Burning Questions at the AWID Conference

December 3, 2008 posted by admin We're pleased to bring you a report from the AWID conference in South Africa last month, from Sande Smith, Director of Public Education at the Global Fund for Women.  If you've attended a conference or event that you'd like to share with us, please email us at ncrw@regender.org. And now, here's Sande! During this, my first Association of Women’s Rights in Development forum,  I heeded the advice of colleagues on how to manage the conference without falling prey to overwhelm. And to their advice, I added my own insight: follow a thread. Since it's impossible to "grok” (ie, comprehend) all of the simultaneous happenings when you’re attending a conference that has up to 13 panels running simultaneously every two hours from morning to night – not to mention the meetings between the meetings - the only way to really end up with meaningful insights is to select and follow a couple of the threads that you detect. One of the threads that I followed related to the question of how we help one another to heal.  During a panel titled “African Feminisms, No If’s, Ands or Buts,” Merle Van den Bosch, originally from Trinidad, stood up and made an aching plea for us to consider the women who have been traumatized by violence. What is going on in Africa to help them heal? she asked.  A change agent now working in England, Merle described hearing women's stories and helping them to heal when they come as refugees to England, but what is going on in Africa? And why isn't the conference making space to talk about this issue? In responding to Merle, Cumba Toure, one of the panelists, spoke about witnessing her mentors fighting and fighting and then falling – worn out/spent.  Too often, the impression that young people get when they see they social change warriors is that they are drained, sick and alone. “I want them to see people that they want to look like,” said Cumba. Hope Chigudu, the moderator of the conversation, referred to a provocative and recently published book called What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? in which Jane Barry and Jlene Dordevic write bravely about the ways in which activism itself is intense, often traumatizing and poorly paid work. Based on interviews with activists around the world, and published by the Urgent Action Fund, the book calls upon activists to deal with questions of personal sustainability and mutual support. Another resource launched at AWID to address women’s issues was a Self-Care and Self-Defense Manual for Feminist Activists launched by the India-based organization, CREA. Merle didn’t leave her question hanging. She arranged space for an impromptu session a couple days later and held a conversation with other participants about the need for healing and the many places where injury occurs – not just in war zones or in violent homes. Sometimes injury occurs because of the way that we do our activism – ceaseless, unrelenting, not acknowledging when we’re tired or drained. For example, one of the participants described how she worked until her body rebelled by breaking down. She’s undergone spinal surgery and may have to undergo another. The others in the room nodded in recognition.     The issue of healing came up again during the Global Fund’s panel that brought together Global Fund advisors from five regions of the world to present case studies of successes and challenges in building feminist movements. In addition to raising issues of leadership, ideological polarization, the effect of war and violence against women, one of the panelists bravely talked from her own experience about the personal toll that the work and the challenges exact on activists’ bodies and mental health. Ekasi Women's Arts Ensemble These conversations led me to reflect on how two organizations supported by the Global Fund for Women strive to weave together the emotional infrastructure that is critically important to the wellbeing of their members, and of their community. We met the two groups in Johannesburg: the Ekasi Women’s Arts Ensemble (pictured) and the Positive Women’s Network. Originally founded to address and stop the frightening epidemic of rape and violence against women, Ekasi Women’s Arts Ensemble uses theatre as the dynamic vehicle for holding difficult and poignant conversations – not just with women, but with men. I was stunned to hear that the group takes students into the prisons, where Ekasi performs a play about rape, with both the students and prisoners, many of whom are rape perpetrators, as audience.  “We educate through drama,” explained Zodwa Nkosi, the group’s workshop facilitator. Committed to stopping rape at its roots, Ekasi realized that often when rape perpetrators return to the community, they are ostracized, and then enraged, they use their status as outcasts as an excuse to rape again. “We're trying to bridge the gap between the students, especially the female students, and the perpetrators. When we perform the play, we are creating a free environment for them to ask questions of one another.” The Positive Women’s Network was started in the early 90’s when founder Prudence Mabele realized that support for HIV-positive women like herself was scarce. And in fact, the stigma around being HIV-positive and having AIDS led to increased violence against women and ostracism.  We visited the community of Kwathema and met with members of the Positive Women’s Network support groups. A manifestation of how the support groups transform suffering into strength is apparent in the name of one of the groups: Sibusisiwe, which means “we are blessed.” The group members spoke eloquently about their passion for helping one another. They strive to empower one another – which means anything and everything from encouraging people to take their anti-retrovirals to teaching and helping one another to demand the appropriate medical tests from doctors, to providing legal support, to simply embracing one another when the grief gets too large to hold alone. During the meeting of the PWN support groups, Prudence emphasized that “no matter what happens to you, no matter what you are going through, you should speak about it.” She said that even if you don’t think there’s an answer, speak about what you’re going through, because there is a chance that together, people can create an answer. When describing to one of my colleagues the multiple threads and issues that emerged during the AWID conference, she asked, “Well, it sounds like there were a lot of questions, but were there any answers?” Good question! My answer: without a doubt, being brave enough to ask the burning questions, to make the aching pleas, to come together and have difficult conversations and debates, and then to be willing to stop and hold one another, will help us to move forward into the answers. --Sande Smith, Director of Public Education, Global Fund for Women

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