JASS Blog Archives for April 2014

by Niken Lestari on April 25, 2014 on 2:11 am

I barely slept on the days following the elections. We in Forum Aktivis Perempuan Muda – Indonesia (FAMM-Indonesia) took part in various work related to the legislative elections of 9 April 2014 mainly to call for greater participation of grassroots women in the electoral processes. FAMM-Indonesia, a JASS-inspired women’s organization, works with 160 young women grassroots activists in 30 provinces of Indonesia. In the recent legislative elections, FAMM-Indonesia women served as women educators of voters’ rights, election observers, election committee members, and some were even candidates in the local levels.

We are pleased that the elections happened in peace and that there was no recorded cases of violence before, during, and after elections.

Maria Mustika, FAMM-Indonesia’s knowledge coordinator, was part of Polling Station Working Committee (KPPS) in Surabaya. The KPPS is under the KPU or Indonesian Election Commission, an independent or non-structural body, much like the Corruption Eradication Commission. It was set up by the central government but it works independently. KPPS team implemented the election process and took care of logistics in the polls of their domicile. Their responsibilities include preparing for the voting and the actual counting at polling stations; accepting witness team from each candidate pairs; administering the voting and counting at the polling stations; and delivering news and voting certificates to the polling committee or the PPS.

Erma Woelandari, also a member of FAMM-Indonesia, took part in the election committee as observer. Erma conducted voter’s education trainings and organized young people as election observers in Samarinda area, East Kalimantan. Like Maria and I, she also stayed till late at night – until  2 AM – to ensure that votes are properly counted. FAMM-Indonesia members Herlia Santi and Hasmidha Karim likewise took the role of election committee and observers in their area of Riau province and Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi.

In FAMM-Indonesia, we asked our members to be smart voters and to carefully check the background and platform of political parties and their candidates before they vote for them.

Through these initiatives, the women of FAMM-Indonesia are further strengthening young women’s political awareness and leadership and they are also effectively taking part in political spaces.

In a country where women still struggle to make way into the political parties, election system, and the legislative system, women’s organizing on the ground is all the more significant. Currently, women’s participation as candidates in the legislative elections  are seen only to fulfill the 30% quota for women’s representation; they were placed at lower numbers as candidates in their party. Governments, the Indonesian government included, turned to quotas to expand women’s political participation and representation. As we say in JASS, though important, more women in legislatures doesn’t necessarily translate into improvements in women’s rights and livelihoods, particularly those of marginalized women.

If the token representation of women through the “30% quota” is any indication – Indonesian women are out for a long shot. Ultimately, it is FAMM women’s organizing on the ground that bears much promise. FAMM-Indonesia is out to build more a dynamic movement for greater influence and social change. Even if it takes a thousand sleepless nights.

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by on April 14, 2014 on 12:36 pm

Where to start? … Over a week ago, I attended a dialogue—The Importance of Youth Leadership in Africa: A Discussion with Young African Leaders, hosted by Congresswoman Karen Bass. Catchy title, but I wish I could say the same about the discussion. I was excited and ready with my notebook and pen to write down juicy stuff but 15 minutes into the conversation, I had packed my notebook back in my bag while my right leg bounced up and down as l debated whether to stay for the rest of the discussion. If I was to summarize my reaction in one word, it would be: disappointment. “But why,” you ask? Aren’t you like an African youth? Don’t get me wrong; as a Zimbabwean living in the U.S., I appreciate and value having these conversations because it gives me an opportunity to discuss issues and moments that affect my generation and my home. Most times, these discussions leave me with a sense of hope and inspiration. But, coming out of this particular dialogue, I had more concerns and questions than inspiration.

Despite the fact that all of the panelists were under 35 and from Ghana, Togo and Rwanda—the narrative about African youth missed the target by a long shot.

Is there some mythical homogenous “African Youth” out there? That was the first concern for me. I find this idea ridiculous. A young man from Sierra Leone, a woman from a suburb in Zimbabwe, another from Lagos—we might share the same continent, we may even have similar country histories and but our experiences are not homogenous. Women and men experience life differently; women from the same country have different experiences too. To assume that one can teach an entire generation of men and women from 55 different countries with a single, one size fits all approach is absurd. Also, who is we? We will teach, We should provide, We….

