Interview with Sharifah Shakirah, Rohingya woman leader from the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN) …
“We are women who unfortunately have been taught to be very submissive, but when we all get together and combine the powers that each one of us has, we are women who can transform the reality we live in.”
Ana Clementina Mejia lives and works in northern Honduras, where limited access to education, job opportunities, and violence perpetuated by a macho culture undermines women’s dreams and lives. This reality leads many, often thousands, to leave their homes. That’s why the slogan of her organisation, the El Progreso Women’s Network, is simply “Working for a Better Future.”
Ana is among the 60 women who completed Alquimia’s Political Facilitators course in 2022, which JASS Mesoamerica organised in Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, Ana‘s home country. After finishing the year-long course, Ana has found new skills, resources, and power to make changes in her organisation and community.
The Women’s Network, known by its Spanish acronym REMUPRO started organizing women in El Progreso and surrounding communities in 2009—providing information, mobilising action, and building capacity for political activism and advocacy. Today it has 20 women coordinators in the core group and collectives in El Progreso and nearby communities.
Learning as a teacher and student
REMUPRO’s focus has always been on learning and teaching new skills and providing women activists with effective tools for organising. So, for Ana, the chance to join other women leaders in a course that combined practical skills with analysis and utilised a collective learning approach where all participants are both teachers and students, aligned perfectly with her life plan and the organisation’s strategic goals.
“When I did the whole process to register for the course, I saw it was really well designed with interesting themes and tools that are useful to reproduce knowledge with other women because our organization trains other women. The other opportunity was to learn about digitalization since virtual processes were new to us.”
JASS Mesoamerica’s political facilitators course provides leadership training, collective knowledge generation and sustained political accompaniment to support women’s organising efforts. It also focuses on self and collective safety and care aligned with our Heart, Mind and Body approach, especially in high-risk situations, which describes the context of most of the indigenous and rural women activists who take part in the course. As Ana attests, “We have to be well ourselves first to be able to help others. If I’m a woman who is not healthy, it’s hard for me to help other women get well, for example, in cases of violence. Now I feel the need to prioritize my health and feel good.”
Following the Covid pandemic, JASS adapted its methodologies to develop the course online, enabling women from different areas to participate despite isolation. The course utilises feminist popular education (FPE) methodologies to strengthen feminist leadership, solidarity, and movement commitment whether in-person or online.
It’s far from a class in the traditional sense of the word. Sessions are dynamic and filled with diverse voices, laughter, and sometimes tears. Participants actively engage and contribute in an equal and inclusive manner. The traditional hierarchy of knowledge is challenged, creating a safe and supportive environment for learning.
“FPE has to be rooted in daily life. We generate knowledge from the knowledge of the people. When we go to a community and want to do FPE, it has to be based on FPE principles where one is not imparting knowledge—no; instead, we centre sharing ancestral knowledge and from this knowledge, generate broader knowledge together,” Ana explains.
The Body as Territory
Through many years of experience, JASS facilitators have identified key concepts crucial to indigenous and rural women organisers fighting for land and territory. These concepts have continuously evolved and expanded through the collective experiences of the women leaders in the course. One central concept is the connection between the defence of women’s bodies and the defence of land and territory. This link is fundamental to the work of indigenous and rural women.
Ana explains, “Our body is a territory of struggle, it’s the first territory where we have to establish sovereignty, over our body.” She adds, “If we’re going to have sovereignty over our body, we have to defend it.” This gives deeper meaning to defence of body-territory, emphasising its importance and the responsibilities that come with it.
In this vein, the course also places strong emphasis on how women must protect their bodies as they defend the environment and the earth.
“When a woman has received threats for defending territory, we implement security tools we have learned from the course. If a woman is at risk, [the course emphasised] the importance of having a plan in place that prioritises her safety and that of her family. This to me was really crucial because we work with women who face threats for defending what’s theirs.”
Understanding power, Overcoming fear
Another core concept taught in the course is power and systems of oppression. This session caused a major shift in Ana’s thinking about power. “Often when we think of systems, we think of the big structures that oppress us, but the facilitator started breaking down these systems that often we carry within us as women, or they come from our own organizations or families. They are systems of oppression that we don’t see, but that are there and they’re really important to work on.” JASS has developed a power analysis framework that examines the various forms of power and how they play out in women’s lives. By demystifying power and highlighting its omnipresence, women are equipped with tools to confront it and harness their own transformative power.
For Ana, this recognition was life-changing. “Now I recognize that I am a woman with a lot of power, a lot of capacity,” she says proudly. “Now I’m more secure about participating, in the network and in training sessions. It really helped me to shed my fear about standing up in front of a group.”
Ana’s story is just one of many, and the impact of the course extends far beyond the participants to the hundreds of women in indigenous, rural, and urban communities across three countries who are learning from their fellow activists. Each participant designed an exercise to carry out in her community to apply her new knowledge. Ana smiles as she talks about hers—a study group on systems of oppression. “It’s a beautiful thing, because we’re sowing seedbeds for more women to grow…”