Earlier this month I had the pleasure of getting to spend time with Maria da Graça Samo and Helena Wong while they were in town for a Grassroots International community event. Graça (from Mozambique) is the International Coordinator of the World March of Women, and Helena is the National Organizer for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ).
Last month GGJ launched the first US chapter of the World March of Women. Grassroots International is a proud member of GGJ and has supported the World March of Women in the past, and we are excited to be part of this new initiative.
What is the World March of Women?
Graça: The World March of Women is an international feminist movement, a solidarity movement, an anti-capitalist movement, an anti-patriarchal movement, anti-globalization and anti-colonialist movement. It’s a movement that brings together groups and organizations of women from the grassroots who want to work together to address the root causes of poverty and violence against women.
The World March of Women came out of an initiative of women in Quebec who wanted to march to target their government because of increasing violence against women and feminization of poverty in the 1990s. From that the women decided that it shouldn’t be an isolated action of women in Quebec, it should be connected to other struggles of other women across the globe.
In 1998 they decided to call for women from other parts of the globe to organize their own marches. The first mobilization was in the year 2000 and more than 30 countries joined. The march of that year was called “2000 Reasons for Marching.” The marches took place in many countries – women taking messages and demands to their governments.
The World March of Women became a permanent international movement, with international actions happening every five years. For our second international action we adopted the Women’s Charter to Humanity, which brings together the four areas of action of the World March of Women: Violence against women; women’s autonomy and women’s work; common goods and public services; and peace and demilitarization. These are key areas on which we focus our analysis, but always do this trying to look at local contexts and local realities and struggles that women are encountering.
This year is the 4th International Action and we’ve decided to focus our actions on regional organizing. We are not going to have one single action, but every region is organizing its own actions between March 8th (International Women’s Day) and October 17th (Global Day for the Eradication of Poverty). On April 24th we are organizing 24 hours of action in solidarity with the women who were victims in the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013.
Helena, could you tell us a bit about Grassroots Global Justice and the launching of the US chapter of the World March of Women?
Helena: The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ) is a national alliance of over 50 organizations based in the US. Our goal is to link grassroots organizations to social movements around the world. In the GGJ membership we have a framework of “No War, No Warming, Build an Economy for People and the Planet” which unites all of the GGJ member organizations. In the process of bringing delegations to the World Social Forums we have built relationships with social movements like the World March of Women, La Via Campesina and the Landless Workers Movement (of Brazil).
In April of last year the World March of Women formally asked us to join them. We’ve taken the task of building up the US chapter of the World March of Women pretty seriously. In the US there are already a lot of women’s organizations and a lot of organizations that do work around gender equity and justice, so GGJ really thought hard about what the unique contribution that we bring could be.
There are three main reasons why said yes to forming the US chapter. One is that we believe that there is a diversity of feminisms – and that within the US a lot of communities of color and a lot of different forms of feminisms are erased by the white mainstream feminist movement.
The second reason is that we believe that the feminist movement in the US and around the world needs to also include a gender justice perspective. That is, feminist movements should not be only [include] biological women but [also] people who are trans and gender non-conforming, so that we actually don’t fall into the same practices around the strict gender binary. It’s really important for a feminist movement to be able to hold out that there are different gender expressions and that people who identify as women should be seen as women.
Taking on the World March of Women’s 4th International Action around supporting Rana Plaza victims and their family members is a way of doing that. Here in the US we consume what people produce in the third world and it’s really important for us to call that into question and to say, “What does justice look like and how are we part of that?” The second piece is that within the movement in the US we want to reclaim feminisms at the grassroots level. Feminism is a word that people have very mixed feelings about but we feel like it’s really important for us to be able to reclaim the word and say: Look, this is what we mean by feminisms and this is why it’s important, this is how we see it connected to justice and to the world that we want to see.
What does international partnership mean to you?
Helena: International partnership is working with our allies abroad to understand how the US has impacted their countries, and to support the demands that they are calling for. And then it’s doing the work within the US in an anti-imperialist framework and doing what we need to do within the US to organize our communities to understand how local conditions are part of a global system and how we begin to break it down together.
Graça: The World March of Women has always understood that the system we are fighting against is very complex and very big. It’s not only affecting women for the sake of being women – it’s affecting all people; it’s affecting the world itself. So we need a combination of forces, a combination of different strategies, and a combination of different social movements that have the same vision.
We understood a long time ago that as the World March of Women we need to focus on strengthening the capacity and ability of women to organize themselves and to organize between themselves. But we understood also that after we have gained our strength we needed make alliances with other movements.
[Here in the US] I have heard very similar stories to what I bring from home: The state that is not taking responsibility for its citizens. When we talk with people of color – the Black Afro-descendants, the very diverse movement of immigrants – there are so many demands which are the same demands that we have back home. It is very important to connect with other movements and to connect with the movements here in the United States, because the way that capitalism is oppressing any nation is the way that we’re all oppressed everywhere. We might feel it in a different way because we are in different contexts, but a problem that is in one place ends up being the same problem in another place.
When we talk about globalizing solidarity it means everyone coming together because the problem is so globalized as well. The impact of the problems is very global and we need global forces to resist and to build alternatives for a better world. Being here during these days I’ve been learning that there are very positive forms of grassroots organizing here which are very similar to what we are doing in our country, so it’s very good that we can learn together, we can share our experiences. Our solutions should not be marginalized, our proposed solutions have to be understood, have to be recognized and have to be taken as the responses for cooling the climate, the responses for fighting hunger.