Speaking of women, where were they in this discussion? There were about 23 young African leaders present at the discussion, including from President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) but somehow only 3 of them were women! How can a discussion—albeit an off-target one—that presumes to represent an entire complex group of people, omit the presence and voices of young women? Of the three panelists, one was a woman, which I was very excited about. However, when the topic of African young women came up, one of the most startling responses from her was something like: “… African women tend to have low self-esteem.” I know what you’re thinking… WHAT! First of all, who are these, "African women?" And what does self-esteem have to do with it? This kind of thinking tends to minimize real issues by individualizing them. It would be the same as saying, "to end poverty, just increase employment." Yet employment does not erase some of the structural and cultural inequalities that need to be addressed. Even with such shocker statements, I had some favorite moments like when US Ambassador to the Republic of Botswana, Michelle Gavin spoke up on the lack of women’s presence and voice among the leaders, and how it is important to include them in these kinds of spaces. While I applaud her statement, I think it’s important to also remember that having more women representation in these spaces does not necessarily translate into the changes we want. What’s important is how we use these spaces given the different power dynamics.

Voices are vital. One of the panel speakers said something along the lines of, “I would like to go back to my country and change the youth’s mentality. I would like to take all I have learned here in America and teach them.”  My reaction: HUH?!  It almost felt like he was saying, “I will take the best practices in America and teach them to our youth because they have no clue about anything or whatever they are doing or the way they are doing it is not the correct way.” While I think that it is important to learn from each other as states, it is also equally important to be cognizant of the context and its people. You can’t take policies that have worked in America and apply them to Zimbabwe, just as you can’t take policies that have worked in South Africa and apply them to Zimbabwe because both countries are in Africa—hence it should work? You need to understand Zimbabwe’s political, economic and social environment keeping in mind the historical context and how that has affected the present and how it plays out. You need to understand the people. Who are they? What do they want? How do they define these principles such as democracy, development, leadership which we so often site in these conversations as the solution to Africa’s problems? Failing to do so is imposing our idea of what we think the people want. It silences all the voices that do have something to say, and makes them passive and invisible participants on issues that affect their lives. When you value voices, you realize their importance because they all speak from different places and experiences—something vital when trying to create any kind of change. People need to be the drivers of their own change. When you come into a community, you can’t impose your idea of what needs to happen. Let them tell you how what their problems are and how they experience them. Let those issues surface and be told from their voice/s.

Change is not a linear process. To just say, “We will train youth, give them skills and change their mentality” is missing the mark. Of course, training and skills are very important but should not be seen as an end goal. There is a tendency to respond to complex problems with one-size fits all solutions. Yet when you think of it, if problems are complex—influenced by different things—then shouldn’t their solutions be different too? So, it is not effective to focus solely on the individual’s behavior, traits etc without placing them in their context. They are part of the complex—going in different directions kind of change—that is not linear—change that looks at the person, their lives, their environment, relationships etc. The starting point is always the people and they should be involved in every single step of the way in this journey where you—whether as an organization, trainer, or social worker etc—play different roles at different moments.

Shift the narrative on Africa. Africa has always been understood and generalized as a country rather than continent with diverse people and cultures. While we may have common problems due to our colonial history, these have expressed themselves in each country very differently. So, when we have conversations on Africa, we always need to come from a place where we acknowledge and appreciate that. We also need to shift how we see Africa, which in most cases is a helpless continent that needs “saving”. In these kinds of spaces we should help challenge and shift narratives by balancing conversations. I liked one man’s comment, “Africa can learn from America but America can learn from Africa too.”

When I went back to the office after this discussion, my co-workers eagerly asked, “So, how did it go?” I responded with everything I just said above. They were all equally shocked and amazed by some the statements that came out of this. As an international women’s rights organization, JASS values women’s voices; seeks to understand women’s problems from their perspective and within their context; understands problems from a broader perspective; etc. I feel privileged to be a part of JASS because it has deepened and widened my understanding of issues and how change happens.

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by on April 11, 2014 on 5:19 pm

For three days in Johannesburg, JASS has been asking the big questions for feminist movement building and activism in Southern Africa: where, what, who, why and how. It couldn’t come at a more pressing time for women and women’s rights—a world famous Olympian is standing trial for murdering his girlfriend in South Africa; child, early and forced marriages continue to plague young women and girls across the region, particularly in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe; and, Uganda’s premier, Yoweri Museveni has just signed the so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill which criminalises homosexuality, outlaws homosexual ‘propaganda’ and urges people to denounce gays and lesbians.

