Category Archives: News
Tell us about your passions, priorities and needs in our online survey
What feminist activities are you most inspired by? What do you want to campaign on? And what kind of support do you need to organise for a world without sexism?
We want to hear from feminists across the UK about the exciting things you’re doing and how we can help you do them. We’ve developed a short online survey and would love you to take part.
And if you complete it by Friday 7 June you’ll be entered into a draw to win a UK Feminista t-shirt and bag!
The independent Review into the Regulation of Cosmetic Surgery chaired by NHS Medical Director Sir Bruce Keogh published its final report this week with a strong call for the Government to legislate to protect patient safety. The report makes a range of important recommendations to Government to regulate the ‘cowboy’ cosmetic surgery industry, estimated to be worth £3.6 billion by 2015, including tackling advertising.
However, the recommendations do not go far enough to curb the reckless advertising of cosmetic surgery which UK Feminista wants to see totally prohibited. See UK Feminista’s Kat Banyard making the case here on Newsnight on the day the report was released (from 30mins in).
Cosmetic surgery advertising fuels and exploits poor body image for profit; trivialises the health risks of invasive surgery; and normalises cosmetic surgery as a solution to body anxiety. Read more about the harms of this advertising in our report ‘Cut it Out: End cosmetic surgery advertising’.
The Review report recommendations include that:
- A new Royal College of Surgeon’s Interspeciality Committee on Cosmetic Surgery should be set up to set standards for cosmetic surgery practice and training.
- All those performing cosmetic interventions must be registered.
- Legislation should be introduced to classify fillers as a prescription-only medical device.
- A breast implant registry should be established within the next 12 months and extended to other cosmetic devices as soon as possible.
- Existing advertising recommendations and restrictions should be updated and better enforced.
- The use of financial inducements and time-limited deals to promote cosmetic interventions should be prohibited to avoid inappropriate influencing of vulnerable consumers.
Whilst the two recommendations for new regulations on advertising acknowledge the inadequacy of the current system to prioritise public health, they are insufficient and not proportionate to the harm caused by cosmetic surgery advertising. The Review has missed an opportunity to call for the prohibition of this advertising. Evidence shows that the cosmetic surgery industry has continually flouted existing guidelines. In 2009, the consumer rights group Which? found the industry to be in breach of even the general principle of the advertising code, that “All marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society”.
There is also an important inconsistency of approach in the report whereby the measures recommended would result in tougher regulation of advertising for non-invasive injectable procedures (dermal fillers) than for invasive cosmetic surgery procedures. The report calls for ‘injectables’ to be classified as prescription-only devices and as such they could not be advertised yet advertising of invasive surgery would continue to be permitted. UK Feminista calls again for the Government to prohibit all cosmetic surgery advertising.
 Which? (2009, June) Consultation response. The CAP Code Review: The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, p18. Retrieved from http://www.which.co.uk/documents/pdf/cap-code-review-asa-which-response-180892.pdf
A new generation of ‘suffragettes’ are to be trained up as part of ‘Generation F’ – a groundbreaking new project from UK Feminista (1) supporting young people to take action for women’s equality. The launch of ‘Generation F: young feminists in action’ (2) on Thursday at Southbank Centre’s (3) WOW – Women of the World festival (4) at the WOW Education Summit (5), will kick off a national two-year programme of workshops and campaigns in schools and colleges empowering young people to reclaim the ‘f word’ and speak out against sexism.
‘Generation F’ has been launched in response to a growing body of evidence exposing the scale of sexism and inequality faced by girls today:
• 1 in 3 teenage girls has experienced sexual violence from a boyfriend (6)
• 1 in 3 young women experiences sexual bullying in school on a daily basis (7)
• 1 in 5 young men worry that porn is influencing their behaviour (8)
• 1 in 3 girls would consider having cosmetic surgery (9)
• Nearly a third (31%) of boys believe female politicians are not as good as male politicians (10)
The project will empower young people to tackle gender inequality through a series of workshops in schools and colleges on feminism and how to run campaigns. It will also support pupils to raise awareness amongst their classmates and pressure their schools to take action to end violence against girls in the classroom.
