Along a noisy highway in Caracas, Venezuela stand a series of tall buildings that once belonged to Exxon-Mobile. Today, those buildings are home to the Bolivarian University, where poor and working class people can get a free higher education and specialize in careers that are focused on community development and political organization. The Bolivarian University is just one of the many innovative government supported projects underway in Venezuela, and for that reason it was selected to host the Global Grassroots Women’s Conference, which took place this past week.
Marking the 100 year anniversary of International Women’s Day, hundreds of women from around the world joined together in Carcas to share experiences, debate different themes, draft proposals and show support for the democratic process underway in Venezuela. Women from the Conference, as well as Venezuelan organizations and parties, joined in a festive march through the center of Caracas. The delegation from the Confederation of Ecuadorian Women for Change (CONFEMEC) , 150 strong, roused the crowds with chants saying “Bella, bella, bella, que cosa mas bonita, las mujeres organizadas luchando por la vida (Beautiful, beuatiful, beautiful, what a lovely sight, Organized women fighting for their lives).” The delegation of women from Turkey held eachother arm in arm and moved together in a beautiful circle dance. Chants and songs in dozens of languages, echoed through the sweaty streets, and women hugged, kissed, took pictures, and exchanged their contacts. Despite speaking different languages, there was a common language of struggle and solidarity and spirits on the streets were high.
The conference opening took place at Nuevo Circo, with a homage to Clara Zetkin, a young german socialist revolutionary who, in 1910, advocated for the need for a day dedicated to women’s struggle. The following year, millions of men and women took to the streets, demanding rights for women and workers and advancing the cause of suffrage. Indigenous Caribe women from Venezuela welcomed the women of the world and the program continued with various cultural and musical performances.
From March 5-7, women participated in workshops and assemblies within the 12 themes outlined in the conference. The themes included: the double oppression of women, reproductive rights and sexuality, feminisms, women workers, rural women, hunger and malnourishment, racism and indigenous women, young women, achievements in women´s rights, wars of aggression and imperialism, the environment, and political participation. Within these themes, women joined one working group and discussed and debated these issues for 3 days. Then they drafted proposals for the entire conference.
There was an overwhelming consensus from women at the conference that the largest problem facing women of the world is capitalism and the poverty that it creates. Women of the so-called Third World, as well as the third world from within the first world, additionally confront imperialism and continue to struggle for basic sovereignty as vital in being able to achieve any rights.
There are many ways in which the current global economic crisis continues to disproportionately affect women. Gertrudes Ranjoli Ban represents the Gabrella network, which is comprised of over 200 organizations and has a membership of over 150,000 women throughout the Philipines. “There is domestic violence whether there is poverty or not, but poverty exacerbates it” she explained. She also spoke about the current campaign of her network, saying “we have a campaign against foreign interference in our economic and political lives. Particularly when we talk about neoliberal policies, because we have direct experiences of neoliberal policies negatively affecting women’s lives in the Phillipines and throughout the world.”
Irma, from Colombia stated , “The most serious problems facing women in Colombia is a result of the last 40 years of civil war. Women have had to be the heads of households and confront the consequences of capitalism, double oppression, low-wages and the feminization of poverty. Aditionally we confront Yankee Imperialism in many ways. We have military bases here, so we are one of the key countries for penetration, not only in Colombia but all of latin America.”
Rachel Dickson , from the US-based School of the Americas Watch, which works against militarization and US aggression in Latin America, also attended the conference and participated in the workshop on Wars of Aggression and Imperialism. SOA Watch is promoting a campaign called Bridges not Bases, which seeks to build alliances of solidarity throughout Latin America as an effective tool in working against the presence of military bases in the region.
The impacts of imperialism also extend beyond militarism and includes economic and environmental exploitation by multinational corporations. Erica Carcaño a student from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México said, “In Countries like mine, every day, we live the effects of pollution created by corporations, which means we are continually seeing a decrease in the quality of water and severe air pollution as a product of these corporations. We are finding that the solutions come from an encounter between ancestral knowledge and contemporary knowledge, which makes womens’ role extremely important, fundamental.”
Elena Salazar, a member of the Union of Educators in Ecuador, also attended the workshop on the environment. She shared her experience of working with a group of women to collect recyclables, and how through that income self-funded an educational project on healthy, nationally produced, culturally appropriate food and on the ecological impacts of consumer culture.
In the workshop on rural issues the women participating came to the conclusion that capitalism and imperialism are guilty of creating poverty, hunger, and malnourishment, and diminishing the earth's capacity to feed everyone in a healthy way. Among the solutions presented were land redistribution, literacy, schools, political formation according to each country's culture and conditions, access to essential services, fair wages for agricultural work, and everything that would constitute a dignified life for those in rural areas.
