by Shereen Essof on August 6, 2020 at 9:39 am

Right now, my thoughts are with the long haulers and the way the personal is always political but often in surprising ways.

Two weeks or so ago, I attended a meeting organised by my doctors for people they call the COVID-19 long haulers. These are people who have supposedly recovered, but from the call, it was clear that they need high levels of support, rehabilitation and perhaps a whole new approach to healing. Many of those who suffered moderate to serious C19 symptoms now have to reckon with the damage this virus wrought in unanticipated ways. They are in it for the long haul.

My journey to this meeting started five years ago when suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My lungs were gripped by a deep, stubborn inflammation whose cause was never diagnosed. Since then, it has been a struggle to find my breath and balance as the simplest everyday activities required ridiculous levels of management supervised by teams of doctors. Only now, after all this time, my medical team thinks I might have had an early version of C19 because my symptoms had such a strong resemblance to this disease. Be that as it may, the doctors thought my presence might be useful to the long haulers because, well, I have been doing the long haul.

I don’t know about that, but I know this personal journey has been and has become political in at least two ways. Firstly, the struggle to maintain a sense of wholeness and possibilities of well-being while managing lungs and the feeling of being choked is perhaps the struggle of all us politically right now. An issue-based approach is not going to cut it. Whether we are working on access to water or land or against violence, we have to look at the health of our political society as a whole. The only way we can make sense of this moment is to treat it as an invitation to remake completely a world that is being devastated by pandemics, unsustainable economic systems, and structural violence.

Secondly, if we are going to accept this invitation, then we are in it for the long haul. The work of organising, popular education, and movement building is critically important. It is this work that sustains the displays of public protest that visibly challenge and change the system. The slog work, which a friend jokingly calls the slug work, is about organising street-by-street, block-by-block, and neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood paves the way for the slow growth that allows people to seize the political opportunities when they arise.

That is what happened with the #BlackLivesMatter work in some ways. People are at a place where they are calling to defund the police and actually making inroads on that agenda. The moment has been fed by years of careful organising: on the ground, door-to-door, street-by-street, community-by-community. In this moment, we can be bold and shift things at the levels of narrative, policy, and hearts and minds. But yes, we also never forget the people on the long haul, who made this moment of free breath possible.


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by JASS on July 16, 2020 at 11:07 am

A few weeks ago, chief opposition leader, Lazarus Chakwera was appointed as the new president of Malawi, generating new expectations and renewed hope. Following the election, we asked our allies to reflect on the significance of this victory for the future of Malawi. “The new government provides many Malawians with hope for a changed Malawi. A people-centered government which is transparent and accountable and provides people’s basic needs,” said Grace Jere. They welcome this new chapter but understand that it is only one moment in a much longer struggle.

The stakes are high for the new government. One of the world’s poorest countries, some of Malawi’s problems include widespread corruption that Madalitso Mwenda describes as a ‘pandemic’, violence against women and delivery on basic services. “The expectations to rebuild our broken systems are high more because of the serious breakdown in leadership the country has been exposed to in recent years,” says Martha Kwataine. The healthcare system is among the most broken and neglected as Madalitso Mwenda articulates, “The transition offers hope in all sectors of development but especially the health sector given the poor governance that has plagued the sector. It is a great moment to address the loopholes that have gone unattended for a long time."

Last week, President Chakwera announced his new cabinet to the dismay of many women and gender advocates. He omitted the Ministry of Gender from the ministerial list and appointed only 12 female ministers, shy of the ratio enshrined in the law. “This has been done contrary to section 11 of the GEA [Gender Equality Act] which provides for a 40/60 ratio... One of the reasons the majority of Malawians voted for change was so we can have a fresh start, a new beginning, which among other things includes adhering to the laws that have been put in place as a country to govern us all,” expressed women and gender advocates in a public statement.

While increasing women in parliament is critical, simply having more women does not translate into a strong feminist agenda or meaningful change. As JASS ED Shereen Essof argues, “Confronting power is central to feminist leadership and movement-building. If we as women leaders replicate the practice of power over, how are we any different from mainstream male-stream practices of leadership?” Nevertheless, Malawi’s democratic breakthrough still provides a new opportunity to disrupt the status quo and implement change that better serves all Malawians. As Grace Jere says, “For women and girls who make up over half of the population and who unfortunately make up the majority of those living in poverty and are discriminated against at almost all levels, this change brings a lot of hope. There is now hope for women and girls to sit at the table and decide on issues affecting them, including access to quality education and healthcare. However, time will tell whether these promises shall manifest practically.”

Since 2007, JASS has supported women living with HIV to improve access to ARVs (antiretrovirals) and quality healthcare through a campaign, Our Bodies, Our Lives (OBOL). OBOL, now an 8,000-strong movement led and mobilized by HIV+ positive women (most living in rural areas), is transforming public health responses to HIV in Malawi. OBOL women recognize that lasting change needs both sustained organizing to shift social attitudes that reinforce stigma and discrimination, while also pressuring governments to enforce laws and policies that affect their lives. It is this approach that has enabled OBOL women, despite being marginalized, to see their daily life experience as the expertise most needed by policymakers to create sustainable solutions.

