If there is one thing we can say about this past year, it is that 2017 was the year of women. We were in the streets in dozens of countries – wearing pink hats, no less! We persisted. We reclaimed our time and we broke the silence. In large numbers – united by outrage at the raw, unchecked sexism and racism on display everywhere – we boldly crossed the line to open up difficult conversations in our families, with our friends, with politicians, and at work. Men and boys stood with us.
Hot off the press comes the news that FEMINISM is the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year – the most searched word on the virtual dictionary. Rather than dismiss the term as outdated or “man-hating,” many actually wanted to know what it means! As you know, feminism is one of the many big ideas shaping JASS’ theory of change and practical strategies. We work to ensure that grassroots feminist activists and agendas are at the heart of social justice struggles over land, water, climate, corruption, healthcare, and violence.
Nevertheless, we still grapple with what feminism means in practice. In 2013, Beyoncé’s embrace of feminism set the internet alight and kicked off a debate across the 26 countries of JASS’ network. Here is what I wrote with my colleague Adelaide Mazwarira – words that resonate today:
Beyoncé reminds us of something we believe deeply. That feminism is a perpetually unfinished idea and vision that has inspired and shaped some of the most profound changes in the world over the last three centuries (without ever firing a single shot), from the abolition of slavery to emotional intelligence, from contraception to the fact that domestic violence is a public crime. … That this idea is not just about women and men, but about race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability, age and all the many ways that systems and beliefs construct privilege, power and discrimination. And as bell hooks says, feminism is for everybody. From our sisters (and brothers) working on the frontline in communities with little resources to those with salaries and business cards, we all need to figure out how to make feminism a household word and embrace the contradictions that this implies.
This year, #MeToo reaffirmed the importance of JASS’ core business in advancing this feminist vision:
strengthening the voice, visibility and collective power of women
#MeToo reminds us that, even for women and LBTQ people with relative privilege, voice is a process, not a destination, shaped by big political forces and by beliefs about whose truth counts. To speak out about injustice or violence involves sorting through layers of fear, taboo, tradition, and what’s “normal.” Speaking out on sexual assault, for instance, or against illegal mining or corruption – where entrenched interests are aggressively controlling the narrative – can threaten one’s place in a community and family, and mean humiliation and loss of family, work, and more. This is the essence of crossing the line.
JASS’ “safe spaces” — workshops and dialogues involving political education and leadership development — are crucial to unleashing women’s voices. Our experience shows that one voice is courageous, but many voices are essential to make change. Voice depends on visibility, which in turn, depends on collective power for impact and safety. For real change in the mindsets, behaviors, and policies that marginalize and silence women, we need to organize continuously making sure we have each other’s backs.
In 2017, here are some of the ways we amplified women’s voice, visibility and collective power for justice:
- To maximize visibility and power, we teamed up again with the Nobel Women’s Initiative – including four Nobel Laureates – on a fact-finding delegation to Honduras and Guatemala to hear from indigenous and rural women leading their communities to protect land, water, and forests against corrupt mining and extractive projects. We gathered dozens of powerful testimonies from women who face unspeakable violence by police and security forces. The delegation generated a lot of media buzz, including feature articles in The Guardian, The Nation, and National Observer. The delegation could not be timelier. Immediately afterward, we co-hosted a Congressional Round Table to share the findings of the International Group of Expert Advisors (GAIPE) from their year-long investigation into the killing of Berta Cáceres. Today, in an unprecedented lawsuit in Canadian courts, 11 indigenous Guatemalan women are suing a Canadian Mining Company for gang rapes at the hands of mining security. #WomenLandPeace remains a critical agenda in 2018.
- JASS teamed up with the Fund for Global Human Rights to bring our accumulated insights, tools, and analyses about how to sustain and strengthen civic activism and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in hostile contexts to a global conversation with human rights officials, leaders, and donors in Johannesburg. A key contribution to that discussion was our publication, Making Change Happen 6: Rethinking Protection, Power, and Movements, about the importance of understanding, supporting women’s leadership, and building movements to stay safe and strong in violent contexts. In 2018, we’re looking forward to exchanges with women activists from grassroots racial and gender justice movements and groups in the US – to share what we know about being organized, loud and safe against repression and hate.
- We collaborated extensively with many allies and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to influence other international human rights organizations to better understand and promote gender, women’s leadership and collective protection strategies for human rights activists especially feminist, LGBT, indigenous, environmental, labor right activists who are confronting the most entrenched forms of power controlling who counts, who gets what, and what matters.
Lastly, I am particularly proud to be included in a book of 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World. It is an honor for me and for JASS to be featured with these incredible change makers. My own leadership depends on the bravery, generosity, wisdom, and love of so many others. Thinking of Guatemalan indigenous women leaders standing up to riot police and a Canadian mining company puts any recognition in perspective and reminds us that millions of women are joining together to cross the line for a better world. Together, we are more visible, powerful and shaking things up.
YOU are our collective power – as a an essential part of our growing global community, YOU sustain and amplify us. Thanks again for all you do and for your support to what we do. Happy holidays.
Wishing you much peace and joy in 2018.
Lisa VeneKlasen – Co-founder and Executive Director
Photo credit: Allison Shelley