Delegates from Germany, the United States, Bangladesh and throughout Latin America shared a common experience of a persisting gender wage gap despite years of struggle, and in some cases legal gains that guarantee equity in pay. Ecuadorian women proposed the need for free or subsidized childcare centers, as well as the acknowledgement of housework as producing a social and economic value. A young student from Egypt also noted that within the uprising in her country, women are playing an important role, and that she anticipates a much needed opening for womens rights in Egypt.
The issue of abortion was an important theme at the conference. Despite advances in women’s rights in Venezuela there is still not legal access to abortions, including in incidents of rape. In Latin America, Cuba is currently the only country with universal access to free and safe abortions. The delegates from Peru and Argentina brought their experiences of working on a national level in their home countries in fighting for abortion rights. The Argentine women shared their experiences of over 27 years of organizing womens encuentros that are self-organized and self-financed as the main space where they are building a strong women's movement. In their 2005 gathering, they established a slogan for reproductive rights , which they shared with the women of the world. “Education so one doesn't conceive, contraception so one doesn't abort, abortion so one doesn't die.” There was a consensus among the women participating in the workshop on sexuality that abortion rights are fundamental to women's rights.
While there was participation in the conference and march by Lesbians, Genderqueer, and Transgender people, specific rights for Queer communities was not visible on the agenda. Rumi Quintero, a transperson and president of the Divas Civil Associaiton of Venezuela, who runs the first and only feminist television program in Venezuela said, “Venezuelans see the dichotomy of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and homo sexuality as a problem, And so we are coming up with response to the people of Venezuela, Latin America, and the world, that we are not people that will be casted into marginalization, in fact we are fighting against marginalization, and we are breaking it down daily with our presence with our ways of being, and with our work.”
Gloria Jilambe of the organization Women Together in South Africa said, “We want women to awaken in our country so we can fight side by side. We are confronted by the Pandemic of HIV and AIDs and unemployment. Our families face so many ills because of capitalism and imperialism.” Amaya Cortez,of the Northern border of Ecuador said, “ …we face triple oppression. We are discriminated against for being women, for being poor and for being black. As women, we have many of the same problems. The important thing is unity. I always say, No woman is free until all women are free.”
Angela Stefannini, from the Anti-Fascist Mothers of Leon Caballo in Italy, and Miriam Bentancourt an Ecuadorian immigrant in Hamburg, Germany, both work with immigrant women in Europe. Stefannini says, “Many migrant women are looking for a dream, and sadly what they find when they arrive is violence.” Bentancourt works with an organization of Latin American migrant women called Women Opening Spaces. “Sadly,” she said, “we did not go too deep into the themes of immigration. We presented the problems that immigrant women face such as physical and emotional abuse, skilled women being forced into unskilled work, low self-esteem, depression, and isolation...and we made proposals, but we did not go that deep into this theme.” Migration, racism and indigenous women were all put together as one topic, and were therefore not given the space to fully develop each theme.
Women from Venezuela shared the advances that they have made in terms of recognition and rights within the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, such as a constitutional guarantee of all rights, a ban on discrimination of all forms, including based on sex or gender, provisions for equal pay for equal work, a valuing a housework and factoring in that value to social security payments, as well as the first anti-sexist language within the Constitution. Women from Ecuador also shared of the constitutional gains that they have made within the 2008 Constitution, which also bans all forms of discrimination. Despite these incredible constitutional gains, not all of these legal documents have translated into reality, but they have created a firm platform for struggle.
Mujeres Por La Vida, a collective of women from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in the state of Lara, performed a participatory street theater piece called ‘The Patriarchy Within’. During a break in the conference they took over the street and acted out common scenes in the lives of women, and asked for volunteers from the audience to assume the role of women who were being silenced in their homes or within political spaces. Each volunteer tries to resolve the problem and as a group we discuss how it went, and what we, as women could do in such situations. Marija Morales from Muejeres Por La Vida explained the goals of this piece, “We are examining how patriarchy is embedded into institutions, communal councils, and high schools. Someone can put on a red shirt but still be sexist. The revolution can continue being patriarcical and if there is not feminism there cannot be socialism.”
The proposals that have come from the conference are one small piece, and it was clear throughout the workshops, assemblies, cultural events, and marches that the personal experiences shared through the exchanges have transformed the participants and built a stronger global web of friendship and solidarity. When asked what message the participants want to communicate to women of the world, they all echoed eachother, “Women, unite and organize.”
To hear the voices of many women who participated in this conference click HERE.