A good place to start: The 13th International Feminist Forum

Nikki van der Gaag Gender

Oxfam recently attended AWID’s 13th International Feminist Forum in Brazil. Here Oxfam Great Britain’s Director of Women’s Rights and Gender Justice, Nikki Van Der Gaag, reflects on the conference.

Not many people start their new job by travelling to Brazil on their first day, but as Oxfam GB’s new Director of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights it was really important to attend the biggest gathering of women’s rights activists from around the world, especially as it only happens every four years. It was an opportunity too to meet some of the many wonderful gender justice staff and partners from the different Oxfam affiliates.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) is an international, feminist, membership organisation, committed to achieving gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights. The atmosphere of this, the 13th Forum, was electric. It was also clearly under a feminist banner. The Forum was called Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice.

It was not so long ago that the word feminist was contested, even among women’s rights organisations, but here it was out and proud.

So were many others. A major focus of the Forum this year was on diversity, building alliances between and within women’s groups, organisations and movements. So for the first time, the Forum was preceded by a Black Feminist Forum, whose energy and commitment drove the rest of the Forum forward. They issued a powerful call to fight injustice, racism and all oppressions that are killing black women and men.  It was not so long ago that the word feminist was contested, even among women’s rights organisations, but here it was out and proud.

Young feminists too were a major presence, walking side by side with everyone else and bringing a vibrancy, enthusiasm and commitment that inspired us all. They were celebrating the success and anniversary of a new fund for young feminists called FRIDA, that AWID had been instrumental in setting up in the 2012 Forum. The LGBQI movement was out in force, as were the Trans activists. Sex workers told their stories and disabled women had a major presence, challenging the concept of what it means to be able, and looking at how to build alliances under a wider framing around justice. There were some workshops too on how best to include men in gender equality work.

Another major theme was the shrinking of civil society spaces in so many countries, including Brazil, which has left women’s rights organisations struggling for their very survival. The recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was a rallying point, with a demonstration at the end of the Forum – though it was considered too dangerous to take it out onto the streets, a sign of the volatility of the times.

There were strong links to other social justice movements, including climate justice and trade union movements. The challenge of countering religious fundamentalisms (I also went to a fascinating discussion on Islamic feminism), building a feminist internet, women’s peacebuilding, women’s economic empowerment and worker rights, unpaid care, inequalities and democracy, working with men on gender equality, self care (as a collective as well as an individual responsibility) and violence against women, were among of the many issues aired. Oxfam ran a popular session on its research on why violence against women legislation isn’t working, and what women’s organizations and movements are doing about it.

Finally, Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), ended a session on imagining a feminist future by saying: ‘As feminists we must never stop imagining. If we can imagine something strongly enough, there will come a time when we can achieve it.’

The roar in the room was deafening. We all took take that message home with us in our hearts. For me, there couldn’t have been a better place from which to start my new job.

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Nicole Oloo