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Selma James in Guyana: “We as women have much in common”

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“What happened here tonight was the class struggle.”

The Woodbine Room at Cara Lodge was in some disarray. One person had stormed out, another came close to it. A third of the audience were eating brownies and pastries at the back of the room, immersed in heated discussions. While standing behind a tabletop bouquet of flowers, acclaimed international women’s rights activist Selma James was attempting to wrap up the evening. And decipher what had just happened.

It had all begun so differently. Selma James was in Georgetown to speak about her global campaign for fair wages for women – whether they work in the home or outside. As well as being the founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, Ms James co-authored ‘The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community’, wrote ‘Sex, Race, and Class – the Perspective of Winning’ and contributed an introduction to ‘Ujamaa – The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist village’.

She was joined by her colleague and partner Nina Lopez, founder of Legal Action for Women and joint co-ordinator (with Ms James) of the Global Women’s Strike. In the chair was Jocelyn Dow, with Vanda Radzik supporting on the floor with a roving mic.

The two guest speakers covered a lot of ground in their presentations to the room, which was – Ms Dow noted at the outset – encouragingly full. Ms James immediately put forward her reasons for why “every worker deserves a living wage – including mothers and carers”. She pulled up women who when they “have reached the top … have ceased to pay attention to what women need because they feel, and in fact they’re right, they’ve escaped what women on the whole face. They have often, more or less, equal pay with the men; they usually have servants…”.

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She called on those present – which included members of Guyanese women’s rights group Red Thread (which organised the event), party political representatives, activists, students, academics and journalists – to recognise the need to be part of something wider. To, as the slogan goes, act local and think global. “You cannot really function in the modern world, you cannot really organise struggles; strengthen your network and resolve; and feel confident in what you are doing, if you are not trying to build an international network.”

She even managed to fit in a bit of US politics, showing her support for Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States:

“Bernie Sanders is exactly from the background that I come from … when I lived in Brooklyn in the 30s and the 40s, everybody around me was a Socialist. I come from that community. From the same kind of community he comes from – and he’s running for President of the United States. Now that is a change! Whatever happens with that election of the presidential candidate, the United States will never be the same. There’s a movement for change, a movement against the military sucking up … taking all the wealth of society and putting [it] into weapons of mass destruction, which kill people. This is not what we want our money to go to. We want it to go first of all to mothers.”

As a former resident of Trinidad (where she lived with her then-husband CLR James, the late cultural historian and renowned social activist), Ms James is obviously familiar with discourses around racial, social and economic inequality in the Caribbean context. While many white, Western feminists are accused of excluding black women from the global feminist movement by not addressing the issues that are pertinent to them, Ms James put them in the spotlight. She cited the work of Bajan-American activist Margaret Precod, who (to quote the The Grio) “founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Killers in the mid-1980s after dozens of women were found dead in alleyways, parks and dumpsters in Los Angeles”. She recognised the role of Guyana’s own prominent women’s right campaigner Andaiye in pushing the UN and national governments to agree to measure and value unwaged work. She noted that “The Black Lives Matter movement is only now acknowledging that the women who were murdered are part of the movement, because somehow Black Lives Matter has been fundamentally translated as ‘black men’s lives matter’.”

“So ‘All black women’s lives matter’, ‘All native American lives matter’, ‘All Indian lives matter’, Chinese lives matter, English lives matter, Egyptian lives matter, African lives matter, all lives matter – and they will only matter if we spell it out and make sure that it happens.”

Ms Lopez added more details about the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London. She spoke about custody of children (asking about the situation in Guyana, to which one lawyer in the audience responded: “The court would usually take into consideration the best interests of the child”). She cited the case of Layla Ibrahim, who was jailed after reporting a sexual assault. And she spoke with optimism about Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party in the UK and an advocate of the legalisation of prostitution.

When the time came for audience questions, no hands were raised. Were there really no questions? The awkward silence didn’t last long. One person challenged Ms James on the very idea of ‘costing’ women’s work in the home – as if you can quantify and categorise levels of caring and housework. Some supported the point, others disagreed. Ms James questioned whether any woman would turn down the wage if offered. One of the two men in the sea of women pointed out the difficulties or inappropriateness of trying to affect changes within the same “Babylon” system that Caribbean people are trying to escape from. Two women highlighted the Married Persons Property Act, which women can claim “but they will get a much lower percentage if they have not worked outside of the home … it’s not recognised as equal value.”

An attending parliamentarian made a lengthy speech about everything from the migrant crisis to poverty in Guyana to the way the UN’s goals have become “sanitised”. Other audience members started getting restless and one or two called on her to let others have their say. When she left, the air became increasingly charged. One of the activists present spoke heatedly about female politicians talking about lifting people out of poverty in Guyana while not knowing what was happening at the grassroots level. The remaining parliamentarian took offence at being “embarrassed”, insisted she too had come from “grassroots” and eventually walked out in disgust. The activist made as if to follow but was convinced to stay, with some urging more “decorous” language and others insisting the remarks were not personal and that the politician should listen to views from the grassroots, which they are meant to represent.

Ms James, far from seeming intimidated, scandalised or sidelined by the lively exchanges, took it in her stride. Acknowledging this was a “class struggle”, she aligned herself as a grassroots person and called once again for women at the top to not forget the women at the bottom. Eventually she was given a hearty round of applause and allowed to explore the enticing snack table, before signing some books.