As we move forward, it is critical to continue to create space for information sharing, learning and participation to shape the change agenda at village, district, regional and national level. This continuous engagement to build collective power and drive an advocacy agenda will hold power holders to account and allow for women in communities to have a voice in shaping the future of Malawi.  

***Madalitso Mwenda is an Information and Documentation Officer for the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation; Martha Kwataine has worked for over 10 years as a policy analyst and advocate/lobbyist with various organisations including Action Aid, Malawi Economic Justice Network, Baobab Health Trust, and the Malawi Health Equity Network; Grace Jere is a human rights lawyer, working with the Human Rights Commission in Malawi as a Principal Gender and Women's Rights Officer.





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by Alda Facio on July 9, 2020 at 8:50 am

They say coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, that it puts us all at risk, that it dictates an equally threatening future for all humankind. But the measures that have been implemented in Central America to deal with the pandemic are proof of the monumental, pre-existing inequality of our societies, and how quickly the neoliberal capitalist system takes advantage of sexism, misogyny, racism and all phobias against the “other” to reproduce and strengthen its dominion over the vast majority of beings on this planet and the planet itself.

Pre-existing inequality for women–the largest group of people discriminated against–ensures that the virus does discriminate. Note the dramatic rise in violence against women, many of whom are confined with their aggressors. Or the proliferation of barriers to access to health services, especially related to pregnancy and birth, and the deepening of extreme poverty that has always been predominantly female.

Glaring inequalities have emerged between people who have the opportunity to survive by sheltering at home and those who have no choice but to endanger their lives, because they have to go out to feed themselves and their families or to provide services that their governments now deem “essential”, or simply because they have no place to take shelter. The list of horrors caused, but more than that deepened, by this novel coronavirus scourge is endless. But so is the list of lessons it’s leaving us.

First, the discriminatory effects of government measures allow us to more fully appreciate how dangerous it is to value the production of goods by large corporations for the market, over the care of living beings and the planet. The measures also unmask the greed of the neoliberal policies that the World Bank and the IMF have been demanding from us for decades.

Health and social security, education, banking services, insurance, penitentiaries, public safety and even justice had been almost completely privatized before the pandemic. Most of us Central Americans accepted the privatization policies due to propaganda that led us to believe we would be better off with private companies than with public institutions and services. We were also told that mega projects were synonymous with “development.”

When the pandemic struck, more and more people began to experience exactly what human rights defenders had already warned us of: the almost zero capacity of governments to fulfill their legal obligation to guarantee human rights to health, among many others. Successive governments in our countries have systematically dismantled public hospitals and have abandoned the few social programs that should have constituted a safety net. They no longer have the money to face the economic crisis and unemployment caused by sheltering because the money that the big private companies should have paid in taxes for the megaprojects they promised would benefit us all, has vanished in tax incentives or amnesties.

The second lesson is perhaps even more harmful because its effects had been largely hidden before the pandemic:  It is the enormous mistake of having allowed our governments to place the market at the center of our societies’ “development,” dismissing everything related to reproductive work and care as inconsequential compared to the goal of economic growth.

To put it more “scientifically,” in placing priority on production for the market, the capitalist patriarchy concealed the fact that the market does not have the capacity to sustain itself and reproduce autonomously, precisely because it depends on care activities for its own reproduction.

With the pandemic, it has become more evident that the market does not and cannot sustain our lives. The pandemic invites us to value what neoliberal patriarchy had taught us to despise: our interdependence and the importance of care work and mutual care–inside and outside of a paid economy. It is useless to think only of ourselves if those around us get sick.

COVID-19 is showing us how essential the spaces/times where life is reproduced and maintained are, including the constellation of mostly women’s work in home-making;  care of children, the elderly, the sick and persons with disabilities; and cleaning and maintenance of our communities, cities, streets, parks, forests and beaches. The pandemia calls on us to put the sustainability of life, not the market, at the center. It shows us that it is not the reproduction of capital, but the reproduction of life that should concern us.

Since the current system only considers paid work and market transactions as productive, an important lesson from this pandemic is that we must change this system if we want to survive. The care work that patriarchy devalues–the daily tasks that have been made invisible and belittled precisely because for centuries they have done mostly by women and—must be at the center of our societies and our economies.

We have been shown our vulnerability, but we have also been shown our strength. Recognizing our interdependence and the work of mutual care and solidarity, and appreciating all that our Mother Earth offers us, her living beings, is the most important lesson that I hope we have learned. These horrible months of pandemic and death at the same time have been months of huge and small expressions of the goodness and generosity of the human spirit.

There are thousands of examples, including people voluntarily keeping their physical distance even if their governments do not require it, as is happening in Nicaragua; artists delighting us from their rooftops, computers or in the streets; people planting and gathering food to share with the neediest; memes with such a sense of humor that we can’t help but laugh out loud in isolation; collective applause for health workers; and expressions of gratitude for those who care for our sons and daughters and the elderly, those who clean our homes and buildings, those who work in grocery stores, those who cook our food… We have seen that the people least acknowledged by capitalist patriarchy are the most indispensable for our survival and that it’s the living beings — not the market – that sustain us.

Alda Facio is a Costa Rican jurist, international women’s rights expert, longtime JASS Advisor, and a member of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women.

Picture credit: Manos Unidas

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