I hate that song!” “You hate that song?” she asked? “Well, I hate that song too. “ She explained that she has been taught, “You must face your devil. You must take that devil and turn it upside down – turn it on its head. So I am going to sing this song and we are going to transform it together.”
Slowly at first, the clapping began, and soon women were on their feet as we sang together reclaiming a song that obviously was designed to denigrate women. In her concluding remarks she unveiled a new platform of unity that had been developed at the conference by the women of South Africa denouncing the former Mbeke regime, and the incoming Zuma reign. She announced that, since women’s vision for the country had been sidelined for too long, that for the 2009 elections “We are forming a new political party for women!”
Srilatha Batliwala, an Indian scholar and women’s movement leader, took the stage to highlight the currents and undercurrents of the conference. She said, that here at AWID, “We are “celebrating the embracing of our own power as if it were a lover.” She offered, we are learning that, “Building movements is like a relay – we must hold the stick tightly when it is our turn, knowing when and to whom to pass it on.”
In that vein she underlined a main theme of the conference: embracing the intergenerationality of the movement, which was “here to stay.” The vital voices of young women, who comprised 20% of attendees had prominent placement on all the plenaries. Pink scarves had been handed out as symbols of intergenerational movement-building, and adorned many throughout the crowds. She proudly announced that a new Young Feminists Fund had been launched at the conference.
She highlighted the growing inclusiveness of our movements. “We have worked very hard to open spaces, and to make it safe. To include those who are often on the fringe, such as the LGBT and women with disabilities, who have now found their sessions filled almost to bursting. The best ideas are coming from those that have been previously marginalized – from the young women and coming from the most oppressive domains imaginable.
“We are creating a movement that is making it alright to play - enabling us to thrive in oppression situations,” she said. “ These past few days we have danced, and we have wept to hear of the violence faced by our sisters. We have opened discussions of self-care. Because for too long we have subsidized the social justice movement with our bodies and with our minds. We are transforming the politics of funding, away from tradition donor/grantee relationships to true partnership.”
With a nod to the global economic cloud, Batliwala acknowledged that much more emphasis was needed on the “implosion of the neoliberal economic climate. We need to address questions about what this means for women’s funding which is needed more than ever.”
The main complaint I heard was the agony of having to choose between 13 concurrent panel sessions that ran three times a day. I shared in this suffering :).
There were sessions on Iranian Women’s One Million-Signature Campaign, Blogs Can Move the World, Disabled Women Speak Out, Funding the Future of Women’s Rights, Sports for Social Change, the Coming Community Radio Movement, Ecuadorian Indigenous Organizing, Dancing the Revolution, Men as Allies, and Cyber-Quilting.
I attended a emotionally-charged session on one of today’s hot spots: “ The Peace Process and Political Transition In The Great Lakes Region of Africa” with women leaders from Rwanda, DRC, Uganda and Burundi.
There was an audible gasp from attendees as a panelist from the DRC announced that, in one province alone there were reports of “450 cases of rape in one day.” (this fact needs to be confirmed as this was relayed by conference translator, however reports by IRIN are stating that rape is up 60% in North Kivu province in the past month.)
Tension was high as women pounded panelists, with questions of what was being done-especially on the part of Rwanda (where women have achieved 55% majority in parliament) to improve the situation.
Finally a young woman from Brazzaville, Congo stood up choking back tears and said, “Even though I am not in the affected area, my family lives there. It is not useful for us to be pointing fingers and saying, ‘what are you doing? What are you doing?’ We are always acting as victims. We need to stop it. We need to join our efforts and stop and think together about how to work together.”
The panelist from the DRC said that a positive action that is happening for women in the DRC is the creating of space for them to speak out and come together. A solidarity statement for the women of the DRC circulated the conference.
There were many more climaxes and rallying cries .. But I will pass the baton on to the many women of AWID to share their highlights who are now on PulseWire!