Kat Banyard, Director of UK Feminista, said:
“Girls today are growing up in a world where many legal rights won by previous generations either haven’t translated into reality or are under attack. Equal pay and freedom from violence remain abstract pledges, while the Government’s austerity agenda is turning the clock back on women’s equality and undermining girls’ ability to realise their potential in life. Today’s generation of girls also face a uniquely toxic culture of beauty ideals and sexual objectification. Generation F will help them fight back and build a future free from sexism. It will offer young people vital opportunities to learn about the relevance of feminism today and equip them with the skills to take forward the struggle for gender equality.”
Tania Shew, a member of the Camden School for Girls Feminist Society (11), said:
“Feminism is particularly important for young women as however hard we work at school the odds are stacked against us being as successful as our male peers in the future. Feminism is important because it recognises the everyday things (like wolf-whistling), whilst striving to change the big things (like the representation of women in politics). This outlook is reflected in some of our recent campaigns such as when we made ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirts and sold them at school, raising awareness in the local community and funds for the international community.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
1) UK Feminista supports women and men to take action for gender equality. Established in 2010, UK Feminista is a leading voice for feminism in the UK. www.ukfeminista.org.uk
2) ‘Generation F’ will support young people to take action for gender equality through a programme of workshops and resources. The workshops are aimed at students aged 14-18 years old. Schools and colleges can request a workshop by emailing email@example.com
3) Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, occupying a 21-acre site that sits in the midst of London’s most vibrant cultural quarter on the South Bank of the Thames. The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain.
4) WOW – Women of the World (Wednesday 6 – Sunday 10 March 2013) is an annual festival set up by Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly. Now in its third year, WOW 2013 will celebrate women’s achievements and provide a platform to discuss the challenges women face across the world, and will again take over the Southbank Centre site for five days. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/women-of-the-world
5) ‘Generation F’ is being launched on 7/3/13 at Southbank Centre’s WOW Education Summit, a day of talks, discussion, performances and workshops for up to 300 school girls and their teachers, as part of Southbank Centre’s WOW – Women of the World festival.
7) Womankind Worldwide: http://www.womankind.org.uk/what-we-do/our-impact/legacy/#edproj
10) Moving Forward, Standing Still, Primary Research, The State of the World’s Girls, Plan 2011
11) Tania Shew is a member of the advisory group for Generation F. Tania has blogged about her feminist group’s successful campaign to get their local Tesco store to stop selling ‘lads mags’: http://ukfeminista.org.uk/2013/02/school-feminist-society-takes-on-tesco-and-wins/
Guest post by Saoirse Ni Cheallaigh, founder of ‘The Equality Revolution’ feminist society at Fortismere School.
From as far back as I can remember, I recall questioning the adults around me about why men and women were not equal. From flustering my primary school teachers about why God was never called a woman, to not understanding why girls had to play with Barbies and boys with cars. And if a five year old can tell something is off, it’s probably fairly significant. However, I did not identify as a feminist until I was 15 years old and I began to read feminist literature. It opened my eyes to all of the things I took as ‘the way things are’ and made me question my own beliefs. I was not taking off the rose-tinted glasses so much as putting on glasses for the first time and suddenly seeing clearly – something was very wrong.
I talked about feminist issues with my friends at school but recognised that the word ‘feminist’ was often met with exclamations of “Oh God no, I’m not a feminist!” or a derisive laugh. Even teachers and other adults I looked up to didn’t seem to get it. I was perplexed by the lack of action. All around me I could see people being treated differently just because of their gender, but no one seemed to be doing anything. So I decided to take matters into my own hands – I decided to set up a feminist society.
At first it was a casual meeting between eight or ten people, meeting every four weeks or so, but since then membership has grown to more than twenty students, with more approaching me with an interest every week. The process was quite simple – I asked the religious studies department if I could use a room to hold the meetings and they welcomed us to use it. I put posters around the school inviting sixth formers to come, came armed with tea bags and biscuits and off we went.
