From Global To Local And Back Again: Building Links For Stronger Campaigns

Photo Credit: Spark

Photo Credit: Spark

A smart commenter on our first blog post in March posed a very interesting question. How should UK-based organizations campaigning on women's rights with an international focus link with women's rights organizations and movements within the UK? 

I’ve been active in the UK women’s movement, and built links with women’s rights activists internationally, and so I want to try to give some personal reflections on what it means to me to build links between movements, and raise some points that I think as feminists we need to discuss.  Please leave comments, it would be great to share experiences to make all our activism stronger and more effective.

First up, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know, gender inequality is not something that happens ‘over there’, to ‘other’ women, although sometimes in international development campaigning we stray too close to the path of portraying exactly that.   Nowhere in the world have women reached equality with men: globally, violence against women will reach one in three of us in our lifetimes; in the UK two women a week are killed by our partners; we earn 14.9% less than men for the same work, and a whopping 55% less if we work in the finance sector; we get fired because we’re pregnant; we’re the first to feel the brunt of the government spending cuts and they cut us deeper.  I could go on, but you get the picture, and it’s not a good one.

There are many feminist activists in the UK, campaigning for change in women’s lives.  A Guardian article last month hailed an “explosion in new grassroots groups” of feminists.  But it was the responses to this article – criticising the lack of representation of black women, of disabled women, of working class women, of older women and of LGBT women in the original article – that gave a more insightful view of the breadth and depth of activism taking place across the country, and the struggles that the women’s movement still needs to face to become inclusive.  As a post by Black Feminists said, “feminism is not All White”.   The Brighton Feminist Collective stated that “if every feminist is not treated as equal, then every single one of us has failed, and we need to shut up shop right now”.  As activists we have to address these issues, have some uncomfortable conversations and challenge ourselves on our own part in perpetuating an image of feminism led by white, middle-class women.

These are important issues to grapple with when thinking about engaging with the women’s movement in the UK.  Which women are we talking to?  How do we engage UK feminists in campaigning for women’s rights in developing countries, whilst ensuring that women’s rights activists from those countries remain in the driving seats of their campaigns?  How can we ensure that the women we engage in our campaigns reflect as broad a spectrum of activists as possible? What do we have to offer women activists in the South anyway, if we can’t get our own house in order? 

From talking to many members of the women’s movement in the UK, through Twitter, over pints, and at demos, I know there’s a huge desire to take action in solidarity with women around the world. But feminists are smart, they want to campaign in the most appropriate way – a way that will support, and not drown out or misappropriate, the voices of women in the global south. 

Feminists have passion, commitment and a multitude of skills to share, often built through collective organisation and action.  So wouldn’t want them on side?  Yet sometimes, campaigns simply put feminists off.  The way that Lush, for instance, have recently shown a woman being violently assaulted to make a point about animal testing, raises huge problems for many feminists I know.  PETA are also repeat offenders for using naked women in their messaging.  Living in a society where women’s bodies are objectified to market the latest goods, we know that the links to inequality, gender stereotyping and discrimination are significant, and many wish that this objectification was not perpetuated by those seeking to advance ‘good causes’.  

A good example of building links between local and global is the No women, no peace campaign, which links women’s rights advocates in Afghanistan, and those who want to support their demands in the UK.  In this case, the campaign coalition clearly stated that the demands were those of women’s rights activists in Kabul towards the international community, and asked UK feminists to reinforce those demands to MPs and government ministers, through petitions, letters, green scarves and vigils.

Whilst there are examples of good practice, genuine linking between international development campaigns and UK based feminists is still a mixed picture.  Building bridges between movements is, I feel, the only way forward to true solidarity and strengthening of our global women’s rights campaigning.  It’s not a straight path to a unified global feminist vision: the path has twists, turns and hazards along the way.  But tread it carefully, and with respect, and we’ll have ourselves a true force to be reckoned with.  


Lee Webster, Womankind

Everyone Seems To Be Talking Women's Rights These Days, So What's The Problem?

This International Women’s Day has highlighted a growing interest in women’s rights from all quarters. However, much of it is focused on women’s rights as a way to bring about economic growth. I would question whether this is really progress. 

Back in 2006 the World Bank’s gender unit proclaimed that ‘gender equality is smart economics’ and this is now mainstream mantra throughout the Bank. Similarly, the Department for International Development (DfID) published a new policy on gender equality in 2007, making the case that tackling gender inequality would increase women's productivity, reduce poverty and hunger, and that educating girls and women would help them lift them and their families out of poverty. And more recently, the Girl Effect proudly states that ‘an educated girl will invest 90% of her future income in her family, compared to 35% for a boy… so as long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change’.

So some powerful institutions – many of whom are often the targets of our campaigning - are now focusing on women and girls as a way to address poverty. What’s not to like?