The time to think strategy and come up with ways to tackle the many struggles that face women and all marginalised people—sex workers, LBTI (lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons), HIV positive women to name a few—is now. Drawing on the experience and wisdom of activists from every region of JASS as well as allies, partners and friends from Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Uganda, the JASS Southern Africa Strategic Planning and Review has generated a lot of incisive thinking for our work. Here’s a glimpse of some of the rich and exciting conversations we've had.JASS SNA Strategic Planning

“The work of JASS is to build from the ‘I’ to the ‘we.’ It’s about thinking of how to connect women to each other and to connect to a broader feminist strategy at the local, national, regional and global levels.” – Shereen Essof, JASS Southern Africa Regional Coordinator, boils down JASS’ understanding of truly transformative organising work that starts with individual women realising their power within and power to change their lives and communities and builds upward and outward to women joining hand-in-hand to drive change from local to global.

Talent Jumo, Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng and Pat at JASS SNA Strategic Planning“The laws that have come up [across the African continent around LGBTI legislation, polygamy and abortion] in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Zambia are signals of what’s beginning to happen in terms of backlash against women and if we don’t watch those signals now and look at how to organise and address them before they ripple into every country, then we are always ‘reacting’. These are actually strong signals of a pattern and we need to be proactive.” – Pat, feminist activist and journalist, on why we need to be more vigilant as activists in the Southern African region.

“One thing I see in the context is that we have not had deep enough conversation on sex, sexuality, sexual autonomy and bodily integrity. We have opened the door on LBTI women and that’s powerful. But we also need to talk about what it means to be female, to have a female body and a vagina.” – Everjoice Win, feminist activist, on what’s missing in the conversation on the African continent. It is not enough to have millions of dollars dedicated to sexual and reproductive health rights without throwing the lid open on sex and sexuality, sexual pleasure and diversity for all women.

“We’ve had our eyes closed by the institutionalised mainstream way of putting up instruments that are pro-women. A country like Uganda has ratified everything, there is a contradiction of putting signatures on issues but that ink doesn’t mean anything for women in real terms. How are we as women challenging the system for saying and never doing?” – Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng of Isis-WICCE Uganda talks about why we need to hold our systems and our leaders accountable for protecting women’s rights that they themselves have signed onto with laws and instruments such as CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women).

Lisa VeneKlasen at JASS SNA Strategic Planning“There is some hope. Sex workers are organising, LBTI are organising. All of the backlash we are seeing from the Musevenis and Good Luck Jonathans tells us that we are raising the bar on these issues and kicking the door wide open. Just even uttering the words, ‘I am a lesbian’, that means a lot in this context.” – Everjoice Win’s words of encouragement on feelings of hopelessness and apathy in the face of seemingly overwhelming issues.

“JASS has always straddled these very challenging, creative and political tensions in our work. We strengthen political organisers but we must also, given the current economic context, address needs and rights so that we build the social fabric in a different way and women are able to sustain themselves and their families. We need to use social media in exciting ways while acknowledging that in this region, a very small number of people have access [to the digital sphere] and so our strategies have to go back to basics, community theatre, posters, radio and street art." – Lisa VeneKlasen, JASS Executive Director, speaks to some of the complexities and contradictions of doing women's rights and feminist movement building work. The revolution has never been nor will it ever be neat, linear and easy.Shereen Essof at the JASS SNA Strategic Planning

“It’s about creative and unusual partnerships. If we can activate alliances with unexpected partners, there is a lot of energy in that. JASS Southern Africa’s partnership brings together sexual and reproductive health rights activists, religious leaders and HIV positive women activist leaders and dynamic communicators together to maximise the impact of our work. If you’re able to traverse all of that, contradictions and complexities, in order to do work, it’s powerful. To have a religious leader like Rev. MacDonald Sembereka speak out on sexual minorities is powerful.” – Shereen Essof outlines the kind of imaginative, agile and sometimes seemingly bizarre partnerships that we need to forge in order to confront the problems stacked up against women. No single organisation or group can do it alone, we need to find ways to strengthen our movements and build together to make greater impact on women’s lives.

All photos are courtesy of Fungai Machirori.

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