At the opening of the Asia Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing + 15 at Miriam College, feminists who have lobbied hard at the United Nations (UN) and beyond through the years piece together their memories of struggles and hopes for the future.
Leticia Ramos Shahani, the secretary general of the 1985 Word Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya recalled that the process was not spared from the tensions emanating from the then ongoing Cold War. Learning from the 3rd World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, Denmark that failed, the Nairobi conference that "consensus" became an operating principle.
"We had to say something new otherwise the UN would tell us give us our money back…We gradually came together and we voted paragraph by paragraph," she said. The outcome documents included domestic violence as part of violence against women. It also made a special mention of subsectors such as the elder, women in prisons and rural women.
Kamla Bhasin of SANGAT in India likewise remembers the pressures on feminists like her especially in their struggle against some religions "where patriarchy has hidden all this time." "We were called man-haters and anti religion. If we point out that there is violence in the family, we don’t break the family. We actually make it," she asserted.
But for Kamla, the feminist struggle is also located in oneself. "Feminism has been a spiritual journey for me. A will of not using power. I am constantly looking at myself and sometimes, I also fall short of my ideas."
Meanwhile, Cai Yiping, executive director of Isis International was fresh from college when the 4th World Conference on Women was held in her hometown in Beijing, China. A young journalist covering the event, she admitted, "I was lost in the discussion until I linked them with the experience of women in China." Even as much still needs to done, the Beijing conference somehow influenced China’s laws and practices on domestic violence, sexual orientation and women’s migration.
She further shared, "Then I felt more guilty for my grandmother whose feet wound bound. I used to made fun of her as she tried to run after me as a child."
Nighat Said Khan, executive director of ASR Centre in Pakistan and a veteran on these UN processes asserted that feminist movements have neither a beginning nor end. "Women have been speaking out whether as witches and even when shorn of agency." Belonging to the 60s generation, she reiterated that while UN provided a space for women, it owes some of its offices to the persistence of women’s movements.
Khan noted that the present has indeed been difficult for women’s movements. As she remarked, "It is extremely important to bring back politics into the movements. We are no longer asking the fundamental whys but responding to crises." Yet she expressed optimism especially for younger feminists, "Don’t let lulls depress you. They will move, maybe not in your time but they will move."
Cai added, "We need to maximise the choices that we have today. If one of us is not free. None of us is free."
by Nina Somera, Isis International