Well first of all, whatever happened to promoting gender equality and women’s rights as an end in itself? Rather than taking an ‘instrumentalist’ approach that presents gender equality as an investment and a route towards achieving something else – typically economic growth – surely our starting point should be that women's rights are human rights? It is an injustice that women and girls are denied their rights to education, health or a livelihood on the basis of their gender. This is the change we should be calling for.

Secondly, the risk of promoting women’s rights in order to bring economic growth is that it can neglect the root causes of why women are denied these rights in the first place.A strategy built around achieving economic growth ignores the role that the growth agenda has actually played in creating and exacerbating inequalities between men and women. Thirdly, it also results in a narrow focus of advancing women’s rights that is limited to the economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.

Effective campaigning relies on having simple and compelling messages supported by clear demands for change. The key challenge therefore is how do we effectively communicate the multiple causes and dimensions of gender inequality and the limits of an instrumentalist approach to change, whilst at the same time presenting the complex pathways to women’s empowerment? Trying to cram all this in could be a sure-fire way of turning away supporters and campaign targets alike.  It seems so much more tempting to say ‘educate a girl and we can change the world’ than ‘actually we need to address the patriarchal system and neo-liberal agenda that lie at the heart of women’s disempowerment (but I’m afraid we don’t have any quick fixes or easy answers of how we go about it).’

Obviously our campaigning needs to be rooted in addressing the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality. Otherwise our work is just skating over the surface and missing a valuable opportunity to bring about long term sustainable change in the lives of the women we work with. But this requires tough conversations, often about controversial issues, and the need to build public understanding and support for women’s rights in and of itself. For me, one starting point is to show how our work supporting women’s rights has already made a difference, why it has made a difference, and why realising women’s rights is the real end game.

What do you think? Is there a case for making instrumental arguments for change? If so, where and how can they be made? If not, how can we make rights-based arguments attractive within an instrumentalist-dominated environment? And is it always a case of either-or?


Lucy Hurn, ActionAid

Why we're not ready to calm down, dear.

WSPU founders Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Women's rights campaigning has changed a lot since Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse in 1913. Hunger strikes, window smashing and setting fire to letterboxes are not the typical fare of a 21st century campaign strategy. Activists no longer adorn themselves in colourful sashes (well mostly). And the rallying cries for change are now more likely to reverberate through the twittersphere than be seen on a hand-embroidered banner.

But how much have we really learnt about campaigning for women’s rights in the hundred years since? In spite of the courage, anger and ingenuity shown by women around the world, and in spite of the great advances that have resulted from the actions of women like Emily Davison, we know that gross inequalities remain.

One relatively recent change in the campaigning landscape is that many mainstream development and human rights NGOs are now picking up the baton, whether this is in the form of dedicated campaigns on women’s rights (or gender equality), or looking at how to address gender issues within their existing campaigns.

So what does this mean?

Well first of all, to state the obvious, it means that there is a growing number of individuals and organisations now campaigning on women’s rights. It also means, at risk of stating the obvious again, that women’s rights have increasingly become a mainstream issue. After all, women’s rights are also human rights and making them a reality is critical to addressing poverty and inequality.

These are both very welcome trends. However, we want to ensure that the growing number and diversity of women’s rights campaigns and campaigners result in real change. In doing so, we want to reduce the risk of tokenistic gestures or oversimplified messages that actually end up reinforcing gender stereotypes or focusing on meaningless asks.

So this is why we have set up this blog.

We are a group of gender equality and women’s rights campaigners. Some of us work for women’s rights organisations, some of us work in human rights organisations, and some of us work for mainstream development organisations.

We want to share learning and stimulate debate about how to campaign effectively for women’s rights and gender equality. We want to investigate what works and what doesn’t, as well as draw out the key factors that contribute to a successful women’s rights or gender equality campaign.  Perhaps most importantly, we want to explore whether  there is something qualitatively different about campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights.  We know we want our methods to reflect our values and aims, but what does this mean in practice?

We will therefore use this blog to profile inspirational campaigns and inspirational campaigners. We will also suggest practical ways in which we can all improve our campaigning on women’s rights and gender equality. And we will challenge ourselves - and you - to practice what we preach so our campaigns are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are just some of the questions we want to try and grapple with:

  • Do we, should we, can we use instrumental arguments for women’s empowerment?
  • How on earth do we take on the ‘sticky issue’ of cultural attitudes within our advocacy and campaigning?
  • How can we effectively engage men as women’s rights activists?
  • How do we stem the creeping tide of 'cupcake feminism'?

Who is this blog for?

This blog is for anyone engaged in campaigning. If you are women’s rights activist, human rights campaigner or simply fighting to end global poverty, then this is a blog for you.

And what do we want you to do?

Well apart from reading the blog of course, we want you to share it with others, discuss and test out our ideas, and even - dare we say - challenge our thinking. Your first task, however, is to share with us your own questions about gender equality and women’s rights campaigning.

So let the debate begin. In a calm and orderly fashion of course.

Rachael Stokes, VSO