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FOCUS: WORLD SOCIAL FORUM
'Changing lives but still machista'
Feminists say World Social Forum a platform for women's activism despite male dominance.
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2010 14:31 GMT

The WSF is an annual gathering of social organisations from around the world [Credit: Verena Glass]

There was just one woman for every seven men on the Brazilian committee that organised the first World Social Forum (WSF) meeting in Porto Alegre, the southern Brazilian city where this annual gathering of social organisations from around the world was born ten years ago.

Among the international figures who have earned ever greater recognition over the subsequent years of the Forum, a similar gender imbalance can be seen.

Now, as the WSF celebrates its first decade in the same city where it all began, women comprise the majority of speakers on only one of the ten discussion panels held during the last week of January, addressing the theme of sustainability.

A 'gender perspective'?

Even so, the women activists gathered in Porto Alegre this week had high praise for the WSF process overall, because it has allowed them to forge international alliances, coordinate shared efforts, and increase the impact of their demands and views.

Nula Farias, the coordinator in Brazil of the World March of Women, stressed the greater capacity for coordination that the Forum has fomented, and said dialogue and networking with other movements and social organisations "forced us to more effectively articulate our feminist views and discourse, and to address economic, environmental and other social issues".

The WSF serves as a space for learning for everyone involved, by gathering together in one place an extraordinary diversity of movements, struggles, ethnic groups and non-governmental organisations that deal with a vast range of issues, from around the planet.

Raffaella Bollini of the Italian Recreational and Cultural Association, which works with community centres, believes that the Forum's methodology does in fact encompass a "gender perspective".

In addition to embracing diversity, she said, the WSF breaks with the current of leftist thinking which holds that change can only be achieved through seizing power - a stance that does not promote sharing, and focuses on the defeat of adversaries, rather than inclusion, in her view.

The Forum's dynamics are not based on the power of leaders, but rather on facilitators who are there "to serve, not to give orders," fomenting inclusion and striving to prevent the imposition of views.

In Bollini's opinion, this is what is most important about the WSF, as opposed to the content, which could easily be discussed in other forums as well.

Theoretical 'contamination'

Cândido Grzybowski, the director of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, said that the WSF has provided the feminist movement with an unprecedented forum for making its voice heard, introducing its demands into a wider sphere of global action, and "contaminating" other movements and activists with feminist viewpoints.

"This contamination has been mutual," commented Lilián Celiberti from the Articulación Feminista Marcosur, based in Uruguay. "Many have learned from and been enriched by us, and we have learned from other movements, above all because feminist theory is porous, and in constant change."

This particular trait of the feminist movement distinguishes it from others which, despite being "alternative movements," nevertheless adopt a "hegemonic stance," such as those dealing with economic issues, she said.

Celiberti believes that the "multi-pronged, horizontal" dialogue promoted by the WSF serves to counteract the fragmentation of knowledge, a side effect of specialisation that cannot be remedied solely through the good will of a few. "A wide-ranging arena like the Forum is essential," she said.

The challenge is to "think globally in interaction with others, like indigenous and peasant movements," she added.

'Hierarchisation' of struggles

Marina Silva, Brazil's former environment minister, at the WSF [AFP]
Another way in which everyone has gained from the WSF is through the "shattering of stereotypes" that can damage and distort. The advances made in this process have been enormous. "Today the dialogues within the WSF are much more complex," said the Uruguayan activist, whose connections with Porto Alegre date back to a dramatic incident.

In 1978, Celiberti was kidnapped in Porto Alegre by the Brazilian police, working in complicity with the Uruguayan military as part of Operation Condor, a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled numerous South American countries in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at eliminating left-wing opponents. She very likely owes her life to the fact that her abduction was discovered and exposed by journalists.

Despite the advances made possible by the WSF for the feminist movement, Celiberti remains critical of the "hierarchisation" of struggles in the discussion process, which places gender issues in a "secondary" position to issues considered "urgent and top-priority," such as poverty, unemployment and imperialism.

The Forum promotes an economic model of cost-free provision of services and a "caretaker" role for the state, without taking into account that this represents "enormous costs for women," since the tasks generally viewed as "women’s work" - child-bearing and raising and caring for the elderly and the sick - are largely unpaid.

Moreover, Celiberti says that within the WSF, one can still sense certain barriers to wider debate of issues like patriarchal systems. When it comes to anti-war protests, everyone participates, men and women alike, yet violence against women is viewed as a struggle specific to women, she noted.

'Revitalising feminism'

The World March of Women, a movement that emerged in October 2000 following seven months of mobilisations, differs from other feminist organisations because of its expressly leftist political bent, its strategy of self-organisation, and its alliances with other, mixed-gender movements.

It has "revitalised feminism," maintained Farias, by promoting large-scale mobilisations - even within the WSF, whose organisers were initially opposed to marches and street protests as part of the debate process.

Farias stressed that the World March of Women is a genuine social movement, one in which "we act and we think," she said, while criticising the division in the wider feminist movement between "women who act and others who do the thinking".

She also takes issue with feminists who have "abolished the class system" by pursuing a separate struggle aimed exclusively at gender equity.

Interaction within the WSF and other meetings led the World March of Women to forge closer ties with Via Campesina, an international organisation that fights for food sovereignty, and Friends of the Earth International, an environmental group.

As a result, the World March of Women is sometimes criticised for placing priority on these alliances, instead of working more closely with other feminist organisations.

Forging new alliances

The World March of Women has member organisations in 70 countries around the world. In Brazil, where it has developed especially deep roots, there are local committees in 20 of the country's 27 states.

Its emphasis on social and political struggles includes markedly feminist goals, such as the legalisation of abortion, but it focuses on women's right to "autonomous control over their own bodies," as opposed to adopting a defensive position like other groups.

It also stresses the importance of women taking part in large-scale public mobilisations, and not limiting themselves to lobbying parliaments and other government authorities, in order to achieve a greater impact on society, said Farias.

The WSF has made it possible for the women's movement to be strengthened and expanded through dialogue with other movements and schools of thought, leading to greater impact, the forging of new alliances and the coordination of joint actions, Farias recognised.

Confronted with the "machismo" reflected in the organisation, themes and selection of speakers within the Forum, the World March of Women has managed to make its voice heard through the rallies, public events and workshops it organises on its own initiative, to promote "critical, class-conscious feminism, clearly anti-capitalist and opposed to the commodification of women's bodies," she concluded.

Published under an agreement with IPS.

Source:
IPS/Al Jazeera
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