We are the swimmers of justice. We float like foam.
Above the injustice and hurt of
our cities, our villages, our homes.
In the room of abilities, you tread gently. Here we were in Bahia, surrounded by women whose travel across continents, across the seas, across the street was more arduous, more dangerous, more taxing than anything we could imagine. They did not have medals hanging from their necks and they did not participate in the Paralympics that Rio was hosting a few hours flight from our hotel on the Coast of Sauipe in Bahia. But there was no doubt that they were bonafide Sheros.
What brought women with disabilities, in wheelchairs, with canes and walkers, with companions and sign language translators to this distant resort setting in Brazil? It could be nothing else but the bi-annual meeting of AWID. For decades now the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has been hosting one of the very few truly grassroots global fora for women rights activists and defenders to come together to discuss, to debate, to strategize, to agonize, to share triumphs, or to offer solidarity and condolences at setbacks to the ongoing struggle for a more gender just and equal world. AWID has gone through a remarkable transformation from a Washington, DC based association of primarily white, upper class American women researchers seeking to better understand the role of women in development.
Yet, manifesting that resilience and a unshaken belief in “global sisterhood” is exactly what AWID has achieved. Over these 20 years, AWID forums have connected upper class and working class women, global north and global south women, sex workers and women who are devout Muslims. Increasingly, it has included men who self-identify as feminists such as Atila Rocque and Nikhil Aziz. The United Nations and many in the global women’s movement feared that what was agreed on at the famous Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, would prove too radical, too progressive, too gender just for the world’s predominantly male led and still deeply patriarchal governments. Yet, under the leadership of Joanna Kerr and Lydia Alpizar working with a collective of feminist colleagues across the world have ensured that every two years, there is one place where the flame of a global women’s movement is kept alive.
Alive is how I felt every one of the 5 days that I spent in Costa Sauipe surrounded by feminists of every shape, size, colour and gender identity. We were grandmothers from Brooklyn, aunties from Senegal, hipsters from Buenos Aires, priestesses from Salvador, shamans from Nicaragua, poets from Harare, college students from big cities, blind advocates from New Delhi and abortion providers from Mexico City. We spoke different languages and AWID provided for simultaneous translation – something that says “RESPECT” as soon as you walk into the door. We were people with money and people with very little money, both personally and professionally. Of course, it was not always perfect. Some wished we were closer to a city, more connected to the Afro Brazilian community that dominates the culture and politics of Bahia, not housed in a setting that reminded us of the glaring inequality that marks our world – a beach resort! There were plenaries that were boring, there were sessions in which we struggled to understand what the points being made had to do with the matter at hand. There was disagreement about whether sex work is work or simple exploitation.
But those were minor distractions from the sense of being immersed into a pulsing, vibrant movement for change. Where else could you breakfast with one of India’s most remarkable feminist IT activists, Anita Gurumurthy of ITforChange, as she explained how we need a World Internet Forum and an annual State of the World’s Internet Report from the perspective of the feminist global south. Where would you be able to connect with a posse of disability activists including Susan Sygall from MIUSA (Mobility International USA)? These women are taking their struggle to the streets, workplaces, and parliaments of their nations and challenging philanthropy to stand by them. I could sit on the beach with campesina women from Central America fighting for land rights and food sovereignty. I could listen to Brazilian feminists dissect the technical impeachment of Dilma Roussef, their first woman President, and name it a coup d’etat. I was able to absorb the impact of the bold Manifesta presented by the Black Feminist Forum that met just prior to AWID reminding us that #BlackLivesMatter must and does include women and trans and intersex black people.
The great irony of our 21st century world is this: for all the technology, the tweets, the 24/7 TV, the posts on facebook what builds connection, trust and power in a movement is old fashioned person to person contact. We human beings need to see one another with eyes or with fingers. We need to listen to voices and watch hands weave a story in the air. We need the warmth of bodies next to ours as we sway to a Yoruba chant. We can march to the beat of another drummer much better when there are others stomping the earth right alongside us. And, while we have not quite figured out how to do this global connecting without a whopping big carbon footprint of airplane travel, AWID’s commitment to holding a space for genuine engagement of, by and for feminists, is incredibly valuable. On behalf of the many of us from the world of philanthropy who were welcomed as allies and fellow feminists as well in our roles as representatives of the donor community, a grateful Obrigada!