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When a woman has been living life like that of ‘[a] rat on a treadmill,’ tired and resigned; in a state of hopelessness, helplessness and despair, on the brink of giving up—it is hard to see a way out. When all her stored-up images and interpretations are based on remembrances and feelings of sadness, self-doubt, distrusts, rejections, abuses and demeaning remarks such as you are HIV positive, you don’t deserve fertiliser coupons, you can’t be allocated land because you are a walking corpse, you have killed many innocent people so you deserve to die, your body is rotten—she experiences contradictions in her body.  It’s easy to live outside one’s body particularly when it has been defined as other, different, lesser and therefore not human.  When she has been labelled and trademarked to the extent that she has embodied what other people say about her, her body is marked with pain.  Every scar that puckers on her skin, every stretch mark and every winkle or scar tells a story of where she has been.

And then JASS comes along. It provides neither ARVs nor food; it has no prison for the abusers and it does not pretend to know everything. JASS creates a domain within which the same woman living with HIV continually deepens her understanding of power, sex and resources.  It shares with this woman some feminist popular education tools that enable her to realize that she has the capacity to participate actively in the same world that humiliates her. She can be visible and can amplify her voice.

With the right tools, especially those that explain how systems of power operate a huge fundamental shift of mind occur. She develops a different sense of what it means to be human. This woman, call her Judy, Tiwonge, Esnat, Gertrude or Chikonde; starts to appreciate that she is a legitimate citizen, that it’s possible for her life to have meaning. She stops embodying the labels and the trademarks imposed by society. She leaves them behind like a pile of citrus peel.

The woman realises that ‘the masters house is huge’ but working with other women, she can shift it slightly or build an alternative one. She also knows her tools and energies are limited and hence her aim is not to ‘boil an ocean’ but rather to identify ‘hot spots’ that make strategic sense while building capabilities to evolve towards a formidable movement.

As the women get to know each other well, they work as a collective towards changing their world and shaping the future, even if in small ways such as demanding access to seeds. Even if the winds of disempowerment are blowing, they are no longer victims of circumstances. With a very small movement or shift, at just the right time and place (for example going to the Malawi Ministry of Health to demand better antiretroviral therapy), new energy is unleashed.

JASS’ approach to feminist popular education

JASS’ mission in Malawi is to activate the knowledge and skills of Malawian activists and share analytical tools to breakthrough siloes of thinking to build stronger movements, develop strategies that impact our lives from the personal and intimate to the collective and community. Part of this includes creating room for women to dream and envision a better future. JASS works with strategic partner, Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV/AIDS (MANERELA+) and a range of organisations across Malawi, more and more women are joining the Our Bodies, Our Lives campaign for better ARVs. These are not the usual ‘suspects’, these are women working at community level, they are activists, volunteers and foot soldiers.

JASS’ feminist popular education starts with her story. Deep, personal gripping life stories, stories that take each woman to her cellar where demeaning stories buried in a box are shared. Each woman shines a light into all the corners of her body.  Each story is carved in power dynamics…be it the power a chief wields, power wielded by tradition and religion and hence internalized, power of a security guard at a local clinic who won’t let this woman go in to get her ARVs… power, power, power….

In sharing these stories, her body becomes a vehicle for learning to question the different faces of power that society normally takes for granted. With this understanding, her possibilities are released, blockages are cleared and she is able to break free of limits.  Her inner knowing and personal shifts reverberate in the room and there is new energy. At this moment, women cross a threshold, it happens individually and collectively. They cross many lines, in their words and how they understand the world. They start to get empowered, advancing to another level of critical consciousness, and organizing. They become alive to the world around them.

Working with the Malawi JASS team

It is against this background that I joined the JASS team in Malawi after taking two gap years. The diversity, resilience, innovation, creativity and sheer gumption of a prolific group of women activists singing, dancing, sharing jokes was something to witness. We had our usual evening discussion where women go completely wild, feel free to explore the taboo subjects and those closest to our hearts, bodies and minds—it reminded me that I was home.  Home with the women I have grown to respect, love and admire and with whom I have had a history and a deep and rich connection.

The struggle continues

So the struggle continues. With support from JASS and MANERELA+, women activists are building their movement. The movement is still young, but it has already started planting seeds of empowerment in a disempowering context.

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