Our meetings normally consist of some discussion about issues in the school, what we would like to do as a group before opening out into a wider debate about an issue. I often set a topic, which could be anything from “Can a feminist sex industry exist?” to “Do we live in a rape culture?” The questions are usually phrased to incite as much debate as possible and we often talk for more than the planned hour about it. This is by far the most popular part of our meetings as it allows our members to explore and develop their personal opinions. After much discussion we chose to call ourselves “The Equality Revolution.” Two of our members had seen Caitlin Moran give a talk and spoke to them about our group. She suggested that we name our group “The Revolution” as it embodies the power and importance of the issue. We decided to change it slightly to the “The Equality Revolution” as we were keen to be as open as our intentions as possible and felt it embodied our philosophy of gender equality for everyone, not just women as many other students had assumed.
We are currently working on several projects that we hope will involve a greater circle of people. We recently gave an assembly about International Women’s Day for students aged 11-16 and plan to raise money for the charity The Girl Effect. We chose this charity as we felt that it best described what we were all about – helping girls and women to gain equality with the understanding that this helps everyone, not only women. We had several younger students express an interest in the group and are beginning to work towards a shorter, more accessible meeting for the younger students once every two weeks. This will hopefully be implemented by Easter this year.
My experiences with the feminist society have been nothing but positive and fun, and I would massively encourage anyone who was contemplating setting up their own group to take that step. The organisation of the group can be time consuming but the results are more than worth it.
Guest post by Anna Musgrave from the Refugee Council.
All pregnant women need good maternity care and the support of friends and family. But for women seeking asylum in the UK pregnancy is a lonely, insecure and distressing time.
Women seeking asylum often have very poor health and may have experienced torture or sexual violence in their own countries. They need high quality care and sometimes specialist services during pregnancy to ensure that they and their babies are safe and healthy.
But new research by Maternity Action and Refugee Council finds that the UK Border Agency makes this impossible by moving them to housing across the country, sometimes multiple times, uprooting them from friends and family and taking them away from their midwife and specialist healthcare they have been receiving. This can be hugely damaging to their health and wellbeing. Many give birth alone and struggle to cope as new mothers in an unknown place.
These women must be allowed to prepare for motherhood rather than feel instability, anxiety and distress. A simple change in government policy could protect these women and their babies.
Maternity Action and the Refugee Council are calling on the government to urgently review its policies to ensure that pregnant women in the asylum system, and their babies, are no longer put at risk.
All women, no matter their immigration status, deserve to be treated with dignity during pregnancy.
Take action at www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/dignityinpregnancy
Guest post by Tania Shew, member of the Camden School for Girls Feminist Society
Recently, or so I have heard, Rupert Murdoch said he was ‘considering’ reforming page 3. After a day of being bombarded by tweets from supporters of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, stating why they thought that Page 3 should be consigned to the past, Murdoch responded: “page three so last century! You may be right”.
Whilst we at the Camden School for Girls 6th Form Feminist Club cannot boast playing any part in this step towards success in the international fight to reduce the objectification of women, we did run a similar campaign last year, on a local level.
One of the first things we discussed as a group, back in September 2011, was the displaying of ‘Lads Mags’ in the branch of Tesco next door to our school. This branch of the shop is frequented by almost all of the students at Camden, for many on a daily basis, and it was stocking ‘Lads Mags’ in plain sight, on an ‘eye-level’ shelf and right next to where many pupils queued to get their lunch.
We talked to some of the other students around school about how they felt about this and we became worried that seeing the degrading images of women on the front of these magazines daily might start to have a negative effect on some of the girls, especially the younger ones, and lead them to have increased body confidence issues or to believe that the best way to attract boys’ attentions was to objectify themselves. As feminists, many of us were, ourselves, also uncomfortable with these images being a part of our daily lives. We then decided to run our first campaign, our aim being to get the magazines moved to a higher shelf or for the images on the fronts to be covered up.
We initially tried speaking to some of the staff at the shop but this attempt was, to begin with, fruitless. We then made a short film, or a ‘docufemtry’ as we called it, in which we interviewed pupils and teachers from the school and members of the local community, illustrating our shared concern with where and how these magazines were being displayed. Real success only came, however, after we received media coverage; our campaign was first featured in an article in the Guardian about new feminist grassroots groups and members of our club were subsequently interviewed by a local paper.
