JASS Blog Archives for March 2010

by JASS on March 16, 2010 on 8:07 pm

by María Suárez Toro, FIRE

While I lay in a tent in FIRE´s camp in Haiti, I remember one of the first popular songs that changed social consciousness regarding violence against women, at a time when the subject was a well-known secret and there was no political, social and cultural acknowledgment of violence against women as a violation of the human rights of women.

"My name is Luka" came out on the hit parade in the eighties. In a soft voice, almost whispering, Luka tells us that she is the neighbor who lives upstairs and if you hear her moaning and aching, you may not know exactly what is happening, but you can imagine.

She changed many of us because she gave a voice to what was happening behind closed doors and in the privacy of homes. A voice that told the story with such deep-felt meaning that everyone one had to listen.

This is my third night in the camp in Port-au-Prince where we are developing the Feminist Solidarity Camp for communications. Solidarity with the Haitian people in the aftermath of the 12th of January earthquake, mourning with them in honor of the more than 300,000 people who lost their lives, and coverage of what was happening with women in Haiti has brought us here.

It is well-known that at this moment in Haiti’s history, violence against women is on a similar scale to the rest of the world: one in every three women. It is well-known too, that in times of natural disasters, there tends to be an increase in violence against women and girls.

Nobody knows for certain the extent to which this is happening in Haiti today because there are many stories but no official statements with names and places and no official data collected. Some reports tell of a woman who was rescued from the wreckage by a man who then raped her. Others tell about a teenager who was hiding in some rubble because she was alone and that some men came to loot the place and when they found her, they raped and killed her. An account tells of how a woman carrying her bag of rice distributed by humanitarian agencies was stopped by two men on a street - not only did they steal her bag but they also killed her.

Stories are being told everywhere. These are the cries in the silence. However in our neighboring camp there are other cries of silence. I hear them once again tonight. Then their voices fade into the murmur of muffled responses that ask for quiet.

It is February, one o’clock in the morning and I'm sleeping in our tent at the edge of a large settlement of more than 1,000 people who, on 12th January, lost their homes in the city due to the earthquake.

A female voice moans in the dark of night. Immediately the murmur of cries of other people join in rises and spreads like the ripples of the tremors. It continues and expands until it disappears while hush returns.

As with "Luka", I do not know if the murmur of others’ needs quiets her so that all can sleep, or if it strengthens her so that she can live and sleep in peace.

The cries in the silence are calls of distress. With the dawn of a new day, women’s pains are temporarily abated. But as night falls again, it brings a new lament in a different part of the settlement. Once again some woman's protest starts, the murmur erupts once more, then is followed by silence and another day dawns with my same concern every day: how will we know what is going on with regards to violence in the camps and how will we go about doing something about it?

For more information visit the FIRE website.

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by Hope Chigudu on March 15, 2010 on 1:47 pm

Movement building in Rumphi, Tiwonge Gondwe’s village (Tiwonge has been part of JASS movement building in Southern Africa from 2007)

As Sindi and I drove to Tiwonge's town in Rumphi, northern Malawi, the light was clear, quiet, translucent, and so brilliant you could see through whatever stood before you. Sindi and I were excited, we were about to see the work of one of the most active, bold and solid members of the community we were visiting. Sindi kept me ‘alive’ by bringing the vitality and courage of the youth to the conversation. “Hope, we must take responsibility for Malawi,” she kept reminding me, without realizing that I am a casual labourer without roots. I move from one building site to the other, depending on availability of jobs.

In the meantime, the vast and silent landscape, with the mountains on both sides of the road, spoke their own language. Witnessing this magnificence is a luxury for someone who usually travels to places like Darfur to see how humanity is incapable of respecting itself, let alone the environment we live in. We have transformed our surroundings, but we are rarely allowed to be transformed by them. One person, though, who has not just transformed her world but also the world of many women is this Tiwonge whose work we were going to see!

In a story about herself, Tiwonge wrote:

“For myself, I try my best to use power within and start bringing change to myself so that I should be in the slogan ‘walk the talk’ and ‘nothing without me is for me’. I went to my grandfather and narrated my problem, how I want to have a garden of my own so that in the near future I do not have problems with my brothers over the issue of land. The reason why I was doing this is because in our culture it is stated that ‘land is for man’. For myself to challenge this mindset I started talking to my grandfather about why it is important to share the land with women and sharing the badness of distributing land to men only. I have kept on having these conversations with my grandfather since I acknowledge that I have power within and surely I will own the land from him because of what I received from JASS about the different powers –visible, invisible and hidden. On top of that I learnt to know who has power to do what things.”

As I recalled this paragraph, I admired her for being an activist who swirled in the middle of the circle and danced the vision of a movement-building chant, taking us further ahead and organising the women of her community. Tiwonge does not have outstanding academic qualifications to write home about. She is a rural woman, who has gone through trying moments including living with HIV and AIDS. Prior going to South Africa for the JASS movement-building training, she had never left Malawi. Yet here is Tiwonge, in her thirties, using power within to ask for a piece of land from her grandfather, in a patriarchal society where women tend to be invisible. If this is not feminism, what is it? Tiwonge has shown us how to ‘walk with the talk’.

As we got closer to Tiwonge’s home, the fields looked empty and desolate. The rains came late this year. Food is scarce. Driving past a local cemetery, the many freshly dug graves were a sad reminder of what is happening in the country. Tiwonge lives with a sick sister-in-law and is taking care of many children, but she shared some food with us. The generosity of the poor never ceases to amaze me.

