The arrest and shaming of powerful men in the worlds of entertainment, sport and politics, among others, represents a mainstream awakening in which the perpetrators are no longer seen as invincible, and the victims are no longer made to feel invisible. For campaigners, the justice starting to be experienced by survivors of sexual violence has been a long-time coming, but it is clear that something in our collective consciousness has changed forever.
Last year, millions in the US and elsewhere joined together to produce the phenomenal Women’s March; Ireland and Argentina voted decisively to repeal abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy; and, legal fights against domestic violence and public outrage at gang rape have caught the public imagination in India – where the women’s movement is stronger than ever – and all over the world.
In this segment of the seminar we will be looking at women’s rights movements around the globe and what we can learn from them from other fields of social activism.
Pressenza: Carmen, the world was surprised the day so many people, and above all so many women were mobilised in the United States. Perhaps what it was that made this mobilisation so surprising, big and powerful is not completely understood. What were the processes behind this march?
Carmen Perez: A lot of what you could see was down to the fact that we tried to speak to people and create an opening so that people could start to get involved. After the Trump election, in our country we felt as if someone had died. It was painful. I felt a responsibility for my community, as a descendent of Mexicans. My mother was born in Mexico and my father was born in the United States. But what the president said about my family, our brothers and sisters who are from there made me decide to get involved with the organisation of this march. I met with Tamika Mallory, an African-American and Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim, and we decided to organise it, to make an agenda, to bring people, to bring our teams and many organisations together.
I work in the Harry Belafonte organisation, from where we seek to encourage civic involvement and to organise political actions. That’s why we think that we had to be part of the Women’s March, focusing on Muslims, LGBTQIA, undocumented people, African-Americans, women’s rights, all of these different groups, and having our nonviolence principles as a common base.
It was clear for us that it wasn’t going to be a march against Trump, because one of the six principles of nonviolence is to attack the forces of evil, not the individuals that do the evil. So, it wasn’t about Trump but rather the struggle against institutions that promote racism, sexism and any other kind of discrimination.
PZ: You mentioned the importance of setting the agenda several times. What is the agenda that you set in this March and for which you are now working?
CP: We created a platform in which everyone felt included. It was a transparent and very participative process. That platform includes 14 points that are related to gender, the environment, criminal justice, indigenous rights, LGBTQIA communities. It’s an intersectional political platform. Our agenda isn’t only about women, because as women we are also intersectional: I am the daughter of a Mexican mother born in California who grew up with violence in her community, I studied psychology… We aren’t monolithic. The platform that we generated is, without doubt, one of the most radical political platforms in the history of the United States.
On the 21st of January we were 1.2 million people, even though the permit they gave us (and only of us did they demand that we had to have a permit to organise the mobilisation) was for only 200,000. We wanted to mobilise many people of colour and we wanted that many immigrants and undocumented people would also march. There were 70 organisations nationally, 400 coordination teams. This march was done with the participation of people from all over the world, with women volunteers, no one got a pay-cheque for organising this march. There were 5 million people participating around the world and not one violent incident. That is the power that we see when people, when women come together to do something big.
PZ: You’ve mentioned the six principles of nonviolence many times. What are those six principles?
CP: I don’t know them all from memory[i]. There’s one that says “Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve our goal”. Another that says “The Universe is on the side of justice”. Another, “The Beloved Community is the framework for the future”. The beloved community is one in which we can live in harmony, without violence, with our children playing, living in peace.
PZ: How can we link the US women’s movement with South American movements such as the Milagro Sala Movement, for instance, for which we have been fighting nonviolently throughout South America for her liberation, or in Chile with the presidential candidate Beatriz Sánchez? How can we create connections between US and South American movements?
CP: In reality, I think that’s a good question. I believe that what we’ve been trying to do in the United States is become that connection for other countries, and I believe in permanent conversations and dialogues and the building of relationships that we have to do, I firmly believe that we need to construct solidarity beyond the walls of the United States, the borders that were created before us.
