Making Women Visible: A Report from the WRI Triennial

by Maggie Helwig

"Our daily lives must be visible," says Staša. "They must become international policy. It is my international policy that Haya comes to my house. That is my government."

Staša, from Belgrade, and Haya, from Jerusalem, were both part of the theme group on women's work against violence at the War Resisters International's Triennial in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil, held in December 1994. Although the group's conclusions cannot be summed up in any brief form, Staša's words do express a fundamental principle underlying much of what was said.

Women in Brazil

Two of the national coordinators of SERPAJ/Brazil (Servicio y Justicia--the Latin American peace and justice network) were also part of the women's discussion group. The two were Mariene Pantoja from Manaus, in the Amazon, and Maria da Penha from Brasilia. The work of these women is directly rooted in Brazilian women's daily lives; they are both community workers, whose primary responsibility is organizing among poor women. But they are also very aware of how the concrete details of these daily lives underpin a national and international economic system; and how much of the economic exploitation suffered by Brazilian women and children is made possible by a whole chain of factors. These factors are rooted in traditional beliefs about women's appropriate role and behavior.

Mariene is of indigenous descent. She was not raised in an indigenous cultly came to identify with this heritage, which is a source of inspiration for her. She lived in the Manaus slums and first became involved in politics through protests around housing issues. She was not a pacifist. Though she never carried a gun, she believed that armed force would be necessary to overturn oppression. She credits her gradual conversion to nonviolence to a local minister who "kept coming and talking to me about nonviolence all the time....Finally I said, okay, I'll give it a try." Her own experience of nonviolently confronting armed policemen led her into an deepening conviction that unarmed activism, although slower and less exciting, is the only way forward.

"Women in Brazil haven't discovered their power to work together," she says. "But I believe that women have more potential for change. We have more patience, more hope and stronger resistance." She is involved in a group discussing women's rights and their relation to other social issues, which includes "washerwomen to lawyers", but "it's difficult...the popular movement in Brazil has regressed because of economic policies; people don't organism if they're starving, and there is such high unemployment. In Manaus, in our office we have one typewriter and one filing cabinet. We're trying to support ourselves by producing indigenous foods and handicrafts for sale."

Women's Bodies, Women's Lives

Mariene and Maria both talk about the policy of mass sterilizations in Brazil, carried out partly with US funding, which peaked in 1992. This was one of the many programs designed to "control" the Third World's population. It is part of a larger national and international program of social control.

Mariene and Maria estimate that thousands of Brazilian women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent; even now, women are often asked to present a certificate of sterilization to get a job, so the employer won't have to worry about pregnancy leave or childcare. "Economic oppression implies many things--sterilization, sexuality, workers' rights." All of these are interlocked.

Maria spoke about Brazilian machismo, and how it functions not only to excuse domestic violence (even to the point of murder), but also as part of the economic system, providing the rationale for women's drastically lower pay. "They say women have to stay at home because it's safe. But there is more violence at home than in the streets." Mariene also described a cycle of men leaving their families because they can't support them ("an insult to their manhood"); travelling to find work and starting new families elsewhere, leaving the previous wives and children entirely unsupported; then, sometimes, leaving their new families as well.

Maria and Mariene found much common ground with Saswati Roy, a WRI Women's Working Group core member since the women's conference in Bangkok in 1992, and a community worker in India. Though Saswati and the SERPAJ women live on the other side of the world, they shared experiences and ideas on topics ranging from the process of "conscientisation", literacy training, and alternative economic models, to dealing with husbands who object to their wives becoming educated and active.

Another area where there was intense discussion was the subject of nationalism, the not-always-clear distinctions between nationalism and a peoples' self-determination, and the relationship of both of these to the self-determination of individual women.

Women at the Triennial--and the Next Women's Conference

Women were very visible at the Triennial--though few of the many other theme groups dealt with the issue of gender as it related to their topic in any serious way. (This reflects, perhaps, our own difficulty in maintaining a balance between ensuring that women have a space of our own, and seeing to it that our concerns are not relegated just to women-only groups. This complex problem was also discussed in the theme group.) More than half the plenary speakers were women, and seven women were elected to the 12 seats of the WRI Council.

The WRI Women's Working Group (WWG) also held a meeting during the Triennial. The main topic for discussion was the very exciting possibility that the next 5th WRI Women's Conference (which may be jointly co-sponsored with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation) will be held in South Africa in the not-too-distant future. Although still in the exploratory stage, WWG women can expect a letter about this possibility soon. Shelley Anderson and Maggie Helwig are acting jointly as the coordinators, and you can contact either of them for more information.

Contact: Maggie Helwig, WRI, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1, UK. Tel. +44 20 7278 4040; fax +44 20 7278 0444; email: info@wri-irg.org or Shelley Anderson, IFOR, Spoorstraat 38, NL-1815 BK, Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Tel. +31 72 123014; fax +31 72 151102; email: ifor@gn.apc.org.