After this our demands were met and our expectations exceeded – ‘Lads Mags’ were removed from the shop entirely! We are now really happy with our branch of Tesco and we hope that they can set a precedent for other shops with a similar proportion of young customers.
I hope that within my life time it is no longer acceptable, let alone normal, to see women being objectified in everyday situations; whether that be when I’m buying my lunch, when I’m watching an advert or when I’m reading a newspaper.
Today, people across the globe are rising up to demand an end to violence against women (VAW) as part of One Billion Rising. They’re rising because globally one in three women will be beaten, raped, or abused in her lifetime because she is a woman. This ‘feminist tsunami’ on this year’s Valentine’s Day shines a light on the long-standing, diverse and growing feminist movements working to eliminate VAW in every country. These movements work: unprecedented new research by two US academics, spanning four decades and 70 countries, shows that autonomous feminist movements are the critical factor in countries adopting policies to eliminate VAW.*
The study is the largest ever on VAW. Analysing the data took five years and it encompasses 85 per cent of the world’s population. It finds that “the autonomous mobilization of feminists in domestic and transnational contexts – not leftist parties, women in government, or national wealth – is the critical factor accounting for policy change.” Co-author of the study Mala Htun says: “Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues. Government action, in turn, sends a signal about national priorities and the meaning of citizenship. The roots of change of progressive social policies lie in civil society.”
The autonomy of the feminist movements and organisations in civil society is a key factor in their effectiveness the study finds. That is, the most effective feminist movements in driving progressive policy change on VAW are independent from both the state and other institutions that have a general focus. They enable women to organise around their own priorities without having to answer to existing concerns. The authors state: “Autonomous movements articulate the social perspectives of marginalized groups, transform social practice, and change public opinion. They drive sweeping policy change as voters, civic leaders, and activists pressure policy makers to respond to their demands and as policy makers themselves become sympathetic to the movement’s goals.”
One Billion Rising comes at an important time in the global fight against VAW. The horror of recent events such as the Delhi and South African gang rapes and murders, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, and the ongoing pattern of sexual violence used as a weapon of war demonstrate why global and national efforts to eliminate VAW must be accelerated. The scourge of VAW in the UK – including the recent Rochdale sex trafficking gang, the 24,000 girls at risk of female genital mutilation, and the 80,000 women who suffer rape and attempted rape every year – brings into sharp focus the fact that all cultures and communities are affected by shocking levels of VAW. The evidence shows what works to bring about progress on these issues – autonomous feminist movements. One Billion Rising today highlights the rising power of these connected movements across the world.
* The study ‘The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005’ is published in the American Political Science Review (APSR), published by Cambridge University Press for the American Political Science Association (APSA). Available here: http://polisci.unm.edu/common/documents/htun_apsa-article.pdf
Run a Who Needs Feminism? campaign in your community and reclaim the ‘f word’!
It’s easy! Simply write down why you need feminism, take a photo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org – and it will be uploaded to the Who Needs Feminism in the UK Facebook page and Tumblr. Even better – grab a white board or some plain paper and ask people in your community – whether it be in your school, university or workplace – to do the same. The results are moving, inspiring, and a powerful counter to the claim that feminism is done and dusted.
This awesome campaign was started by 16 women at Duke University in the US. It’s since been taken up by activists around the world, including in the UK: the fantastic Oxford University SU Women’s Campaign, students at Leeds Met University and pupils at Fortismere School have all run their own versions of Who Needs Feminism?
> LIKE the ‘Who Needs Feminism in the UK’ Facebook page to see images collated from around the UK, and get planning your campaign!
HOW TO RUN A ‘WHO NEEDS FEMINISM’ CAMPAIGN IN YOUR COMMUNITY:
- Choose the date and location of your photo-shoot. Pick a place and time when there are likely to be lots of people around.
- Gather props and equipment: whiteboard + pen (or you could use a black-board or pieces of blank paper) and a camera. You may want to prepare a flyer telling people how they can stay in touch and/or other ways they can get involved in feminist campaigns.
- Make sure everyone involved in the photo-shoot is fully briefed. You might want to prepare a loose ‘script’ for what you will say to people and how to respond to possible questions.
