Dialogue 2: Learning from the crisis
JASS Dialogue on Learning from the crisis
What does the COVID-19 pandemic reveal about what is broken in our world? And how can women’s movements use this moment for transforming power for a just and feminist future?
These questions launched the second in JASS’s dialogue series “Women Radically Transforming the World” on May 21, 2020. Moderated by JASS executive director, Shereen Essof, the online forum brought together four feminist leaders: Alda Facio (Costa Rica), Dina Lumbantobing (Indonesia), Bella Matambanadzo (Zimbabwe) and Margo Okazawa-Rey (United States).
“This is where the patriarchal governance system has run aground,” Bella stated. “It has brought us to a cul-de-sac in terms of an imagination of our existence as human beings and it has shown its shortcomings and tremendous failures for the people of the world, whether male or female.”
Margo agreed, adding “The patriarchal governance here that has run aground is absolutely also racialized… We’re finding, for example, that indigenous peoples, African-American people, incarcerated people who are majority peoples of color, are facing the severest impacts of the pandemic.”
A consensus emerged that, as Bella put it, “bourgeois and elite solutions will not fix the problems of the world”, but there was also agreement that the social aspects of the pandemic affect women disproportionately and that the failed system– far from giving way– is attempting to consolidate power in ways that are more authoritarian, more aggressive and more hostile to women’s rights.
Alda noted that as a member of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, she has received reports from all over the world regarding a sharp increase in violence against women, reduced access to health care and the rise of far-right attacks on abortion rights in the past weeks.
Women in already vulnerable groups have been hit hardest, she said. “Seventy percent of women in the world work in the informal sector so with the pandemic most of them have lost their livelihoods,” she said.
Militarization that advances social control under the guise of disease control is another major threat. “Many governments around the world are militarizing. Even the language of ‘war against the pandemic’ says a lot about the logic of how states are thinking about addressing this issue,” Margo said.
A Feminist Future
Dina emphasized the importance of women’s roles in caring for the family and communities from home, and the lack of state support for it. “This [pandemic] really shows the care economy that is in the hands of women, and how it’s invisible in the eyes of the authorities,” she said.
She described how impoverished rural women in Sumatra are organizing groups to make sanitizers and disinfectants and understand the government’s new terminology in the pandemic. Popular health education in local languages and grassroots organizing has been critical to their response to COVID-19. The women’s organizing goes beyond saving lives, to transforming lives. “I think the collective power is there and they are really trying to work in solidarity, sisterhood and in a feminist movement.”
Bella recalled that women’s activism has been key in confronting previous epidemics of ebola, cholera and HIV-AIDs. “Together, we’ve found solutions to seemingly impossible situations and that light somewhere is flickering within me.”
Margo identified the ability of feminist movements now in “the asking of deeper questions about the situation, but also asking deeper questions about: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be part of the system of all living things and how do we come into right relationship with the whole environment and other people around us?” To Shereen’s query, “What sustains us in these times?”, she responded simply: “The love of all life”.
The participants agreed that feminist movements have answers to this crisis that they’ve been developing over decades–valuing care work and building care communities, confronting militarism, establishing more respectful relations with each other and the planet, but also that the crisis forces us to reconsider some things in a new light.
“We’re in this moment where we need to rethink what it means to be part of a movement, because in some respects we started to mimic the privatization of movements that we’ve seen in other spaces. Now we really have to build collective movements,” Bella said. She stated that crossing borders, sectors and class lines gives us more strength and grounding. In the face of often impracticable and harmful policy responses, she urged resistance. “It’s very clear to me that as citizens of the world, we are not required to cooperate with any system that wants us dead… My power comes from resisting nonsense.”
For Margo, the challenge is to understand the rising social discontent that expresses itself in different ways, including confusion, conflict and rightwing reactions. “How do we as women’s movements—partners, actors, scholars– get to a deeper understanding of the yearnings and longings, because unless we reach those, we can have the best analysis in the world, the best challenges to power, but we’re not going to get to the core of the malaise, of which the virus is just one example,” she said.
To the last question of where feminist work should go now, the panelists emphasized popular education, basic needs as basic rights, resisting power grabs by elites, creating movements out of mutual aid. Dina urged us to, “Give back the power to the grassroots level, because they are the ones who are on the front line.”
