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How Do You Make a Region Visible?

Inna Michaeli is a Coordinator at the Women Human Rights Defenders program at AWID: Association of Women's Rights in Development

Feminists and activists in plenary at the 13th International AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Credit Claudia Ferreira

Feminists and activists in plenary at the 13th International AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Credit Claudia Ferreira

BERLIN, Nov 22 2016 (IPS) - “One challenge we are facing is that we are invisible as a region, and the feminist movement is invisible, both inside and outside the region.” Natalia Karbowska, Board Chair of Ukrainian Women’s Fund said at a session on Eastern and South-East Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia: Getting (back) on global feminist map during the recent AWID Forum held in Bahia, Brazil from the 8th-11th September, 2016.

You might recognize your own region in the trends Natalia described: women’s organizations wrongly perceived as service providers, rather than drivers of advocacy and policies; gender mainstreaming shifting the focus and funds away from feminist movement-building; and, governments dismissing policies on gender because “there is a war in the country.”

Changing national formations, contested colonial histories and violent conflicts, and the vast ethnonational and cultural diversity, make it impossible to speak of Eastern Europe, North Caucasus, the Balkans, and Central Asia as one region. And yet, many voices in the session on Eastern and South-East Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia at the AWID Forum emphasised the need to work together and to develop unified messages around thematic areas.

The destructive role of Russia for civil society in the region came out strongly. Its draconian laws and repressive practices against NGOs are having a negative effect far beyond its borders. Irina Maslova – leader of the sex-workers’ movement Silver Rose, based in the city of St. Petersburg, Russia – could not have said that more clearly: “I am deeply ashamed that in my country, in my city, the law against ‘gay propaganda’ was passed. That the law criminalizing NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ was passed, and now it hits everyone, hits hard. It spreads throughout the region and incites repression of civil society, especially women’s organizations and the most marginalized.”

Highlight on Sex Workers and LGBT People

Sex workers in Russia and the region, explained Irina, “are either invisible or seen as criminals. The existing laws untie the hands of the police, of the state, of society, to steal, to attack, to kill us”.

Migrant sex workers are particularly vulnerable. In one of the criminal raids on brothels, Sandra, a young African sex worker, suffered extreme injuries. Silver Rose supported her through the long surgery and rehabilitation process and the struggle to file a police complaint. Transnational migration and associated vulnerability make a strong case for feminist cooperation across regions.

Danyar Orsek, Director of Kyrgyz Indigo, outlined the challenges for LGBT movements. “In some countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, there are laws against sodomy since Soviet times. In others, like Russia, they are passing new laws, like the one on gay propaganda. In Kazakhstan, transgender people need sterilization if they want a legal recognition, their gender in the passport”. Legal obstacles are enhanced by violence in the family and society, discrimination in universities and workplace.

A selection of activists marching for rights and justice at the 13th International AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Photo credit Claudia Ferreira

A selection of activists marching for rights and justice at the 13th International AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Photo credit Claudia Ferreira

Working Together, Working Regionally

While collaboration has a long way to go, there are positive examples to build on. Irina told with excitement about a great diversity of women coming to meet the CEDAW committee to tell the truth about Russia: “…women working on drug policy, women human rights defenders, women of Caucasus and even women from Ukraine came. We joined forces because we are joined by the desire to live, to live as women, as happy women.” As a result, Russia received strong recommendations, including to repeal the ‘gay propaganda’ law.

Natalia emphasised the importance of mobilizing people. “We had the bill on foreign agents in Ukraine and many people out on the streets, people who don’t know the term civil society, but they came and stopped it. A lot depends on us, and strong movement consists of strong organizations, and this is why it is important to have strong funds“.

“We are often so isolated in our problems. But when an activist is killed in Honduras - we need to react, to connect with them, to raise solidarity. This is how people start getting interested.” -
Lara Aharonian, Director of Women's Resource Center in Yerevan, Armenia
“This Region Isn’t Interesting for Funders”

Mariam Gagoshashvili, from Astraea: Lesbian Foundation for Justice shared from her experience. “I thought it is because of lack of knowledge of what’s happening in the region. But I understood that the funding that came in 1990s had a lot of geopolitical interests that are not there anymore.”

Natalia suggested to go “beyond women’s rights or human rights rhetoric and talk about policy and politics. Women’s rights and gender equality are also questions of national and regional security. And, we also lack data and stories from our country”.

There is a need to get creative on sustainability and alternative sources of funding: national and regional women’s funds, emigrants who maintain strong ties and commitment to the civil society.

Why Should Feminists Care?

So how do you get (back) on the feminist map? And why should feminists worldwide care about these parts of the world?

First, there are strong geopolitical reasons. Totalitarian trends and religious fundamentalisms currently on the rise will not stop at national borders. In Irina’s words, “Russia is looking to its imperialistic past, and tries to transmit its politics, its laws and practices onto the global level. It tries to call people back to the fascist past. We must speak about this, and speak loudly.” In such extremely repressive and increasingly isolated settings, cross-border solidarity becomes critical. “Support our voices, we are few, because it is frightening. We need this support to survive.“

Then, there is much to discover in learning from each other. “Together we are strong. This is why I am interested in other regions. We can exchange knowledge and experience, and there is much valuable experience in Central Asia we can share.”- Danyar.

Perhaps most importantly, to get on the feminist map, you can make the first step towards it. Lara Aharonian, Director of Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan, Armenia, reminded us that the best way to get people more interested in one’s region, might start with the genuine interest we take in others: “We are often so isolated in our problems. But when an activist is killed in Honduras – we need to react, to connect with them, to raise solidarity. This is how people start getting interested.” Certainly this insight can inspire us across regions and movements, whenever we feel invisible and marginalized in the global agenda. By reaching out and extending our solidarity to others, we embark on a journey of mutual recognition and solidarity.

The Eastern and South-East Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia: Getting (back) on global feminist map session took place at the 2016 AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Read more reflections on ‘Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice’

 
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