JASS Southern Africa is launching an unusual partnership to work for women’s rights. At a dynamic kick-off workshop late 2010, JASS gathered faith-based leaders living with HIV, lesbian activists, youth organizing for sexual and reproductive rights and feminist IT facilitators to forge a powerful collaboration to build movements for women’s rights throughout Southern Africa.
Beyond the Sum of our Parts
This new partnership breaks through categories and “issue silos” – but to what end? A bold and comprehensive strategy fuels this initiative.
“The assumption is that, as an LGBTI organization, we focus only on LGBTI rights. But we are Zimbabweans, Africans, citizens. So, for example during the cholera scourge, we spoke as citizens demanding clean water. We speak for access to health, education, justice.” -Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe
To build the power of women’s numbers for effective change, JASS has departed from urban-based NGO business-as-usual. Fragmented and harassed, many women’s rights organizations and leaders in the region have gone quiet over the past decade or shifted to focus on legal change. And yet the difficult context has sparked new forms of organizing by grandmothers and child household heads, by marginalized women including lesbians and sex workers, and by young women demanding their say. At the same time, massive, informal, community-based networks – especially through churches and mosques but also of market women, burial societies and savings clubs – engage poor women in large numbers, often disconnected from institutionalized gender work.
Knitted together in this unique collaborative, the new partnership is perfectly positioned to engage these efforts – both evolving and established – in order to reach and strengthen local women leaders in their thousands. The initiative does not begin at the level of governments and central power-brokers. Instead, JASS is engaging with HIV+ women activists leading groups initiated by churches, health services, government departments, NGOs, and neighbors. Working with little or no resources, they are delivering a patchwork of mutual support, home-based care, treatment literacy, moral guidance, income-generation, and health information to HIV+ women.
Southern African women have a lot riding on whether governments respond to their voices and demands. In the process of organizing to demand basic rights and freedoms from their governments – women must first challenge the powerful traditions and backlash (current and anticipated) that frame women as the problem. To pressure governments for basic rights and freedoms – schools, reproductive health services, access to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, police and justice systems that protect women from violence on the street and in their homes, decent jobs, and access to credit, resources and clean water – frank talk about sex , a conversation often initiated by LGBTI and sex-worker groups, is vital for all women’s empowerment.
Organized young women leaders are a crucial facet of this partnership. Deeply vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, GBV, and HIV infection, young women are also highly responsive to education and opportunity. They bring new voices, needs, perspectives and innovations and are essential to the sustainability of women’s organizations and rights gains.
Like JASS itself, each partner brings valuable experience and an established constituency and reach to the process. The first in-person engagement of the full partnership in Johannesburg – showed just how powerful a mix is being brewed here.
A scan of the partners in this initiative reveals an interesting spectrum of difference. This is not the line-up of usual suspects!
• MANERELA+, the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV/AIDS, has 1,500 members and extensive reach through Christian, Muslim and other faith communities, and takes a courageously progressive stand on controversial issues in the country and region;
• GALZ, the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, a long-time JASS ally, finds strategic means to build common ground with civil society groups in a hostile environment;
• Youth Vision Zambia, formed by young Zambians to organize for sexual and reproductive information, technologies and rights, includes a young women’s leadership academy among its activities;
• Women’sNet, a feminist organization for IT skills and activism, works from its South Africa base with women and girls throughout Southern Africa;
• JASS Southern Africa, active across the region, includes bridge-building, contextual analysis and strategic thinking among its many strengths.
A Joint Vision
The planning workshop, as the first encounter between all parties to this innovative collaboration, provided a flexible and open process for partners to acknowledge both the differences and commonalities between them as the basis for joint learning and action going forward.
As at any JASS gathering, the meeting began with a collective analysis, this time of the three faces of power – visible, hidden and invisible – at work in the Southern African region today. Here, partners surfaced a deep and shared picture of the context for the work. Reviewing our respective organizations, the partners were able to identify the common threads running through. Over the days of the meeting, we came to agree on a common vision for change that unites us across the rich range of our differences.
Too often, alliances seek to hide or avoid disagreements. Left to simmer under the surface, these can undermine collaborative work. The workshop established a healthy precedent for airing divisive views within this partnership. Challenging topics that arose included:
• People’s complicated associations with the F word (feminism);
• Strategic work with men and women-only spaces, concluding that this was not an either-or choice;
• Provocative phrases such as “sexual minorities” and contentious concepts such as “poverty;”
• A shared definition of culture.
•The role of men in women’s rights organizing can be controversial. On the other hand, some men engaged in this work are wary of women-only spaces.
Stepping into Action
At the meeting, partners established logistical as well as political foundations for working together with shared funding on a five-year collaboration to build the power of women’s numbers and organize for their rights. Each organization drafted a creative and ambitious action plan for the first year, involving training, learning exchange and strategic action. JASS will continue to keep you updated as this exciting partnership evolves.