Brighton, England – February 2011
In February 2011, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Brighton, England and JASS co-convened 25 JASS colleagues from 13 countries and 6 IDS scholars to learn and plot the future of women’s rights, development and democracy. We reviewed the past four years since JASS shifted to strengthening and leveraging the influence of women’s movements. From that rich basis and informed by a stark analysis of contexts and future scenarios, we created a bold strategy going forward to 2015.
In a corner of the University of Sussex teeming with activist-scholars eager to learn about and contribute to our cutting-edge approaches, JASS discussed the best ways to measure our work and to extract learning from the gold mine of knowledge and experience in movement-building, women’s empowerment and citizen engagement across the regions. In addition to laying the foundation for JASS’ next phase, this meeting continued JASS’ long-time mutually beneficial relationship with IDS, whose scholarship on power, participation, women’s empowerment and citizen engagement enrich our work, pushing us further, while the Participation, Power and Social Change team draw upon JASS’ materials and on-the-ground organizing experience in their teaching and analysis.
“At JASS when we sing, women everywhere jump to their feet and cheer – More, more, more!” says Hope Chigudu of JASS Southern Africa, “but then we don’t know what to do next.” Over the past four years, the power and energy unleashed by JASS has sometimes exceeded our capacity to keep pace. How do we maintain the momentum – responding to growing demand by activists and organizations of all kinds for training and strategic mentoring – and at the same time deepen the work already begun? While a single identity might be simpler in some ways, we embrace and use our multiple identities strategically to remain relevant in a fast-changing world. Rooted and driven by local organizing but linked across continents, JASS is both North and South, activist and facilitator, frontline and rearguard, ally and (on occasion) funder, responsive and sustained. As the work takes off in Southeast Asia, Southern Africa and Mesoamerica, another challenge is how to grow in decentralized ways without losing the thread of political cohesion and the local-to-global linkages that make us strong.
“Living among tensions means permanently juggling possibility and uncertainty. Resisting dichotomies: how to nurture love and respect, while also working efficiently? ” ~Mariela Arce
Building our Strategies
The in-depth review revealed three broad themes emerging from and shaping work in the regions: multiple and shifting forms of violence against women and women activists; sex, sexuality and the body remaining the core of women’s freedom and thus, a political battleground; and women’s economic insecurity which increases with the growing volatility of capitol. In Mesoamerica, JASS’ new direction is to connect on-the-ground analysis, training and urgent action with women human rights defenders, often engaging regional and international decision-making mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
With increasing waves of sexualized violence sweeping across Southern Africa, the need is more pressing than ever for new language to grapple with taboos about sex and sexuality, and to build cross-border alliances and strategies to increase pressure to halt the violence. The JASS process in Malawi creates safe space for wellbeing and self-discovery which is essential to developing strong grassroots women leaders. At the same time, in Zambia as in Malawi, JASS is amplifying women’s voices, catalyzing stronger and more effective organizing where grassroots activists use their power within and with to demand rights. Meanwhile, JASS allies in Southeast Asia are mobilizing around economic rights on a massive scale, with a 38,000-strong community of movement-builders modeling micro-initiatives that cultivate women’s citizen power and influence even as they address needs and carve out small-scale sustainable development alternatives.
“How do we cross the line when the line itself keeps shifting and blurring? Patriarchal power is re-shaping itself in an era of crises – economy, climate, land, and water – and this challenges citizens in turn to be shape-shifters.” ~ John Gaventa
Being the Bridge
Long-time JASS ally, Professor John Gaventa, Director of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, shared provocative insights from a 10-year action-research “meta study” (So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement, Barrett and Gaventa, 2010), conducted in 20 countries and including 150 case studies.
At the global level, the current democracy deficit leads to two competing trends – increasing weakness of the state in favour of market systems, and deepening democracy in favour of citizens. As women activists know all too well, Gaventa confirmed, there is a strong relationship between violence and the insecurity of weakening states. In order to re-legitimize themselves, states must create “others”, an opposition, to justify the use of violence.
Top-down solutions and policy quick-fixes are unlikely on their own to transform systemic problems effectively and sustainably. Empowered citizens are vital to drive broader policy and normative change. However, change rarely results from civil society demand alone either. Saluting JASS, Gaventa said that his research findings confirm our unorthodox approaches. In an era of blurred boundaries, those we call “bridgers” are critical – actors who can wear many hats and cross multiple lines, mediating and building power from global to local levels. Change happens when you build a movement that can move across these spaces simultaneously and gain legitimacy from trust and values, not from force or procedural power.
In JASS’ next three year strategy, we make our role as a bridge more explicit in the section on our Position and Approach. We say that JASS works to:
- create and sustain safe spaces that bring together very diverse women to understand and develop fresh feminist alternatives to the current logic and dynamics of power, renew their hearts-minds-bodies, and knowledge, skills, strategies and relationships to navigate the crises in the world;
- bridge and connect across differences, mobilizing people, ideas, and political and financial resources quickly from local-to-global level to amplify solidarity and sustain political influence
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hourRains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts…they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay, Poet, Feminist USA
The Loom and the Weave
So, what does change actually look like and how do we document it and learn from it? As we plotted out a dynamic new MELK system – monitoring, evaluating, learning and knowledge – we agreed that JASS generally claims contribution (for shared and layered achievements) rather than attribution (as sole agent.) Our work – catalyzing and building the organizing power and influence of women – calls for multiple alliances and astute bridge-building skills shaped by many dynamic factors. The extent to which we share recognition for making change is the true measure of our success.
“Ten years’ action-research shows that the most important and effective spaces for change – in every regime type – were those of grassroots/community organizing. When you combine local associations and social movements, the impact is far greater than in governance spaces alone. And yet most funding support is directed at formal governance spaces.” ~ John Gaventa
JASS would like to extend heartfelt thanks to our colleagues at IDS – John Gaventa, Jethro Pettit, Tessa Lewin, Akshay Khanna and Rosalind Eyben – for their invaluable contributions to the process.