International Feminist Organizing
The United Nations has organized the most women and drawn the most attention to the status of women through its conferences in the International Decade for Women, in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985) and then in Beijing in 1995. I attended the Copenhagen conference where I was shocked to see that most of the official UN delegates were men. The lively activity was in the NGO discussions. While we were there, my baby and his dad made the TV news in Copenhagen waiting for me to come out from the conference, as it was still unusual to see a father caring for his child without the mother to watch over him. The Nairobi conference was credited for the birth of global feminism with its call for “gender mainstreaming,” advocating analyzing gender implications in all UN programs—similar to the African Union’s platform.[i] The Beijing Platform for Action declared “gender equality was an issue of universal concern, benefiting all.” Despite a focus on being inclusive, the conference was criticized for the lack of representation of poor women and the assumption that the global South was not capable of governing itself.[ii]
The UN established a Commission on the Status of Women the first year it was organized and UNICEF was created in 1953 to assist children. It was augmented by the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 include the goal to “Promote gender equality and empower women” and another to “reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio.” The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is considered the most important international agreement on the rights of women and girls, but the US is the only industrial nation not to ratify it. In 2010 the UN merged different agencies into one called UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, referred to as UN Women. In 2012, the UN adopted the International Day of the Girl Child, motivated by a campaign led by School Girls Unite (based in Washington, DC) and Plan International, a Canadian children’s development organization. The webpage includes fact sheets and current task forces.[iii]
The Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SKI) believes it is the first international feminist think-tank.[iv] Authors Robin Morgan and Simon de Beauvoir and other women from 80 countries founded it in 1984, a spin off of Morgan’s book Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. Some of SIG’s achievements are: the first Women’s Urgent Action Alerts used by NGOs to keep current about women’s issues, the Global Campaign to Make Women’s Unpaid Labor Visible in national accounting, and the first Human Rights Manuals for Women in Muslim Societies. However, recent feminist scholars believe that “the fantasy of an unearned global sisterhood is well and truly dead,” because of differences including race, class, location but feminists are “searching for new ways of thinking of global collective solidarity that both acknowledge and counter the fragmentation of feminism.”[v]
The Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL) was founded at Douglass College in 1989. Its mission is “the promotion of women’s leadership, the advancement of feminist perspectives in economic and social rights and the elimination of violence against women, in local, national and international arenas.”[vi]
The founder of World Pulse, Jensine Larsen, was a shy Wisconsin girl who went to the Amazon to work with native women when she was 19. Then she went to Burma to assist refugees. At age 23 she had a vision about increasing media’s coverage of women because she found only 10% of central stories are about women and only 1% of the world’s editors are female. By the time she was 28 she was able to raise the funds to start World Pulse, with local reporters in over 21 countries telling women’s stories in a print magazine and website where women from all over the globe can talk with each other.[vii]
Ms. Larsen quotes Beatrice Achieng, a young rural leader from Uganda: “If I did not find World Pulse, I would still be boiling, my voice was always indoors, burning, longing for a way out. I am grateful I found not only a channel but listeners too. I will speak for change until my very last breath.” Other communication networks are the International Women’s Tribune Center and the ISIS International Women’s Information and Communication Service.[viii]
Equality Now works for human rights of girls and women around the world, as through the Women’s Action Network that includes over 35,000 groups and individuals in over 160 countries.[ix] One of the international board members is Gloria Steinem. Equality Now focuses on changing the law, sexual violence (up to 50% of sexual assaults are committed against girls who are less than 16), female genital mutilation and trafficking. Charitable organizations for women include Women For Women, which helps survivors of war, and The Global Fund for Women. The GFW has given grants to women's groups since 1987 that adds up to over $71 million to more than 3,800 women's groups in 167 countries.[x]
First Versus Third World Feminism
Although feminism in the US and Europe influenced the spread of the women’s movement around the world in the 1970s, women in other countries sometimes feel judged by American women’s “moral imperialism” for cultural practices like the veil or female genital cutting (an estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women are victims of the practice, according to UNYouth). They don’t want to be patronized. They don’t believe all women want the same things or aspire to be like American women. Lila Abu-Lughod has done fieldwork in Egypt for decades and reports: “I cannot think of a single woman I know . . .who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.”[xi] However, I did meet such as woman in Tahrir Square, an Egyptian factory worker who admired women being allowed “strong personalities” in the West and asked me why these strong women existed.
Transnational feminist networks developed in the 1980s to oppose neoliberal economic policies and religious fundamentalism, and to advocate for peace. Tension exists between localized feminisms in the Global South versus Western/First World/Northern feminism, which tends to focus on homogenized global sisterhood, women’s rights and reproductive choice.[xii] Some First World feminists realize that they must consume less to equalize access to scarce resources and challenge US foreign and military policy, but discussion of this imperative isn’t widespread. In the Global South/Third World/Eastern developing nations, legal rights are not as important as poverty issues. Former Marxist countries like China and Russia argued that feminism is a bourgeois distraction from class struggle so they don’t have large women’s movement organizations. Global feminists try to avoid hierarchical bureaucratization, empowered by the Internet to communicate in a decentralized way.[xiii]
Author Amrita Basu observes that women’s movements are increasingly influenced by globalization, international funding for national NGOs and transnational advocacy groups. The most useful global influence is UN support and women’s conferences, as when the Beijing Platform for Action created a manifesto for global women’s movements. She found that addressing issues of female poverty has been less successful than addressing violence against women and social and political human rights. As well as transnational activism, regional and national issues surface, such as opposition to neo-liberalism in Latin America or post-communist changes in Eastern Europe.