The Dialogue united more than 300 women in the initial screening and featured simultaneous translation in English and Spanish. The JASS Dialogues on Women Radically Transforming a World in Crisis will continue monthly through the end of the year.
Watch or listen to the full recording with friends, and find the music we played on Soundcloud.
ALDA FACIO, Costa Rica (presents in Spanish) — A feminist lawyer, scholar, and writer, Alda Facio contributes her expertise to JASS Mesoamerica as well as JASS’ work on the Power & Protection of Women Activists. She has a long and distinguished history in women’s human rights advocacy in Latin America and globally since the 1970s and is an international expert on gender and women’s human rights. Alda founded the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice of the International Criminal Court (ICC), becoming its first director. She is a member of the advisory committee of the global campaign “Our Rights Are Not Optional!” for the ratification and use of the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and an advisor to the IWRAW Asia Pacific and other women’s organizations. Since 1991 she directs the Women, Justice and Gender Program of the United Nations Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention. She was also on the Advisory Committee for the UN Secretary General’s In-Depth Study of All Forms Of Violence.
BELLA MATAMBANADZO, Zimbabwe (presents in English)– Bella is a Zimbabwean feminist activist and writer. Her writings have appeared in New Daughters of Africa (Editor: Margaret Busby), African Sexuality (Editor: Dr Sylvia Tamale), Writing Free, Writing Mystery and Mayhem (Editor: Irene Staunton), the Southern African Feminist Review (SAFERE) (Editor: Dr Patricia McFadden), Beyond Beijing – Strategies and Visions Towrads Women’s Equality (Co-Editor Patricia A. Made) and elsewhere. She has worked in 36 countries in Africa and beyond. She contributed to Facing the Future Together a special report UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Special Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV and AIDS in Southern Africa. Matambanadzo was named one of 11 women on the frontline of defending human rights in Zimbabwe by Amnesty International (AI). Matambanadzo belongs to the community of African feminists who through the African Feminist Forum (AFF) and its national platforms ascribe to the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists.
DINA LUMBANTOBING, Indonesia (presents in English) — Dina is a co-founder of PESADA (www.pesada.org) an Indonesia-based NGO that has been working in Northern Sumatra since 1990 on women empowerment (economic & political participation), ethnic minority and children’s rights. She was also an early Coordinator of Just Associates South East Asia. Currently she is a Coordinator of Women Crisis Centre SINCERITAS & Knowledge Management of PESADA, as well as a Coordinator of Permampu Consortium (www.permampu.org http://www.mampu.or.id/mitra-kami/permampu-konsorsium-perempuan-sumatera-mampu/), a consortium of 8 Women NGOs work for Advocacy of Women’s SRHR and Nutrition in Sumatera Island. Since April 2020 actively lead the Consortium in Critical Education for grassroots women and local leaders of Sumatera Island on Prevention of Covid – 19 Spread.
MARGO OKAZAWA-REY, United States (presents in English) — Margo is an activist and educator working on issues of militarism, armed conflict, and violence against women examined intersectionally. She has long-standing activist commitments in South Korea and has worked closely with the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in Palestine. She was also a founding member of the US Black feminist formation Combahee River Collective, one of the earliest women of color feminist groups in the US. Prof. Okazawa-Rey is Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership and Visiting Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at Mills College in Oakland, California. Her recent publications include “Nation-izing” Coalition and Solidarity Politics for US Anti-militarist Feminists, Social Justice (2020); Gendered Lives: Intersectional Perspectives, Oxford University Press (2020)
SHEREEN ESSOF, Moderator (presents in English) — Shereen is the Executive Director of JASS. Her academic work is grounded in her engagement with women in trade unions, social movements, and community-based organizations. She strives to understand the roots and the gendered nature of neo-liberal, patriarchal systems, and from that understanding to imagine and organize towards alternatives. She worked at the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network in Harare for six years, and then with the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. At the same time, she has shared her time and capacities with other social justice organizations, not only to strategize, mobilize, and take action but also to create accessible information through oral histories, documentary, creative writing, and art.