How has being part of this movement impacted your life?
Graça: From the time I joined the women’s movement up to last year when I took the responsibility of coordinating the international secretariat, I think the most significant thing is that I placed myself in a position of looking at myself as a person with rights, By doing that I also think of what other people, other women, need. I live in a society where we are educated to just think about other people (our children, our husbands, our parents) and many times there’s no time to think about ourselves and what we can do for ourselves.
In working on women’s rights and in this movement, first of all it recognizes you as an individual person, as a human being, as someone who is entitled to rights. This helped me to grow – to understand the importance of making other women and girls grow to be able to understand themselves as human beings and to fight for their own rights. Today I’m in a very challenging position because now I not only have to think about women in my own community and from my country but women from all over the world. It’s exciting to think that through a very grassroots movement, we can touch hundreds and hundreds of lives of women and we can create channels for women to have hope. I feel very privileged to be part of a diverse movement like this and to be able to talk on behalf of many women who are out there.
Our slogan is: We will be on the march until all women are free. I can be free but if other women are still struggling I have to continue on the march, struggling for that freedom.
Helena: I feel very similar to Graça. In the past in a lot of spaces I’ve been a part of, we mention feminism and women’s rights and talk about gender justice and what it’s like to be queer, but I feel that in the process of building the US chapter of the World March of Women we’re practicing our feminist politics. We’re talking about it but we’re also practicing it, trying to figure it out. The process of having the conversations and trying to build something together has kind of been emotional.
I definitely feel like there are shifts within me around wanting to be more open and wanting to connect more and wanting to feel like we are building this movement together in a way that I haven’t always felt. Especially as an organizer a lot of times you feel kind of alone in the work you do, but in this case the process that we’re embarking on is actually sustainable and it’s sustaining me in a way that is different.
Graça, how do see the intersection between the struggle around climate, food sovereignty, land rights and feminism?
Graça: The way we discuss feminism in the World March of Women and the way we build our feminist analysis is totally focused on starting from women’s lives. We don’t discuss feminism as something that is in books or academia. We analyze women’s lives and how different systems in society affect women’s lives.
What is the basis of their economy, what is the basis of their subsistence, what is the basis of their strength, what is the basis of their hopes, their dreams and so on? We find that there’s no way you can talk with women, particularly in my own reality coming from Africa (from rural Mozambique) without talking about the land, about water, about forestry, about energy.
Looking at how things are happening today, women will always tell you stories like You know, in the past there was a river passing here, and now it’s dry or There used to be a spring over there, and today we cannot get there to fetch natural water for drinking because a company has taken control to produce mineral water, and then the women have to buy the water. You find women who say All this was my farm, but now that company has taken the land to produce sugarcane and now me and my children are working on that farm being paid a miserable salary. Now for us to produce our food, we have to rent another piece of land, and because we have to give our time working for this company we have no time to work on the farm we are renting, so we have to pay somebody else to work for us. We cannot even buy the sugar that the company is producing because the price is so high in the supermarket.
And then you ask, why? Feminism will tell you. Because it will tell you that capitalism is one of the instruments that patriarchy is using to sustain itself. Our countries know that people need food, that women need to have farms to be able to produce food. But major corporate interests have to produce sugar for export to the United States because of the trade agreements that Mozambique has made. Women’s lives are based on the land, on their labor, on the natural resources, which today are not there. Water is scarce and energy is not there because the capacity of our states to supply energy to every community is not there. Mozambique produces hydroelectric power but it’s all exported to South Africa and processed there, and then we have to import it back. It becomes very expensive, with no capacity to supply to all of the country.
That is why we are launching the campaign for our 4th international action using the 24th of April, the anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza, to remind ourselves and to remind everyone in our countries and elsewhere, that women are being exploited for the benefit of the capital institutions, the corporate powers, and we need to come together in campaigning against these powers. We need to come together to stop these forms of oppression because violations of human rights are happening everywhere. That’s why we say in our call that “Rana Plaza is everywhere.”
Helena, what is the US chapter of the World March of Women planning for the 2015 call to action?
Helena: The World March of Women call to action goes from March 8th until October 17th. As part of building out the US chapter of the World March of Women, we spent the period between March 8th and April 24th as part of our «coming out.” We created a political education curriculum that our members have implemented, and our members also planned and participated in International Women’s Day actions.
On April 24th, we will participate in a global 24-hour feminist action called for by the World March of Women to commemorate the second anniversary of the factory collapse in Bangladesh. As organizations based in the US, we believe it is really important to call out the actions of the corporations that allow these conditions to exist, and hold them accountable here. GGJ members are planning actions on April 24th targeting The Children’s Place, which has yet to pay into the Rana Plaza fund, and VF Corporation, which owns brands like Northface, Jansport, Levi’s, to sign a Safety Accord for their factories in Bangladesh. Please visit www.ggjalliance.org/April24 for more information and to support.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Graça: In ending I want to send my greetings to Grassroots International for being our ally in these struggles, for the work that you do to mobilize different forms of support from individuals and institutions. By being part of this process of analyzing all these forms of oppression and inequalities, together we are building possibilities of valuing these natural resources so that they can be sustained, protected, and defended as common goods that will serve all human beings. All the living beings are important for the ecosystem. So I say again that we will continue on the march until we are all free, and Grassroots International should be with us on that march.