PZ: If one of you could come to South America, could we, for example, organise a visit to Milagro Sala in her prison or to the Beatriz Sánchez campaign?
CP: Yes, we have several organisers of the March who are in different countries, so we could connect you with one of our coordinators. But I also think that it’s important for us, the women of the United States, to be able to have a cultural interchange in order to build something beyond the borders that have been imposed on us, because we didn’t draw the borders. We are people who flow and, beyond where we come from (some could be from Morocco, or other countries), I believe that conversations, this kind of interaction between one another, shows that there is a great movement. We, as women of colour in the United States, are also oppressed and the only way we will win is by creating a strategic solidarity among us beyond the borders imposed on us. But everything starts with a conversation.
PZ: Carmen, how will this movement continue? What are the challenges?
CP: For now, I go back to my organisation, given the responsibilities I have there. But the way to continue is for the people to reach out to their neighbours, instead of remaining isolated. We need to talk to one another, we need to be able to talk crossing the borders with people who believe in our policies. We need to build relationships. We also need to train new generations.
There is a great generational leap. I have been impressed to see someone like Harry Belafonte but I also have a father who’s 94 years old. That’s why it’s important to have these relationships. But the way to continue is that through the March we have built a Council, that is our political branch of the Women’s March, and we are trying to hire staff because we can’t sustain a grassroots movement on the basis of volunteers alone, we have to pay some people to do this work. We have to find the best, and we have to be strategic.
We have to defend our space and attract more women. We have these cross-cultural delegations but it will be sustained when people believe and take charge of changing their country’s policies, and not start when you tell the people what they have to do so, because there are many opportunities for people. People often think that it’s not worth it or that they don’t know how to take the opportunities. It’s when they think that it’s their personal responsibility, or when I thought that my personal responsibility was to ensure that our communities were present in the March, and that’s why the March was so successful.
Thousands of women and gender activists joined together on the first day of Women’s Month to protest the rising incidence of gender-based violence across the country.
The movement’s Brenda Madumise said the marchers, under the banner #TheTotalShutdown, were taking control of their destiny.
“We are saying that we had enough,” said Patience Mpani from the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. “We are dying every day and we cannot continue to live like this. It can’t be business as usual in South Africa when women are dying every day.”
Nontembeko Luzipo of the South African Federation of Trade Unions said justice authorities and the police have failed women. “When we go and report these cases…most of the time the perpetrator will be in the streets. They do something today. They are free and out on bail tomorrow.”
While organizers failed to achieve a “total shutdown” of South Africa, a mood of profound anger made itself visible and audible on a scale rarely evident, observed editors at the Daily Maverick.
Taking to social media, local celebrities shared their thoughts on and snaps of the intersectional women’s march.
“Idols SA” judge and singer, Unathi, shared a snap of herself alongside the caption: “Thank you ABUSIVE MEN of South Africa for forcing us start OUR month with THIS campaign! ENOUGH is ENOUGH! PS If you’re not abusive and yet keep quiet when your friends abuse women in your presence or you just know of it… MAN UP!”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who received a list of memorandum of demands from the women, promised to conduct a gender summit aimed at raising awareness regarding women abuse and rape.
After arriving late for a meeting with women organizers, he apologized for the way police had handled the protest after trying to remove protestors from the Union Buildings, saying there would be measures taken against the police for such behavior and actions.
“You have the right to enjoy your bodies‚ the right to live a life that is happy‚” Ramaphosa told them.
“I am sorry – I really am deeply sorry – that a number of women in the country have not had the opportunity to enjoy all the rights in the constitution because they are violated‚ abused‚ assaulted and a number are also killed.
“This causes me to hang my head in shame‚ because this is not the way South African men should behave towards the women of our country.”
Mass marches took place across all nine provinces, while neighboring countries Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia held their own marches for the same cause.