Elayne Clift


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The Challenge of Change is Focus of Global Women's Forum

Elayne Clift is spending a year in Thailand teaching and writing.  Her latest book is “Women, Philanthropy and Social Change: Visions for A Just Society” (Tufts University/UPNE, 2005).

How many feminists does it take to change the world?  At least 1600, if attendance at the 10th Association of Women in Development (AWID) Forum is any indicator. 

Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand October 27 -30, 1600 women (and some men) from 120 countries in all regions of the world attended the AWID Forum to explore critical changes that have occurred in international development and to examine further changes as the world moves forward in a climate of conservative politics, corporate control, environmental disasters, and increasing fundamentalism.

Signaling the forward-looking focus of the Forum, nearly one-third of the participants were under age 35.  Along with veteran activists, they spent four days grappling with the challenge of maintaining and effecting positive change for women’s rights and gender equality at a time when formidable forces have the potential to dramatically set back the equality and human rights hard won by the global feminist movement since the United Nations Decade for Women (1975 – 1985) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

Those forces include growing worldwide fundamentalist movements, technological “advances” that do not lift people out of poverty and could change the nature of reproductive rights, shifting global and corporate power, continued inequality that leads to social unrest and environmental degradation that threatens to make essential resources like water unavailable.

Calling the global women’s movement “the most successful revolution history has witnessed,” Shamillah Wilson, AWID’s Young Women and Leadership Manager pointed out that women have brought their private lives into the public arena,  established gender curricula that effect change, and created structures for building equality into “the state.”  Young women, she said, are “redefining human development and injecting new hope into women’s movements.”

At the same time, increasing militarization, corporate control, concentrations of wealth, lack of political will and persistent catastrophes are constructing barriers to achieving gender equality and to moving women’s rights forward.  The real and profound fear that women’s movements are losing ground serves as a catalyst for refining strategies and agendas that have driven the global women’s movement.

Adeleye Fayemi, co-founder and Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund, asked Forum participants to think about how change happens.  Offering her own perspective, she said “change happens when we say ‘no’ to discrimination and dehumanization.  It happens when we affirm each other’s rights and dignity.  It happens when we all stand up to be counted, and apply dignity and rights to all without taking it upon ourselves to determine who gets what rights and who doesn’t.  Change happens when we create spaces for transformation, affirm them, nurture them, fight for them and pass them over to others.”

In her opening remarks (read in her absence due to the sudden death of her father), AWID’s Executive Director, Joanna Kerr, reminded participants of the dramatic changes women have seen:  A hundred years ago women could vote in only three countries.  Only in 1955 were women in Cambodia, Ethiopia, and several Latin American countries enfranchised.  Since then women have created legal frameworks and fostered policies to improve women’s status and women’s rights have been internationally recognized as human rights.  Still, Kerr pointed out, “global forces seem so daunting and governments so intractable in relation to promoting women’s rights. … There is growing concern over democratic deficits, inability and unwillingness of governments and other actors to make real changes, reduced funding for progressive agendas, and gender mainstreaming gone bad.”

In order to face the challenges ahead, speakers called for an examination of internal changes that must occur within the women’s movement, a renewal of radicalism, and a proactive approach to change.   New and more specific strategies, increased vigilance and accountability, and sound evaluation were all cited as necessary elements for confronting the challenges before women.  A re-energized global women’s movement calls for mutual support and solidarity, Kerr said.  “The biggest hurdles we face are how we deal with issues of power, accountability, leadership, and bureaucratization, both within the institutions we challenge, and without our own movements.”  She called for women and their organizations to explicitly analyze their own assumptions and tactics and to find the “tipping point” where new ways of thinking “catch fire.”

Strategies offered to effect social, political and economic change for women’s rights included popular education and consciousness-raising in the tradition of South American liberation theologist Paolo Freire; improved strategic alliances and global information networks; non-violent activism and charismatic leadership; and occupying “legitimate space” within traditional organizations such as the United Nations.  

Refueled hope was also a theme of the Forum.  Following dreams, chasing new ideas, mobilizing, creating noise, crystallizing action plans, and having fun were all part of the formula.  “One should always be drunk with passion, anger, outrage, and justice,” Dr. Sylvia Tamale, first woman Dean of the Faculty of Law at Makerere University in Uganda, urged, borrowing from the French poet Baudelaire. Too often, she said, “activists are either tea totalers or are only slightly tipsy.  We need to be drunk with feminism and to light a fire under the belly of the women’s movement.”

29 October 05