JASS Blog Archives for October 2012

by Rosanna Langara on October 31, 2012 on 12:00 am

Manohara SubramaniamThere is no need for a women’s rights movement in Malaysia.

This recent pronouncement of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has earned the ire of feminists and social activists in Malaysia.  Ironically, Prime Minister Najib also serves as the Women, Family and Community Development Minister and he made the above statement during the 50th National Women’s Day celebration in Malaysia last October 1, 2012.

“I am shocked how gender insensitive our so called Women, Family and Community Development Minister to say such a thing when every day women experience discrimination – whether it is in the house or outside the house – domestic violence, rape, divorce, sexual harassment, child and wife maintenance and negative portrayal of women in the media,” says Manohara Subramaniam, one of JASS Southeast Asia’s regional coordinating group (RCG) representatives in Malaysia.

Prime Minister Najib dismissed the need for a women’s rights movement as equality “has been given from the start.”  But this is far from reality as many of the obstacles facing Malaysian society disproportionately affect women.  These include endemic poverty, human trafficking, environmental degradation, a rise in the numbers of refugees, civil unrest, crime and a resurgent Islamic movement, according to a report.  In addition, Malaysia is currently ranked 100th out of 135 countries in the gender gap index based on the 2012 World Gender Gap Report.

A lot of women’s groups in Malaysia have expressed dissatisfaction over their Prime Minister’s statement.  One woman activist even said that “it is not up to the Prime Minister to proclaim that there is no need for a women’s rights movement.  It is up to us – half of Malaysia – to decide what we want to do to claim our human rights.”
In this mostly Muslim country of nearly 30 million people, some contend that in comparison with other Islamic nations, the fight for greater protection of Malaysian women’s rights has had some success.  But in the years ahead, women’s rights in Malaysia will continue to be a contentious issue given there are religious leaders who hold significant influence over governmental policy.  This is inopportune for Malaysian women as history demonstrates that an increase in fundamentalists’ hold on power is synonymous with the degradation of women’s rights.

But step by step, women’s rights groups in Malaysia are making inroads within Malaysian society as they fight for women’s rights.  It is definitely very timely that women’s organizing among our JASS women allies in Malaysia is making strides.  JASS’ feminist movement-building in the Southeast Asian region is also gaining ground.

A strong women’s movement is needed now more than ever as officials in the highest levels of government dismiss the need for women’s rights movements and discredit the actual situation of women in the process.

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by Anna Davies-van Es, Shereen Essof on October 28, 2012 on 6:48 pm

After a whirlwind of activity over roughly 14 days, we leave Malawi bone-tired but also excited about the depth and breadth of JASS' work, our partnerships with MANERELA+ and women leaders from a wide spectrum of organisations and networks, and more.


  1. What it means for women to meet with state representatives and traditional leaders in a context where women are not expected to engage formal power directly.
  2. The sisters of light: feminist team work, spirit and making things happen.
  3. Safe spaces and collective power: how giving space for women to speak encourages other women.
  4. The men of Paradiso and Rev. Domoya: how men can act in solidarity when the space is set up to support women's voices.
  5. Legitimacy of voice, language and messages: the importance of being grounded in process when working in other countries.
  6. The art of knowing when to be quiet and stop fiddling during a prayer that was announced in a language you don't understand.
  7. Male dominated international spaces: how 'neutral' programmes and application processes marginalise women's participation and voices.
  8. The value of an insider to drive, direct, negotiate, get things done and in our case a driver, Elson who does all of that and narrates the adventures of the Sisterhood in 3rd person.
  9. Negotiating language, culture and manners: how Malawians often say Yes before they explain why the answer is No.
  10. The danger of debates that pit poor women against each other (e.g. health centre workers with 'bad attitudes'), the danger of debates that make poor people fund their ARVs (e.g. taxing airtime not AIRTEL) and the danger of debates that make women responsible for a) ending HIV infection b) curtailing population size c) upholding morality (mothers of the nation discourse)

Malawian women demand better ARVsShereen

  1. Power cuts, water cuts and really bad internet connections: the challenges of organising in Malawi.
  2. Elson (the JASS driver in Malawi) and Karina (his car):  Feminist Popular Education on Wheels
  3. The Chinese pagoda in the middle of the field:  Chinese investment in Malawi
  4. The power of process and relationship building in partnerships: The case of MANERELA+ and JASS
  5. Radical confluences and their contradictions feminism meets institutionalised religion.
  6. Feminist friendships and solidarity.
  7. Sustaining feminist organising:  some thoughts.
  8. A cockroach, an underwater creature of the deep, and many mosquitoes.
  9. The vegetarian:  a guide to Lilongwe.
  10. On dangerous ground: grounding feminist politics when the process is running away from you.