2. HOLD YOUR PHOTO-SHOOT
- Approach people and ask them to write a personal statement about why they need feminism. Encourage participants to come up with their own, but go equipped with a few previous examples and statistics on women’s equality in case they need a bit of inspiration.
- Ensure participants are fully aware their photo will be uploaded onto Facebook and other social media sites.
3. SHARE, SHARE, SHARE!
- Email your photos to email@example.com and they will be uploaded to the WNF in the UK Facebook page and Tumblr.
- If you have loads of photos to send you can send them using dropbox. To do this upload your images to a Dropbox account (they’re really easy to make at http://www.dropbox.com/) and put them in a Who Needs Feminism at [your school/organization/etc.] folder. Once you’ve uploaded your images, select the folder and right-mouse click to hit “get link”. Copy and paste the link that Dropbox generates and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org
- If you’re part of a group that has a Facebook page create an event and upload the photos. Encourage participants to tag themselves and save their photo as their Facebook profile picture. Tweet pictures using the hashtag #wnfuk.
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ‘WHO NEEDS FEMINISM’ CAMPAIGN!
Other ways to help spread the word:
- Media work: reach out to local media outlets, such as local or student newspapers and radio stations.
- Organise a follow-up event – such as a speaker meeting or discussion group – and publicise it to participants in your campaign.
We’ve got two exciting opportunities to get involved in feminist campaigning in Birmingham and the Black Country.
1) Attend or host one of our new Feminista Kick-Starter Workshops
There are two great workshops to choose from:
> Why feminism? workshop: The perfect opportunity to explore the state of gender equality today and the ongoing relevance of feminism. A great introduction for people who are new to feminism.
> Feminist Activate workshop: Learn key campaigning tools to help you take effective action for women’s equality in your community and to create the world you want to live in.
2) Become a Regional Organiser
This eight month voluntary role involves delivering monthly workshops to empower people to set up new feminist groups and fight for women’s equality in their community. Full training provided.
The power of association: reflecting on women’s collective action as a force for social change
Guest post by Naila Kabeer, Professor of Development Studies, SOAS University
We live in an era of growing individualism as the doctrine of the free market takes hold in country after country across the world. The only form of power celebrated by this doctrine is the power we exercise as consumers, a very limited form of power for most of us since it depends very directly on how much money we can bring to our desire for consumption. While Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families’ may have been replaced in the UK by Cameron’s rhetoric about ‘the big society’, both are motivated by a similar hostility towards the state and a similar refusal to acknowledge our collective responsibility for each other.
Flying in the face of this rising tide of individualism is the very different notion of power embodied in the continued collective efforts of women across the world to bring about change in their own lives and in the societies in which they live. The power of association and collective action, its capacity to transform the lives and livelihoods of marginalised groups, particularly poor women in poor countries, has been a continuous thread running through the history of these countries. It has also been one of the constant themes in my own research on gender issues in development over the last 25 years or so as I have struggled to understand what it is about collective action that gives it its transformative power.
There is an uplifting element to collective action. I was reminded of this when I attended the twelfth International Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) held in Istanbul earlier this year. Over 2000 women attended – many more would have come if the conference venue could have accommodated them. What was uplifting about the forum was the sheer diversity of issues around which women – and men – across the world were organizing: from the struggles of Kurdish women to the fight-back against anti-trafficking laws by sex workers’ organisations, from women struggling to find their voice in the trade union movement to the disability groups’ demand for recognition and rights.
What was equally inspiring were the efforts of the conference organisers to be as inclusive as possible, to ensure respect for difference. It is one of the commonplaces of the women’s movement that ‘women are not a homogenous category’, that they are divided by their class, race, location and all the other markers of difference. That they can nevertheless come together and gain strength from gatherings of this kind is testimony to the power of a shared and inclusive politics.
Such gatherings are important. They remind us that what appear to be isolated struggles against seemingly insuperable odds are part of a worldwide movement for change. They provide the energy that people need to embark on such struggles and sustain them over time. Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Network, UK, and part of the MUSAWA movement, was quoted in Open Democracy earlier this year as saying: “When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions’. Versions of that sentiment must have been expressed not only by many of those million women she is talking about, but by many, many others over the history of the women’s movement as they discovered the power that comes with not being alone.