The women of the community, who work with Tiwonge, were just amazing. They sang, danced and looked happy. It’s difficult to know what makes a woman who is living with HIV and AIDS and has lost a husband and most of her children, dance and tell the most hilarious stories. I was reminded of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist’s words; “It has been a woman's task throughout history to go on believing in life when there was almost no hope.” The women told us about their plans, ambitions, achievements, frustrations but every now and again, a woman would burst into a song and others would join in. Then they would stand up and dance and those who know me know that I don’t have a dancer’s leg, so I just clapped violently as if to make up for my lack of dancing skills.

Seeing the work of these women made me wonder how one could even dream of capturing their connectivity, courage, love, energy and resilience into a "results-based management report” as donors normally demand.

We left the group embarrassed that we could only share some drinks and biscuits, definitely not a politically correct combination of nourishment for HIV positive women or any other human being. One thing though is that we promised to go back and work with them for a much longer period, or Sindi did.

Oh! And we must mention that those women have their own community hall, they are organised in various sectors, some visit schools and help with cooking school food, others are in business, politics, heath, and agriculture ... they are in all the sectors. Is this not what feminist movement-building is supposed to be about? Guess who has contributed to the movement building? ActionAID! JASS is building on the initiatives started by ActionAid., I wonder if there is a country in Africa where rural women are as organised as the ones we met in Northern Malawi. This unique and great work of AA should be recognised.

Beyond Tiwonge’s village, close to the border with Tanzania, is an area called Karonga where the earthquake has caused havoc especially since mining started in the area. Margaret and Caroline, who attended JASS movement-building training in Lilongwe, live and work in Karonga. Whom do they rely on to ensure that when a crisis arises the resources are available to act swiftly and transform a potentially harsh situation into a means to act and be counted? They reported that from December 2009 to now, there have been as many as 60 earthquakes, which have displaced many people including women living with HIV and AIDS.

Given the reality on the ground, what is the work of a feminist movement-building organisation about? I think that we need to pay attention, stay alert, reach out and make sure that we remain in touch with the women activists that work in difficult circumstances. It is one of the most essential types of work a feminist organisation can do. It’s about caring, but not in the gendered meaning of the word; it is about doing things carefully, forgetting no one, making sure we do not allow the activists to stand alone, no matter that some work in isolated places.

As we continue to put more thoughts into Southern region, and as new initiatives in Malawi’s different regions are springing up and growing, JASS has to focus more on new trends, and develop a concerted and clear understanding of its role as a conduit for linking activists to each other and to other movements. We are aware of how JASS changes and transforms itself depending on the nature of the needs and practices within specific realities, so should we not start making an assessment as to what creates linkages between activists in different regions, no matter where we come from and what we deal with? Could we commit to a mechanism for tools sharing? Already we have some tools; should we focus on how to expand their use so as to pursue a dialogue whenever a new situation arises?

Finally, when I am old-er, I want to work for you, comrade Sindi, (Sindi is now 27 years old), and tease the creative juices out of you. I hope you will allow me to work freely, dance when I can, sing loudly without being told about broken teeth, think freely, dream without anyone waking me up, and generally be carefree in all sorts of ways. I believe free thinkers within the women's movement have the delicate responsibility to keep us dreaming. Isn't that what fuels our vision?

The next installment of Hope Chigudu’s movement-building journey through Malawi weaves the women’s stories, the learning that Hope and Sindi Blose share, and Hope’s reflections.

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by Annie Holmes on March 12, 2010 on 1:42 pm

At the 11th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development (November 14, 2008, in Cape Town), Geeta Misra painted the landscape for ‘The Power of Movements’ by suggesting five common elements amongst movements: a feeling of injustice; an understanding of oppression as a political condition; the desire to change political conditions or to shift power; the belief in the power of many; and the presence of the powerless.

In all the regions visited, the five elements are present and the rage they have ignited is being used to create small spaces and cracks for building a grassroots women’s movement. There are signs that anger is being combined with a growing willingness to fight back. There are many things women are demanding. These demands are beginning to mobilise them in the struggle; to unite them into a potentially powerful force for social change.

The women we met belong to either the Women’s Forum or the Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS. The Women’s Forum is a loose network of women’s organisations and individuals spread across the northern region. Other than  dancing, singing, and showing off their work, the women pointed out the following:

They are still denied land and yet they are the ones who labour, develop and preserve the knowledge of agri­culture, of plants, domestic livestock, fishing etc. Although these skills are vital to the survival and comfort of the middle class, there is no recognition of this fact - in­deed, their vital skills and knowledge are denigrated as inferior.

Women are developing abnormal bodily structures due to the kind of ARV that they are taking (Sindi knows more about this condition and will be sharing her knowledge later).

The young people who are organising are doing so with hardly any resources (financial, visual aids etc). They don’t engage in creative activities such as:

  • writing
  • singing
  • music
  • photography
  • painting/drawing
  • organising gigs or parties
  • story-telling
  • dancing
  • woodwork or metalwork

They are sharing whatever knowledge they have but will soon run out of steam. Young people get tired quickly if there is no creativity.

In one district, Karonga, home to two JASS-trained political activists, Margaret and Caroline, there have been frequent earthquakes, as many as 60 since the year began. There is no word about it in the media. The people living in the area don’t know what is happening; all that they have been told is that they should stop sleeping in their houses and sleep in tents instead. The tents are not adequate and the few available are allocated in the most ‘opaque’ manner. The area is facing a dangerous, unequal, and increased environmental catastrophe. Mining of uranium has started in the area and could be the cause of these earthquakes. Women are organising a protest march in two weeks time. 

Girls are being trafficked to South Africa for the World Cup.

None of the women we visited, nor their organisations, has a computer. To have access to email is expensive and far from where the women stay.

They don’t know how to raise money and from whom.

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