CAPE TOWN - For four days, Cape Town's convention centre will be
filled with a profusion of languages, colours, and ideas as some 2,200
delegates from 144 countries take part in the 11th International Forum
on Women's Rights and Development, organised by the Association of
Women in Development (AWID).
conference theme, "The Power of Movements," is an expression of AWID's
mission to advance women's rights worldwide by strengthening the impact
and influence of women's organisations.
During the opening session on Nov. 14, a panel of four women set the scene for discussion and debate.
Muthoni Wanyeki, director of the non-government Kenya Human
Rights Commission, spoke of the vital roles played by women through
several phases of struggle in Africa; from the spiritual and military
contributions to anti-colonial struggle in the first half of the 20th
century, through the many national women's organisations of the
1960s-1980s, to the emergence of autonomous, panafricanist feminist
organisations as female artists and academics challenged the place
assigned women in nationalist development.
She said new women's organisations had taken a leading role in
the fight for democracy, good governance and human rights in Africa.
Women have played prominent roles in opposition parties and influenced
structural adjustment and poverty reduction plans with analytical tools
like gender budgeting.
A number of legally-binding commitments to women's rights have
been adopted on the continent, and women's representation in electoral
politics is rapidly increasing in some countries -- for example,
Rwanda's parliament is more than 50 percent female.
"But," Wanyeki cautioned, "we know these gains in terms of
numbers are exceptions rather than the rule. We know it has yet to give
us real meaning on the ground."
Africa has seen economic growth averaging seven percent in
recent years, but inequalities persist; women and rural people have
felt few of the benefits of that growth. Wanyeki said the extreme and
horrifying forms of sexual violence occurring in northern Uganda,
Darfur and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well
as the crises of democracy in Zimbabwe and Kenya are further proof that
there is much left to be done.
Pointing to the successful campaign of U.S. President-elect Barack
Obama, Wanyeki said the way forward for the women's movement worldwide
must not alienate or be based on women's victimisation. "We can inspire
through hope rather than fear, by giving all a sense of being able to
contribute and be part of different future."
Principles for a women's movement
To attain that future, her fellow panellist Nadine said, "One word is absolutely crucial -- that word is cunt."
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Nadine, a member of Lebanese lesbian support group Meem, then
spelled out what exactly what she meant in reclaiming a word she said
had been used to demean and dirty women. She turned it into an acronym
spelling out principles for the worldwide feminist movement.
Creativity -- continually re-inventing the feminist wheel to
avoid replicating systems women are fighting against. Unity -- on the
principle that none are free until all are free. Picking up a theme
that Wanyeki had touched on, she urged all women to take on lesbian
issues. "There can't be a women's movement without lesbians, without
transgendered people. That would be called a homophobic movement," she
Completing the acronym, Nadine underlined the need for
numbers, the active participation of millions of people to advance
women's rights and time, stressing the importance of continuity, and
dialogue between generations of women.
She urged participants to strive to make personal connections across generations at the gathering.
Also presenting at the opening plenary was Mijoo Kim,
representing Women with Disabilities Arts and Culture Network from
Korea, who spoke about the importance of seeing women with disabilities
as part of women's movement. Kim said there are 325 million women with
disabilities in the world according to the U.N., but there is very
little policy or support for these "hidden sisters".
Eighty percent of women with disabilities acquired them
through disease, accidents, or environmental factors, Kim said. Risky
circumstances impact on women and children most.
The final speaker on the panel, Monica Aleman, invoked the
spirits of several powerful indigenous Latin American women, among them
Domitila Chungara, an activist whose struggle and sacrifice through
three decades are a crucial foundation for the Bolivarian revolution
and new constitution under President Evo Morales.
Aleman, who directs the International Indigenous Women's
Forum, warned that indigenous women in her home country Nicaragua and
elsewhere were losing ground, as the rights of women and indigenous
people were threatened by political negotiations, persecution and the
targeting of human rights defenders by various governments.
She echoed the other panelists in stressing the importance of
inter-generational dialogue and called on women to build a diverse
Lydia Alpízar Durán, AWID Executive Director, said women's
movements around the world are today confronted with fundamentalisms of
all kinds -- of the market, of religion, and of heterosexual norms.
"How far do we push for change, up to what level? Do we push changes as
ends in themselves, or as means to actualise rights?"
The conference runs through Nov. 17.