One of the panels I attended at the AWID Forum was in fact organised by MUSAWAH. MUSAWAH, which means equality in Arabic, was founded in 2009. It describes itself as a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. As MUSAWAH points out, men’s authority over women within the Muslim marriage contract rests on their responsibility as family breadwinner. Yet the reality is that across the world, men appear increasingly unable or unwilling to discharge these socially ascribed roles. MUSAWAH plans to use the life histories of ordinary men and women in 11 countries across the world to show the disconnect between Islamic law and the everyday lives of men and women and to use new forms of feminist knowledge to engage with classic jurist interpretation of Muslim family law. The ultimate aim is to reconstitute Muslim family law along more egalitarian lines.
A much older example of women coming together to challenge injustice is that of the Self Employed Women’s Association in India. It was founded in 1972 in reaction to the refusal of the Textile Labour Association to fight on behalf of the casual larger female workforce that provide labour to the textile mills. While SEWA began out as part of the women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, its refusal to remain within the confines of ‘social welfare’ programmes usually assigned to women, and the willingness of its leaders to speak out on behalf of women workers from the ‘untouchable’ castes, led to its expulsion from the Association and the beginning of its journey to becoming the largest organisation of women workers in the informal economy in the world.
An important part of its struggle for the official recognition of its status as an organisation of workers has been conceptual: battling against trade unions and government bureaucrats who defined workers and workers’ organisations in terms of their relationships with identifiable employers, not by their struggles with a range of different actors, including middlemen, subcontractors, police, local government officials and municipal authorities, all of whom had the power to determine how these women fared in their struggle for bread and dignity. Today SEWA has over a million members spread out across the different states of India but it was only in 2007 that it was finally granted official status as a national trade union.
The sheer power of numbers is one obvious dynamic through which collective action works. “We are poor, but so many” is the title of a book about SEWA. Or as women in a grassroots organisation in Bangladesh put it: ‘one stick can be broken, a bundle of sticks cannot’. But I am also interested in some of the more subtle transformative dynamics that seems to come into play when women come together around some common agenda. One insight into this is to be found in the Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women in India brought out by the Government of India: ‘women’s engagement in collective action to claim rights and resources not only generates bottom-up pressures on the structures of power, but the process of self-organising can have a transformative effect on women’s sense of selfhood, their confidence in the public domain and their ability to negotiate the terms on which they sell their labour’ (Government of India 1988) . What is significant here is the recognition that that the exercise of collective agency by subordinate groups has an experiential value of its own, quite separate from the instrumental value of achieving tangible goals. This point is made in many different contexts. Analyzing the power of collective action, the Swedish feminist researcher, Maude Eduards said: ‘it can be a liberating, identify-shaping, empowering process, a confirmation and a strengthening of the self’ (1992: 96). It was also made by Ma Wai, a Burmese migrant worker in Thailand who participated in a strike by her factory: ‘ I have learnt what it means to win. It is not about the outcome but to win is to dare to start the fight for your rights’.
Some forms of collective action may be spontaneous but many have a long history of effort on the part of committed organizers before women like Ma Wai ‘dare to start the fight for their rights’. This is particularly true when the women and men in question occupy very marginal positions in society and where collective action may be fraught with risk. In the case of Ma Wai, the support came from the Migrant Assistance Committee, a small NGO in Thailand, who worked with Burmese migrant workers, men as well as women, to inform them about their rights and to provide them with the legal support to fight for them. Burmese migrants in Thailand have a highly precarious status: they come from ethnic minorities who have fled the repressive military regime in their own country and have reason to fear anything that might lead to their deportation. It was the solidarity offered by MAP that provided migrants with the courage and solidarity that formed the basis of their willingness to take action.
One of the problems that MAP faced was that many years of brutal military repression in Burma had meant that most migrant fled to Thailand with no experience of collective organisation. My own research in Bangladesh has been with organisations that faced a different version of this challenge, that of creating a sense of injustice among women who believed that their lesser worth as human beings was a matter of divine will, their biological inferiority or simply ‘the way things have always been’. I have sought to understand the alchemy that transforms the resignation to their fate once expressed by many of these women into the courage and willingness to fight for their rights.
