To María, Daysi, Laura, Brenda, Paty and Carme, alchemist sisters
COVID-19 has disrupted all our lives to levels that we would never have imagined. We traded shared coffee and conversation in our organizations’ safe spaces for fleeting Zoom screen images of our workmates and swapped warm personal hugs for kisses thrown with our hands through the mirrors of our computers. Death camped out beside us, and a dull blurry fear seized our hearts, clouding (momentarily) the way forward to continue our feminist struggle. Few of us had prior experience using networks and virtual technologies, and it was an uphill struggle to continue with our organizational projects.
Amid this whirlwind of change and rupture, the second class of the Honduran Alquimia Feminist Popular Education School was in progress. This school arose from “a fabric of solidarity, political, and working relationships between women activists, educators and academicians from different regions of the world with broad experience in popular education, feminist training, political advocacy, and social movements and struggles for the elimination of inequalities.” As an emancipatory policy proposal articulated from Feminist Popular Education (FPE) principles, the school integrates content and teaching tools that allow the women participants to become aware of the power dynamics and the inequalities in their own contexts, and of the specific violence that affects women defenders due to their gender. Hence, it allows them to articulate proposals for change that combat extractivism and violence against women and that address their harmful consequences. The women who participate in the school strengthen their leadership in their communities, territories and countries. While fighting for the conservation of the rainforests, woods, and rivers, they struggle — with their fists raised — for the rights of women to live without violence, to both enjoy and make decisions regarding their bodies, and to exercise power in decision-making spaces, among other demands.
The diverse methodologies used for this purpose include workshops; training days; group discussions, where the topics addressed in the classes are deepened; intersessional or intermodular work to carry out in their communities; and personal reflection processes, which allow the women to contextualize their life experiences and use the knowledge acquired in their lives and in their organizations. In the face-to-face sessions, the achievement of these objectives is simple, just prepare the sessions and get together to create alchemy. In these loving spaces of self- and collective care, we transform individual experiences into shared learning, revitalize the ancestral knowledge of our grandmothers, and remember the women who preceded us in this feminist struggle and who make us who we are today.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to continue with these face-to-face meetings of the Alquimia School in the way we had been gathering.
The need to stay together and accompany the fellow alchemists, who were in an even more difficult situation due to COVID, made the JASS Honduras team start thinking about how to continue, but this time virtually. We first assessed the real possibilities the alchemists of this second class possessed for using the internet and other virtual tools to continue the training process. Until then, we had only carried out — in November 2019 and in person — the first module of the five that form the diploma program of the Feminist Aquimia School. The assessment, which was conducted at the beginning of the pandemic, showed us that only 27% of the participants had a computer in their homes, only 5% knew about ZOOM, only 9% knew how to make a video call on WhatsApp or Facebook, and 3 out of 10 participants did not even use a cell phone or messaging to communicate. This situation presented us with the enormous challenge of working with women who had virtually no means of or experience in using new technologies. But this situation is not unique to these women: the data on the digital divide between women and men worldwide shows a 17% gap against women.1
Latin America is one of the regions of the world where the digital divide by sex has been narrowing in recent years, although the balance is always negative for women. On this continent, 57% of women versus 63% of men have access to the internet, and 83% of men use cell phones, compared to 80% of women.2 The digital divide also varies between countries and regions, with Honduras being one of the countries with the lowest percentage of people with network access on the continent (only 36% of the population has internet access,3 16.6% have internet at home, and only 12.8% access this service from a computer).4 It is striking that in our country the digital divide is not so deep, since, according to the 2017 Household Survey, more women than men over the age of 15 have access to the internet (39% and 33%, respectively). The difference between the sexes for the use of the internet to study or do tasks is not large, as the percentage of women who use the internet for this purpose is only slightly lower than that of men (34% and 36%, respectively).5
|Internet Access Divide & Inequality in Honduras
(Source: INE data 2017)
|15-to-29 years old
|45-to-59 years old
|<90 US$ monthly
|>90 US$ monthly
These inequalities in access to technology were evident among the women of the Second Class of the Honduran Alquimia School — 62 percent live in rural areas, and 80 percent are over the age of 18. Thus, they fit the profile of people in Honduras who have less access to the internet and information communications technologies (ICTs). Identifying this situation allowed us to make the right decisions regarding the path we should follow to continue with the school. The first thing we did was to provide the women with cell phones suitable for use in virtual classes and ensure that they had permanent internet for the duration of the diploma program. Before starting the virtual classes, we tried to explain with sufficient time and clarity how to use the phones, ZOOM and WhatsApp for classes.
The JASS team embarked upon the task of rethinking the curriculum of the entire diploma program to find the best way to adapt its content and methodology to a virtual platform. In coordination with UNAH (National Autonomous University of Honduras) and CDM (Center for Women’s Rights), we decided to first hold five virtual conversations on topics that were important to women at the time, such as COVID, self-care, emotional attention to women survivors of violence in times of COVID, and a beautiful artistic event organized by JASS and Nubian Queenx. And when we had readied the diploma program’s curriculum itself, we started the virtual classes. We conducted three virtual modules in which topics such as extractive industries and their impact on women’s lives, environmental laws, and land and territory defense strategies were addressed; and we developed themes such as patriarchy, power, and conflict transformation.
It was amazing and exciting to see how, with the help of their grandchildren, women who had never touched a computer began to use them as a learning resource. Support was also provided from the other end of the phone by JASS Honduras team members Maria and Laura, who patiently explained how to use ZOOM. The virtual space, the phones, the WhatsApp and all the other resources that we used served not only as a formal channel to continue with the diploma program — they were also the tools that helped us to stay connected and together in this time of pandemic and hurricanes.
