Strategic Connections for Change By Daniela Cohen

Strategic Connections for Change

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Sun, Feb 01 2009 by Daniela Cohen

“None of us are free until all of us are free.” This statement encapsulated the Forum for the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), an international gathering of women’s rights activists that takes place once every three years. Around 2,000 people were present in the auditorium of the Cape Town Convention Centre. Women had travelled across the globe to make strategic connections with others fighting for change in their communities. The Lebanese speaker in the opening plenary reminded us that, above all, we were here to connect on a personal level, to find out about each other’s lives as one woman to another. To great gusts of laughter, she summarized the concept of movements: “C” for Creativity, “U” for Unity, “N” for Numbers, and “T” for Time. Her conviction was that standing together as a large, unified group of global women working toward the realization of creative ideas over time, we would be successful in our quest for attaining women’s rights worldwide.

The next morning found me sitting at the convention center’s coffee shop with Begona, a Basque woman also staying at the hostel. After picking up our complimentary brightly coloured bags, with the eye-catching graphic of a woman in movement on the front and packed with materials, we still had some time before the day’s events began. I felt the rising tide of excitement and nervousness as I looked around at the other participants beginning to arrive. As Begona and I ate breakfast together, I discovered that she had travelled extensively, even attending an Inuit celebration near Montreal. I later realized that our early morning conversation symbolized the theme of the conference itself: women from diverse backgrounds forming personal and professional connections that would further empower both themselves and the communities they represented.

Alternative means of connection

In the opening plenary, I sat next to an attractive young woman with long, curly, red hair. After hearing her speak Spanish to the woman beside her, I greeted her in her language. We talked about the organizations we represented and our excitement at being there. Like me, it was her first time in a conference of this size. She didn’t speak any English, and although at times I struggled to find the words in Spanish, we managed to understand each other. I was grateful to be able to communicate in another language, to have the opportunity to get to know someone that would not be possible without that opening.

The four days of the AWID Forum were jam-packed. Sessions began daily at 9 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. I attended all sorts of presentations, ranging from the “Power of Body Movements” to the plight of sex workers worldwide, from the availability of funding to the role of technology in ensuring women’s voices are heard. I absorbed information until it felt like my brain had no room for more! Thankfully, a lighter side to the Forum provided evening entertainment, including a powerful play called “Reclaiming the P… Word,” which showcased various local actresses and emphasized the fact that women were a force to be reckoned with. My personal favourite, the “Taxi Queen,” made no bones about telling the sleazy driver of the minibus taxi in which she was riding what to do with his unwanted comments. I was struck by the power of alternative forms of presentation at the conference to captivate and move the audience. Shailja, a Kenyan poet, held us spellbound with her powerful voice, urging us:� “love yourselves enough to be the wellness, trueness, hardness that would rock the world.” I felt the ripples of energy in the room attesting to the truth of her words: “the fire in your throats [is] just waiting for a match,” and “the question vibrates the world around us: What do you choose?”

Participant talk?

Yet interesting as it was to hear from women working on various issues around the world, there seemed a lack of time for participant discussion within the sessions. The first session I attended in which we were, in fact, given the chance to talk in small groups was very revealing. We shared our interpretations of a poem that spoke to the sometimes overwhelming nature of the task at hand: the job of changing the world. A young woman with large, dark eyes remained quiet. Upon the group leader’s request for her opinion, she told us she was from Afghanistan and explained the restriction of freedom women in her country have to deal with. Tears formed in her eyes and the frustration rang in her voice. I wanted desperately to do something to help her. She said that she and her colleagues had tried to speak up about their plight at various sessions so far, but had been shut down. I was furious: if she wasn’t able to get support in this setting, where would she be able to do so? Her situation cemented my growing feeling that while it was important to discuss the issues, it was even more crucial to brainstorm solutions, especially for women who did not have the opportunity to do this in their own countries. I caught the young woman’s eye and expressed my desire to learn more. She said they would be having a caucus during lunchtime the next day and promised to call and let me know where it would be.

I never heard from her, but the next day, I saw on the schedule a lunchtime caucus focused around women’s rights in Afghanistan. I arrived to find a few women wearing long headscarves but there was no sign of the young woman I had talked to the day before. I sat down next to an older woman and spent the next hour listening to her earnest account of women’s lives in Afghanistan. It was painful to hear how powerless Afghani women are, how they live at the mercy of their male counterparts. I was struck by this woman’s warmth and humility, a stark contrast to the harsh reality she was describing. Having that conversation reinforced my belief that this is how we begin to care about people in faraway places: we meet them face to face, we listen to their stories,we start to see that they are not so different to us.

Change in action

That same day, I attended an afternoon session focused on South Africa. In groups of around ten, we were asked to answer questions about the priorities for movement building in our country, our feelings about the current political and social conditions and possible next steps to create change. Our group suggested that the outcome of the session be typed up and emailed to women’s rights activists around the country, creating an impetus for action. The chair of the session, Pregs Govender, former ANC MP and activist, teacher and trade unionist during the struggle against apartheid, jumped on the idea and asked for volunteers to draft an immediate press release that could be brought back to the larger group for feedback. My heart raced at the thought of taking on what seemed like a huge responsibility, but I simultaneously felt a strong urge to contribute. Two other women and I sat outside the room and brainstormed ideas, attempting to synthesize everything that had been articulated, while a fourth volunteer typed it all up. I felt the excitement of movement in action, and was glad that the time I had spent on Amazwi press releases during the year was being put to good use. Under time pressure, we were soon called back into the room and read the draft out to the group. People’s hands went up with their suggestions, and as a group, we decided what to edit. In fact, the session was already supposed to have ended, but all the participants continued to stay there, expressing their dedication to the rights of women in this country. I felt energized at the engagement I witnessed, the power of a group of women working together to declare their beliefs, and the hope that our collective voice would finally be heard.

At the end of the last day, all the attendees at the Forum gathered again in the large auditorium to reflect on what had transpired during the four days. People articulated the positives, as well as the gaps that would hopefully be addressed in future forums. I felt honoured to have been a part of it all. I was greatly moved by participants who earnestly expressed their gratitude at being included in the gathering, as well as those who spoke passionately about the dire situation in their communities, urging us all to stand up and protest.� I left with a feeling of inspiration and admiration at these powerful women who, in spite of their circumstances, demonstrate a fierce commitment to making the world a better place for their sisters worldwide.

Photos in this blog:

1.Daniela with Begona on the first day of the AWID Forum. Photo by Briget Ganske.
2.Poet Shailja in action. Photo by Briget Ganske.
3.Activist Pregs Govender addressing Forum participants. Photo by Briget Ganske.
4.The completed press release drafted during one of the sessions as a response to the current state of affairs in South Africa. Photo by Daniela Cohen.
5.View of auditorium. Photo by Briget Ganske.

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