The Battle of Cara Lodge was a small one, but somehow a microcosm of the bigger fight raging outside. Racial tension, class warfare, cultural differences… One night and a 50-something crowd of (mostly) women cannot solve everything. But, Ms James noted, you can’t hope to have success in the wider world until you can achieve it in one room, with women from all levels of society coming together:

“In a lot of countries, the grassroots have got together and faced the government and said: ‘You have been stealing, you have been pimping, you have been enjoying the life that we are denied’. That’s happening in country after country … We as women have much in common. It is we as women who should be the first to overcome that problem or at least to address it. You cannot ignore it.”

African arts, culture + politics

Wonder women

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(ARISELIVE.com, October 2011) Pictured Winner of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award for sub-Saharan Africa, Lorna Rutto, with Jury member Nigest Haile, founder and executive director of the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment

Words Carinya Sharples

Gatherings of influential women are increasingly common in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold the majority of parliamentary seats. But for participants of the 2011 Women’s Forum, the occasion was an all-to-rare treat.

The Women’s Forum is an annual assembly of inspiring, influential and innovative women from around the world. Over three days, 1,250 delegates from 80 countries participated in workshops, debates and discussions on everything from tweeting to social entrepreneurship.

ARISE went to the event in Deauville, France, to meet the nominees for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. This was the fifth year Cartier has held the prestigious awards, which recognise and support “audacious and promising women entrepreneurs from all over the world”.

The winner of the Cartier Women’s Intiative Award 2011 for Sub-Saharan Africa was Lorna Rutto from EcoPost in Kenya. EcoPost tackles waste and deforestation by collecting the plastic waste that litters the Kenyan landscape and recycling it to make durable, affordable fence posts.

Receiving her award from a tearful Wendy Luhabe, the South African author and winner of 50 Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, an equally tearful Rutto called the recognitition “a great opportunity for men and hundreds of women in Kenya”, referring to the women she hires the services of to collect the plastic.

The two runners-up from sub-Saharan African were Linda Ravenhill, founder of VideoLive – a low bandwidth online education tool, which gives healthcare workers across Africa up-to-date information, training and news – and Lauren Thomas, whose company Mozambikes sells affordable, quality, branded bicycles in Mozambique.

Outside of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, the programme was no less inspiring. Highlights of the Women’s Forum, for example, included the debate Will the Arab uprisings truly become Arab springs? The knowledgeable panel included human rights activist and former Minister of State for Family and Population of Egypt Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, the executive editor of the International Herald Tribute Alison Smale and Tunisian cyberactivist Amira Yahyaoui. Watch the full debate, including the remarkable call to arms speech by human rights lawyer and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IEeEfbKMUhs

As well as keynote speeches and debates, the Women’s Forum programme included smaller discussions and workshops, which took place in the more informal Discovery Hall. Here delegates networked over coffee and champagne and took advantage of sessions such as Becoming a 21st Century Leader and What if we all stood up for African mothers?

In one eye-opening debate on violence against women, Vice-President of the Italian Senate Emma Bonino declared “women’s rights have no borders”, and while many at the Women’s Forum recognised the different needs and battles of women in every country, there was a  united sense throughout that women’s rights can and must be universal.

For more information, videos and inspiration visit www.womens-forum.com and www.cartierwomensinitiative.com.

Look out for ARISE’s full report on the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and the Women’s Forum, including interviews with the three nominees from sub-Saharan Africa, in the next issue of ARISE magazine – out later this year.

London culture

Honduras in London: Central America Women’s Network

CAWN's Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011
CAWN’s Laura Ouseley (second from right) at the Million Women Rise march in London on 5 March 2011

(Visit London, 29 March 2011) We speak to Laura Ouseley from London-based organisation Central America Women’s Network (CAWN), which supports women’s rights groups in Honduras and across Central America – and is celebrating its 20th birthday this Thursday.

What does CAWN do?

We help women’s organisations in Central America with advocacy and campaigning, for example organising speaker tours and building links between women’s groups in the UK and Central America.

Our main areas of work are around gender equality, women’s rights and violence against women. CAWN’s main project at the moment is supporting a women’s organisation in Honduras to set up self-help groups in order to tackle gender-based violence.

How long have you been running?

We’ve been going since 1991. This Thursday is our 20th anniversary.

You have a speaker tour this week in London, what’s that about?

We have two women’s rights activists from Honduras coming here, Evelyn Cuellar and Mercedes Lainez. They’ll be here for two weeks to talk about their work for Centro de Estudios de la Mujer Honduras (CEMH), our partner organisation in Honduras.

What events are planned in London as part of the tour?

Tonight the two speakers will be at a public meeting we’re holding with the London Feminist Network in the House of Commons, talking about femicide and the role of feminists in social transformation.

Then on Thursday we have a smaller meeting at The Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London about violence against women in Honduras. Later than evening it’s our 20th anniversary celebration at the Human Rights Action Centre, which anyone is welcome to attend, whether you have been involved with CAWN over the last 20 years, or would like to know more about our work.

The two speakers are then going to Manchester and Scotland before coming back to London for a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club on 12 April for the Women Reaching Women Conference 2011.

How can people learn more or help with the work you do?

We often rely on volunteers to help us carry out and promote the work we do. Some CAWN volunteers and activists help with translations, for example, while others organise events, fundraise and promote our work.

The best way to get involved with CAWN is to become a member and receive more information about the work we do, or come along to one of our events and speak to us in person.

Where else can you find out about Honduras in London? Tell us in the comments below.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2011/03/honduras-in-london-central-america-womens-network/