Computer and phone screens became a shared space for everyone, where — before starting classes — we always took time to say hello, to see one another, to hug each other from a distance, to listen to our pulse and see how we were doing. And this was the way we met for two Wednesdays a month during almost a year. Some women walked long distances until they reached the nearest hill to receive an internet signal and attend classes; other participants joined the sessions while the water of hurricanes Eta and Iota was still standing in their houses. It was common to hear birds’ songs on the phones of the participants in outlying rural areas, and to hear the clatter of pots and pans as “background noise” during our virtual classes. Many times, we cried with the participant who had lost her home to the hurricanes, or with those who told us said they had fallen ill with COVID.
Despite all this, we managed to hold all the virtual classes, and all the students presented their graduation projects, which reflected with beauty and enthusiasm the learnings they had acquired in the school. Finishing this diploma program amidst death, pain and poverty, but also amid hope, was undoubtedly an achievement of all the alchemists and of the JASS team, who never hesitated in offering their experience, strength and hearts to the school so that it could move forward.
This process has left us with great certainties and many questions. Above all, it made it clear to us that we must believe in the women, in their immense potential for learning and change. And we must answer honestly how to deepen the adaptation of feminist popular education (FPE) methodology to the virtual platform. As is clearly pointed out in various JASS knowledge documents, FPE is a process in which women teach and learn together through the collective analysis of everyday contexts and experiences while questioning the structural and ideological roots of the discrimination that persists against women. All the reflections involve corporeality, feelings, thoughts and emotionality.6
But it is quite difficult to apply these methodologies remotely. The body is estranged, at least physically. Women’s homes and everyday spaces prevent them from having private quiet places to perform self-care exercises. The burden of domestic work and care does not allow them to always concentrate on the topics and deepen the reflective processes necessary for their learning. And you do not have those scrumptious opportunities that are typical of feminist gatherings to share “outside the classroom,” where — in the heat of the night, laughter, music, dancing and one or another drink — women reveal our souls, dreams and frustrations. The virtual setting also makes it difficult to delve, as deeply as we would like, into those issues that require collective reflection to challenge and understand them, such as power, patriarchy, sexuality, religion and other vital issues of our feminist struggle.
Virtuality leaves us with the challenge of continuing to think about how to educate ourselves and how to strengthen our feminist organizations and movements in a context in which it seems that the restrictions on mobility will continue to be in force for a long time, especially in Latin America. But at the same time, this whole situation opens a new opportunity for our movements. It is teaching us that we must adopt virtual communication and that — in an increasingly global and digitized world — we must learn to use new technologies and new communication resources, understand how they work, and even challenge the virtual world to make it more democratic, while continuously seeking a way to meet safely in person.
We need to think about educational tools that allow us to combine the virtual and the face-to-face. We must continue to enter and participate in those virtual communities of feminist knowledge and alternative learnings that are emerging all over the world. We must lose our fear of technology and take advantage of the loopholes that the system opens to access infinite sources of knowledge. Virtuality forces us to be creative, to rethink the use of art and the power of images and feminist artistic creation as a strategy to mobilize thoughts, hearts and actions. We must also look for strategies that will enable those with less access, including rural women, older women, the poorest women and those with a lower educational level, to use these resources safely.
Undoubtedly, JASS and all the people and organizations committed to the beautiful feminist project of the Aquimia Schools will know how to adapt to the new times. The virtual platform reaffirms the need to engage in dialogue with women from other countries and contexts, something that JASS has always been doing but that the virtual platform enhances with the ease of meeting through virtual networks. The challenges we face are many, especially in countries like Honduras where COVID has only intensified the poverty and violence that shapes our history. Women land and territory defenders are facing an unprecedented situation in the plundering of natural resources. The pandemic lockdown has allowed the flourishing of the impunity with which governments and large companies act to secure and perpetuate extractive projects and to murder and criminalize the women and men who fight against these death projects. Reports such as that of CESPAD (Center for the Study of Democracy) indicate that, from January to December 2020, there were 15 murders, more than 120 violent attacks and approximately 30 criminal prosecution cases brought against land and territory defenders in Honduras. During this period, the construction of extractive projects has been approved without prior citizen consultation, environmental licenses have been approved for projects that do not meet the minimum requirements for sustainability and environmental protection, and numerous reterritorialization policies have been decreed that will deepen the existing inequalities and food security and sovereignty crises.7 The national territory is for up for sale, especially now that the nefarious project of the Model Cities or ZEDES is taking shape.
But we want to tell our sister defenders that we will not give in and that you are not alone, that from JASS we will continue to accompany you, sharing our learning and knowledge with you through processes such as those of the Alquimia School. Your teachings, your love, your courage will give us the strength and wisdom to continue in the right direction.
Spain, June 2, 2021
Adelay Carías Reyes
1 ONU advierte que brecha digital entre mujeres y hombres aumenta en el mundo
2 Brechas digitales de género en tiempos de COVID-19
2 Data from SISNAN/INE Honduras, 2019.
4 Estudiantes hondureños presas de la brecha digital y la desigualdad social
5 INE. Household Survey Honduras 2018.
6 JASS Mesoamérica. Colección de Alquimia Feminista. Cuaderno 1. El poder vital transformador desde la educación popular feminista.
7 CESPAD. Spill-over effects of extractivism in times of pandemic: a framework that exacerbates the territorial crisis in Honduras.