By Lydia Simas
This fall I had the honor and privilege to meet two incredible women leaders: Miriam Nobre and Itelvina Massioli. They both came to the US from Brazil to be honored for their work and partnership at the Grassroots International 30th anniversary celebration. I cannot think of two people more deserving of this honor.
Miriam Nobre has been an activist practically her entire life. She came from a small factory city in the state of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. As a teenager, during the military dictatorship, she was a labor organizer and was active in the Worker’s Party (the political party of the previous and current presidents of Brazil) as it was forming. During that time she started organizing meetings with women to share stories and strengthen their voice within the male-dominated labor movement.
“I started to notice that the men weren’t taking to my opinions seriously and I didn’t know if it was because I was young or if it was because I was a woman, or both.” Miriam said, “I started talking about this with other women in the movement, including some of the older women, and we began meeting to think together about our participation in the movement, as well as to talk about our lives holistically – about our relationships with our partners, our boyfriends, our families – how we were feeling about ourselves in the world. And we discovered that the word for this was ‘feminist’!”
Miriam studied agronomy in college and worked in that field for a number of years with peasants and small-scale farmers. As a member of the Sempreviva Organização Feminista she worked with popular education, focusing on feminist economics, agroecology and economic solidarity for over ten years.
In 1998 Miriam participated in the first meeting of the World March of Women in Montreal and went on to organize the national chapter of the World March of Women in Brazil. “Since the proposal of this international feminist movement of the people first appeared, we’ve seen it as a good path to strengthen our movement.” The World March of Women (WMW) is an international feminist movement that connects women’s groups all over the world to eliminate the root causes of violence against women, the privatization of nature and women’s bodies, militarization, and poverty.
Itelvina Massioli has been a member of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) for over 15 years. She was a founding member of the MST settlement in the state of Mato Grosso where she now lives with her family, having won rights to the land after years of struggle. Her settlement is home to more than 70 families, all working in cooperatives together to produce fruits, vegetables and small animals, both for their own use and to sell to the public. Itelvina is a farmer, an educator, a national leader within the MST, and a member of the International Coordinating Committee of the Via Campesina.
The Landless Workers Movement and the Via Campesina are peasant movements that work to defend land rights, food sovereignty, and the rights of rural communities. The Via Campesina is an international movement with over 150 member organizations from 70 different countries, representing over 200 million peasant farmers and small producers all over the world. The Landless Workers Movement was founded 30 years ago as a way to organize and coordinate landless peasants in Brazil. The MST works through establishing occupations of idle land in order to gain legal rights to the land (a right granted by the Brazilian constitution).
Miriam with the WMW, and Itelvina with the Via Campesina and the MST, have worked in partnership for many years promoting the leadership of women and strengthening unity between urban and rural feminism.
During her visit to the US Miriam talked about how the action of marching made it possible for the WMW to connect rural and urban women in new ways. In 2005 the charter of the WMW – The Women’s Global Charter for Humanity – was taken on a tour around the world. For this tour women marched together, passing the charter itself along from one leg of its trip to the next. This created an opportunity for exchanges between different groups, particularly between rural and urban communities. There is a common thought that feminism is something that belongs to urban middle and upper class women and that the culture of poor and rural women somehow excludes it. With many peasant women groups leading the way, the WMW has built itself as a movement that represents all women, and works to end oppression in all aspects of women’s lives – including fighting for the right to land, the right to sovereignty over our food, and to sovereignty over our bodies.
Itelvina is very clear about the connection between ending the oppression of women and fighting for food sovereignty and climate justice. The Via Campesina and the MST are both movements that have committed themselves to gender equality. The Via Campesina started a Global Campaign the End Violence Against Women five years ago. Itelvina has said that this commitment to ending all forms of violence against women strengthens the Via Campesina, because it is not possible to work for food sovereignty and climate justice without working to end violence – sexual, institutional or patriarchal. She said “We can’t go forward talking about our mission of planting healthy foods if the hand that plants is the same hand that mistreats another human being. In making this connection we take on a political struggle of consciousness-raising, of bringing our culture to another level.”
The MST, like the Via, requires that women and men be represented equally within the leadership and in all trainings, childcare is provided at all events so that women (who are still the primary caretakers of the family) can participate fully. Extensive discussion and study on gender issues is included in all MST trainings.
Both the WMW and the MST are movements of action. Women marching – not standing still but in movement together to change the world – offers a powerful rebuttal to the messages that tell women stay quiet, accept what they’re given, and be available take care of others. Similarly, the act of women and men in the MST occupying idle land and building alternative models of communities and economies is not a passive one. It requires engagement and action on the part of all who are involved.
Miriam and Itelvina have a very deep understanding of the interconnectedness of their struggles and the struggle for a just society for. Their perspective, experience and partnership can serve as an inspiration to all of us.