These are all organisations that work with women and men from low income households to promote their collective capacity to protest injustice and fight for their rights. Of special significance in the context of Bangladesh is the fact that these groups offer their members the possibility of a chosen affiliation instead of the given affiliations of family, kinship and religion that have defined – and limited – their social interactions for much of their lives. In some of my early encounters with these groups in the 1980s, many women told me that these group meetings were the first time since they got married that they were addressed by the name they had been given at birth instead of being referred to as their husband’s wife or their son’s mother.
What emerges out of my research is that the changes brought about by these group activities do not follow some linear trajectory whereby women go from a state of powerlessness to one of empowerment. What emerges instead is a variety of different processes and critical moments – in the lives of individual women and of their groups – that interact and spark off each other until they solidify into a coherent movement for change. Some women drop out along the way, while others join. The development of a critical consciousness is an important part of this process, the realization that the injustices that they experience in their daily lives does not have to be accepted in unquestioning silence but can be discussed, debated and challenged. The knowledge that that the constitution of their country acknowledges their equality before their law helps to reinforce this process, however qualified this acknowledgement may be in practice.
Such knowledge and self confidence in turn sows the seeds of grassroots leadership at village level so that these women become a resource for others who want to advice, support and guidance. Over time, many of these women have become active leaders within their communities, protesting corruption on the part of government officials, demanding justice for victims of rape, acid attacks and other forms of male violence, demanding that they get paid a fair wage for their labour. With the introduction of political quotas for women in local government, a number of these women have stood for and won elections. Bangladesh has made remarkable progress on a number of gender-related issues, including maternal mortality, female education and political participation. Grassroots mobilisation by women’s groups of the kind that I researched is an important part of that story but it has taken many years to build up this kind of momentum.
At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that many important forms of change can be brought about by women’s collective action over a shorter period of time. Let me conclude with some examples of this. The Millennium Development Goals were adopted by the international community in 2000 to co-ordinate its efforts in developing countries. By adopting the reduction of maternal mortality as one of its 8 goals, the international community has helped to highlight the dangers that women in the world’s poorer countries face in giving birth. The difficulties of achieving this goal, described as one of the hardest to reach, has served to demonstrate the intransigent nature of the obstacles that have to be overcome.
Yet there are some remarkable stories of progress from Colombia, Nepal and the poorest states of India, all of which highlight the power of association. In all three contexts, the interventions focused on using participatory learning methods with women’s groups. The achievements have been significant in terms of bringing down infant and maternal mortality rates and, in the case of one intervention, reducing maternal depression. Unfortunately because of the quantitative nature of these studies, we do not really know a great deal about the alchemy at work that allows such changes to take place. What we can safely say is that there is something about the nature of the relationships built through participatory group learning processes that appear to overcome barriers to safe motherhood more effectively than the more conventional health-worker led approaches.
Government of India (1988) ‘Shramshakti. Report of the National Commission on Self Employed and Women in the Informal Sector’, New Delhi: National Commission of Self-employed Women.
Maude Eduards (1992) ‘Against the Rules of the Game. On the Importance of Women’s Collective Actions’, in M.Eduards, I. Elgquivst-Saltzman, E. Lundgren. C.Sjoblad, E. Sundin and U.Wikander (eds), Rethinking Change. Current Swedish Feminist Research, Upsalla:
Swedish Science Press.
Naila Kabeer and Lopita Huq (2010) ‘The power of relationships: love and solidarity in a landless women’s organisation in rural Bangladesh’ IDS Bulletin Vol. 4 Issue 2: pages 79-97.
Naila Kabeer (2011) ‘Between affiliation and autonomy. Navigating pathways of women’s empowerment and gender justice in Bangladesh’ Development and Change Vol. 42 Issue 2: pages 499-528.
Naila Kabeer, Kirsty Millward and Ratna Sudarshan (Forthcoming) Organising women in the informal economy: beyond the weapons of the weak. Zed Press: London.
For more information about Professor Naila Kabeer’s work visit www.nailakabeer.com