“With any social change or social justice movement, the voices and leadership of the people affected by the issue should be heard first and loudest. Social justice must be based on the lived realities of people and not on assumptions of what people think the issues or the changes they want to see are.”

– Catherine Rodgers, Restless Development Uganda

A key discussion among the over 100 global campaigners at CampaignCon 2017 was how to better support women, gender non-conforming and other traditionally excluded people in movement leadership among increasing threats to free speech, activism and civic space.

“Empowering women’s voices in the social change movement is the key for balanced reforms and sustainable change,” said Mouna Ben Garga of Innovation For Change at CIVICUS. “We have noticed a trend to consider women’s rights and voices a secondary issue. Ignoring their voices resulted in only partial changes and we found ourselves fighting again for the same requests.”

Women are working on the frontlines of global struggles: climate change impacts, equal pay and land rights to name just a few. Catherine Rodgers from Restless Development Uganda facilitated another CampaignCon session, Strengthening women and gender-non-conforming voices in the progressive movement. Rodgers says that women’s voices need to be prioritised along with other marginalised groups (people of colour, LGBTQI, and people living with disabilities, among others) to ensure we have an intersectional approach to social change.

Rodgers adds: “With any social change or social justice movement, the voices and leadership of the people affected by the issue should be heard first and loudest. Social justice must be based on the lived realities of people and not on assumptions of what people think the issues or the changes they want to see are.”

Why is this an issue?

A study by the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies surveyed 100 NGOs to find that leadership positions were predominantly a male territory. Men dominated executive positions and boards–the ratio of men to women involved stands at 73% to 27%.

The findings showed several reasons why this was the case, including:

  • A passive attitude on behalf of NGOs (acceptance of the current situation and resistance to change);
  • A high share of NGOs claimed that they are often driven to invite men for participation in their Board of Directors because there is not a large enough pool of women in high-rank positions; and
  • Women may be prevented or discouraged by men, and women themselves may not claim or contend for an executive position.

“Male voices tend to dominate decision making spaces in all sectors so to ensure all perspectives are heard and respected, we need to make sure we are hearing from diverse groups of people,” says Rodgers.

Planning for a session on raising women's voices at CampaignCon 2017.

How can it be done?

Globally, women and other marginalised groups are finding ways around entrenched power structures to open up new opportunities for equitable leadership.

Representation matters

In a CampaignCon session, one activist shared the example of Kenya, where men are 10 times more likely than women to be used as a source of news in the media. Here, three women – Ory Okolloh, Sophie Gitonga and Nanjira Sambuli – turned their frustration with under-representation of women in the media and in event panels into action. They collated a list of women experts across the country so that no one would have an excuse to say, ‘but we can’t find women to speak on the issue’. They also created an online form and encouraged women to register as experts in their fields if they wanted to be included in the database. Using the hashtag #SayNoToManelsKE, they have called for a boycott of all-male panels and asked media houses and organisers to commit to stop hosting them. By increasing representation, the goal is that women (and others) will have fewer obstacles to navigate in the workplace.

Taking space and visibility matter

But it’s not just about changing entrenched bias, empowering women to lead can also change social movements. Ben Garga shared the example of the Tunisian revolution in 2010-11. In it, women’s voices were an integrated part of the fight. “When the Tunisians started writing the new constitution, women’s rights organizations and voices were in the front asking for equality and imposing parity on the top of electoral lists, to improve women’s representation,” she says. “Knowing that a quota is not enough to ensure representation, Tunisian women’s right organisations were ready and prepared to counter all reforms that didn’t include or consider women’s voices.”

Intention matters

Strengthening these voices can also pave the way to better organisations. At CampaignCon, an activist shared the example of Joanna Kerr’s work at Greenpeace Canada. Kerr, upon becoming executive director at Greenpeace Canada, used her experience in the feminist movement and at ActionAid to address diversity and inclusion.

At ActionAid, every office was supported and encouraged to host a Women’s Forum at which all female staff could come together to share what challenges they might be facing. Frank conversations about harassment, discrimination and work-life balance emerged. ActionAid’s international human resources community was then able to change some of the policies and processes to ensure more inclusive environments.

When Joanna joined Greenpeace Canada, she introduced this way of working in the new office. Several womens/trans fora were held over two years. Issues raised were incorporated into human resources policies, staff training, and culture change work.

This example underlines the importance of creating collective spaces to talk about issues that divide us–to overcome the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of patriarchal power. It is critical to expose and unlearn the unequal norms we’re used to in our campaign and office environments.

What is the first step to making these examples a daily reality?

“The first step is to listen! That’s it–really and truly listen,” says Rodgers. She recommends letting your views and opinions be changed by people who have had different experiences and lived realities to you. “From here, it will be easier to let go of your power and ensure that it is shared equally with everyone in your movement or organization.”

She emphasises the importance of collaborating in a way that ensures you are all supporting each other to grow and create a stronger movement for social change.

Mouna Ben Garga also underlined the need for spaces that let activists grow and lead as a first step:

It is time to support their unique leadership by giving them the space to act, by fighting with them and not through them. Equip them to be more efficient, give them access to the international community and resources, push for more inclusion, not only by ensuring a quota of representation but through pushing for a more gender- and socially-inclusive budget.

“These voices are the ones making the change on the ground. I think activists have to empower them not only to be there in our rallies or meetings or part of our Whatsapp groups,” Ben Garga concludes.

The CampaignCon session on how we start strengthening these voices concluded by adding that women aren’t a monolithic group. We need diversity in the space women take up, and we need to recognize that even in aware, activist spaces, our good intentions can blind us to other dynamics.

This isn’t a roadmap, but as one participant of the Feminism in Africa session at CampaignCon said, “dismantling an oppressive system starts with the small details, and it is a journey.”


Top photo: Lesotho women protesting violence against women at a National Women’s Day protest at National University of Lesotho, 2008. By K. Kendall [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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