Development activist Peggy Autobus argues for studying global women’s issues using a combination of feminist studies with its focus on gender justice, cultural studies with its focus on actual experience, and development studies with its focus on the South.[xiv] She calls for special focus on poor women, women of color, women living under Muslim laws, and young women. Rather than universal feminist goals, the current focus is on the specific local environment in which women live, including race, class, religion, age, etc.
Third World women organized their own women’s movements, such as the organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws that was founded in 1984 to protest violation of women’s human rights. Other groups are described in Women’s Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms, edited by Amrita Basu (2010). Basu reports that women’s movements are most successful when they link with other social movements to influence the government while maintaining a separate identity and base. Regional gatherings are useful as in the encuentros in Latin America.
One of the leaders, Virgina Vargas discussed their usefulness,
I believe that Latin American feminisms have been built through the Encuentros, and have given us all a perspective that transcends the national. …
The Encuentros have also established key mobilization dates in the calendar of feminist struggles like November 25 (International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women) and September 28 (Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean). I think the meetings have helped pluralize feminisms, and that would be one of the most important dimensions of the Encuentros.[xv]
Some women’s organizations in the South are afraid to sound like angry Western feminists. In an article titled “Why Kali Won’t Rage: A Critique of Indian Feminism,” “gender activist” Rita Banerji charges that despite ongoing assaults on females, Indian women express “disapproval of western feminist anger” and its emphasis on the harmful effects of patriarchy.[xvi] Indians are raised to accept a gender hierarchy where women are expected to be “domestic” or “homely,” meaning compliant, despite a countervailing tradition of female goddesses as powerful shakti forces.
A Delhi teacher, Rajni explained, “Do you know that in India we worship the male organ (lingam...Shiva)? It is to be found in all the temples as the reigning deity. As young girls you worship it without knowing; as a grown up you know but still do it as it is a symbol of all kinds of fertility and prosperity.” I replied, there’s also the yoni, symbol of female fertility. She said she’d never seen a yoni (I saw them) “so it can’t be that popular.”
Banerji believes that despite the activity of thousands of women's organizations in India,[xvii]
The women's movement today in India unfortunately is like an ingrown toenail. It is going in the wrong direction. For example, there are women arguing that sati [when a widow joins her husband on his burning funeral pyre] is not murder but a cultural and religious way of women committing suicide, so we shouldn't defame it; or that we should continue to allow Muslim men to legally have four wives. It is hurting itself. So mothers-in-law murder daughters-in-law; women strangle their own baby girls. When a group of women at a pub last year were molested and beaten up for "violating Indian tradition" the NEW (the National Commission on Women), the highest office protecting women's rights, said the women had asked for it because they were drinking and inappropriately dressed. [A similar incident occurred in 2012 when Mamta Sharma, chair of the NEW, blamed molestation on women’s clothing: “Be careful about how you dress…. Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”]
The Feminist movement believed that a woman's body and being is her personal domain. Freedom within and freedom without. But in India the women's movement sees women just as suppressed citizens that have to be given rights. Do you see the difference? The only feminist movement we had has now died out completely. The women who started it were getting death threats and they just shut everything down. I wrote about it online.[xviii]
A consequence of lack of Indian feminist protest and organizing is women hold about 10% of Parliamentary seats. India is ranked a low 112 out of 134 countries on a Global Gender Gap report, has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world and one-third of the child brides. More bride murders occur in India than honor killings occur in Muslim countries. Banjeri added that the problem also exists among Indians in the diaspora, as in Canada where Soraya Mullah is working to raise awareness about violence against Indian girls and women. She recommends the documentary about gendercide titled It’s a Girl, filmed in India and China (2012). Ms. Magazine and Women’s News provide updates on global women’s issues online.[xix]
Indian girls that I interviewed agreed with Banerji that feminism is mute and women are blamed, but the hopeful note is they understand the reality of sexism: “Girls every minute are grabbed in the jaws of rapes, abuses, violence and are yet deprived of their rights snatched by the backward society. This is one of the issues that have made India a developing and not developed country” (Manmehak, 17, f, India).
[ii] Elora Halim Chowdhury, “Global Feminism: Feminist Theory’s Cul-de-sac,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Summer 2006, pp. 291-302. scholarworks.umb.edu/humanarchitecture/vol4/iss3/
http://dayofthegirlsummit.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/DayoftheGirl-resourceguide.pdf Includes videos about girls internationally.
[v] Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner, eds. The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 17.
Gloria Steinem was interviewed on BBC Hardtalk, February 27, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p014rsrm
[xi] Hester Eisenstein. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Paradigm Publishers, 2009, p. 191
[xii] Frere and Tripp. Global Feminism argues for a transnational feminist culture.
A useful overview is summarized by Kate Brooks, 2009.
[xiii] Valentine Moghadam. Globalization and Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement. Roman & Littlefield, 2009, pp. 63-89.
[xiv] Peggy Anthrobus. The Global Women’s Movement. Zed Books, 2004
[xv] Gabriela De Cicco, “The Relevance of the Feminist Encuentro for Latin American Feminist Movements, “ Associaition for Women’s Rights in Development, November 18, 2011.
[xvi] Rita Banerji, “Why Kali Won’t Rage,” Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies, Issue 38, 2012.