  1. Sometimes bigger is better: we came into the national dialogue process expecting a "modest" showing of 60 women activist leaders. Instead, we found a room bursting at the seams with more than 140 women singing, dancing and more than ready to take action (often at 7AM in the morning, 1.5 hours before the daily programme was even due to start!). An intimidating prospect at first, the collective energy and passion contained in that space was explosive.
  2. Navigating strange spaces: The pagoda's already been mentioned but the SAVE Conference space is an odd one for building human connections and solidarity in general - all dull, grey concrete and glass; brutally mown landscape with only a sparse covering of trees baking under the hot sun; inside are luxurious, brocade-covered chairs and shiny parquet floors that still smell like industrial glue, and signage on all the doors and fire hydrants in both English and Chinese (foreign language).
  3. Pizza is not a universally-understood food concept and that's okay.
  4. To whom does it belong to…: a hilarious and powerful anthem about claiming and re-claiming our bodies from head to foot - you had to be there, in a room of 140-odd women to understand.
  5. The infectiousness of collective energy and solidarity: I spent the march running ahead of the masses, camera in hand, sweating buckets and snapping photos of everyone and everything in sight - every single poster painstakingly written by women involved in our process in the hands of people I'd never even seen before!
  6. Media in Malawi: it's still shocking just how present MANERELA+ and JASS processes were in the media. Every morning we would get reportage from Elson on the ladies-in-blue on TV and the radio and the newspaper.
  7. Theatre for change: during the Interfaith service, two women and a man performed a hilarious skit on the challenges of T30 that had the whole room in stitches and tangibly released any stiffness there might have been in the congregation. That and the Muslim women's choir that brought the whole room to its feet.
  8. Safe spaces that allow women to release inhibitions, to step out of any societally-imposed boxes, and dance, sing, celebrate, share, be creative, and confront power in the most direct manner.
  9. The willingness of local media-newspapers, radio, television-to cover our stories. We were on the news every single night, the blue chitenge was often instantly recognizable.
  10. Dr. Mwansamba (at the Ministry of Health) promised that Bactrim would be available in all hospitals in Salima district within two weeks; he also gave us his phone number to call him back if this life-saving medication isn't accessible to everyone who needs it by the aforementioned time. I hope, along with our sisters in Malawi, that he's right
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by Shereen Essof on October 25, 2012 on 12:00 am

It’s hot. 36 degrees. We are not sure the march is going to happen. How can women take to the streets with the sun burning down on their heads? As we arrive at Kamazu Statue, there are not many women present. There is no shade left, so we sit in the bus. We are really not sure if it’s going to happen. Sibongile from M+ gets out and for the next half hour there is lots of talking, walking back and forth, negotiation and gesticulation. At some point she disappears, when she returns she tells us she was asked to address the gathering crowd. Not for the first time we are made aware of the respect she garners and her ability to mobilise. We are joining forces with delegates from the Global Race to SAVE Lives Conference "Lilongwe march to S.A.V.E. children and their mothers from HIV infections, stigma and preventable deaths" and to add our messages from the dialogue that demand the necessary resources and support from the ministry of health, medical institutions, local financial lending institutions and government to save lives now.

But something is amiss, it’s 2pm and there are only a few women sitting in the shade, some uniformed school children and one bus with women wearing the infamous blue chitenge that has now become so well-known through all the press coverage of the Women’s National Dialogue on ART. We sit in the bus, unsure of what is going on. It is hot. It is too hot to march. We are not sure.

A truck arrives with loud speakers, filled with singers and dancers who are way too animated in the heat. A few more women, a child. More animated conversation. More walking up and down. More consultation, a few more women arrive on foot. Another bus. Another bus. Another bus.

Then we are marching. We pour out of our bus to join the now 200-strong crowd. The blue chitenge of our constituency is conspicuous. We take all the posters women painted the previous evening in blue, green and yellow paint. Messages carrying women’s voices and demands. Everyone wants a poster and soon we have no posters left. In a split second we suddenly realize that the whole march carries our messages: Fight for Better ARVs, We Demand Better ARVs to Enjoy Right to Live and Good Health, Stavudine Asowe, Komanso Zipatala Pafupi, We Demand More Resource Allocation for Ministry of Health, ARVs Without Food is Death, If You Want Women’s Votes in 2014 Put 75 Billion on the Table for ARVs!

The JASS banner with the slogan ‘Caution: women crossing the line’ is held first by Ruth, one of the JASS SNA movement builders but is quickly taken by others, who claim the message as their own.

The entire march making its way to parliament carries feminist slogans on Our bodies, Our lives: the fight for better ARVs. Through a combination of both good and bad planning our messaging is carried loud and clear, by men, women, faith based leaders, children … the blue sparkles, its great! We march, the tar on the road burns underfoot, the loud speakers blare. When we arrive at Parliament, gates, security forces try and keep us to one side of the entrance, but women keep spilling on to the road. The women activist leaders we have come with push their way to the front, making sure their posters are seen. After a while, we are allowed entrance and the march continues up the winding road to the Parliament buildings where we are met by the Speaker of Parliament and various other dignitaries. The position paper developed by Pan African Positive Women’s coalition, Malawi Interfaith AIDS Association and the Coalition of Women living with HIV (COWLHA) (part of the JASS network) and backed up by the press release drafted by Manerela+ and JASS is presented and accepted. Suddenly everyone is moving again, it’s like we are storming Parliament as everyone rushes in to take a look at the place where decisions are made about our lives.

Victory is ours … at least in this small battle!

- Shereeen Essof

Malawian women demand better ARVs

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