An Asian grassroots women’s agenda

Women in the region may face repression, but they won’t be cowed. Some stories from the field.

An Asian grassroots women’s agenda

We are living through a crisis of democracy. Around the world, authoritarian, fascist and patriarchal governments have come into power, often using democratic means. The erosion and attack on democracy is a global trend, with neoliberalism and militarism aiding and abetting each other. Militarism is being embraced by autocratic ruling regimes to maintain their control over wealth, resources, power and opportunities. 

As neoliberalism plunges deeper into crisis, nations’ reliance on military means to achieve their domestic governance and external relations purposes is on the rampage on every continent today, and the Asia-Pacific is at the center of this maelstrom. Criminalizing dissent and subverting democratic institutions is increasingly cemented within state security policies. Amid the present crisis of democracy, iconic images of women and young people flooding the streets to demonstrate, with fists raised in defiance against the police and military wearing riot gear, stand out as talismans of hope. From Hong Kong to Lebanon, from Chile to India, from Colombia to the Philippines, we see women and young people asserting and reclaiming democracies, unthwarted in the face of brutal state-sponsored violence. 

The Asia-Pacific is home to 60 percent of the world’s population and some of the largest democracies in the world. Yet, according to a 2019 report by Freedom House, on a scale that measures political and civil liberties, fewer than 20 of the 47 states in the region are free. One of the unifying features in countries across Asia with an increasing democracy deficit is the intensifying attacks on women human rights defenders (WHRDs). The 2019 Amnesty International report on attacks faced by WHRDs states that “those with power must recognize women human rights defenders as key agents of change in securing justice, equality, peace and sustainable development.” Indeed, research has long shown that autonomous grassroots feminist movements led by women and transgender persons are the key to bringing about long-term structural change and redistributing power.

Currently, the inherently patriarchal political systems in the region have led to a proliferation of political dynasties. Ruling political systems are increasingly resorting to intensified attacks on civic and democratic spaces, preventing any challenge to the prevailing political powers. Elections are rarely contested or won on the basis of policy agenda and debates related to human rights. While it is important for women to be represented in parliaments, the slow upward trajectory of women in the region’s parliaments has not translated into the advancement of women’s human rights, especially those of marginalized women. There is often a disconnect between the few women elected to parliaments and the broader women’s movements. The larger context of the region continues to be widening inequality, feminization of poverty and intensifying structural and gender-based violence against women and transgender people. 

As a regional, feminist, membership-driven network, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) has long supported marginalized and grassroots women’s movements through Feminist Participatory Action Research. The APWLD’s Women in Power program has worked with elected and aspiring women leaders, as well as grassroots women, in building feminist leadership and collective power for structural change, for women’s human rights and development justice. Since 1996, the program has facilitated women’s participation in political processes and engaged with women parliamentarians, grassroots women’s movements and electoral politics. After more than two decades of this work, APWLD has adopted a creative strategy dubbed the “Womanifesto,” which aims to further build the capacity of marginalized women. By organizing grassroots women through building their agenda for change, prioritizing their issues and their input for policy changes, the Womanifesto builds grassroots women’s political leadership. 

APWLD started on the Womanifesto journey in 2018 with nine grassroots women’s organizations and their communities from India to Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. This essay explores the grassroots women’s agenda for change in Nepal, the Philippines and India. 

Nepal: A manifesto from women with disabilities

Anju Dhittal, 28, is from a small village in the Bara district of Nepal’s Terai region. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas, the region is home to the Madheshi people – an ethnic minority in Nepal. The region lags behind in human development indices, and the situation for women with disabilities is worse due to prejudice, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, lack of access and inaction from the government. 

Anju is the first woman with a disability from her village to complete university. She works with the Blind Women’s Association Nepal. BWAN appointed her as a community organizer for the Womanifesto process. She organized 55 women with disabilities across three districts in the Terai region. Collectively they produced a Womanifesto via Madheshi Women With Disabilities, asserting their right to education and employment, full participation in public life and an end to discrimination. Reflecting on the process of organizing the women, Anju recalls how difficult it was. The women were scattered over a large geographical area, came from different levels of education and with different kinds of disabilities, and many had never ventured outside their homes. “One woman cried for the entire first day of the meeting: she had never left her house before,” Anju said. “It took a lot of persuasion to make her open up and talk about the discrimination she faced within her community. Many parents also did not want their daughters with disabilities to attend any program. We had to let the parents stay so that they would be convinced.”

Thanks to the 15 months of hard work by Anju and her colleagues from BWAN, there is now a movement of women with disabilities in the districts of Bara, Mahottari and Rautahat. Comprising women with diverse disabilities, it is a path-breaking movement. In a country that has no such representation in Nepal’s Parliament, the movement aims for bottom-up, informed policy changes to realize the rights of women with disabilities to fully participate in political and public life.

Despite not having any disabled women in parliament, Nepal leads women’s political representation in South Asia, with more than 32 percent of the lower house of parliament comprising women. In a face-to-face meeting with Nepali women members of parliament in Kathmandu in December 2019, Anju and four others made a powerful case for representation and enacting policies for women with disabilities. They were able to extract promises from MPs to table their demands in the Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Rights. Anju recollects: “As [an] activist, my values, perspectives and knowledge have been influenced by the Womanifesto because I had to motivate women with disabilities to speak up about what they felt in the community, what they wanted to see changed in their life. I was disappointed sometimes due to the fact that the program sometimes did not work out as we planned. However, along with hurdles and challenges, I have learned the meaning of passion and perseverance for community organizing and for achieving rights and changes in society.” 

Today, in the districts of Bara, Mahottari and Rautahat, there are several women with disabilities community leaders emerging from community meetings conducted by Anju. They engage regularly with local authorities with their Womanifesto demands. Anju has already imagined proposed programs with the parents of women with disabilities in the districts. “Many parents feel disabled girls cannot even go outside the house,” Anju said. “I have been able to reach where I am because of support from my family. Today, people in my village point to me and say, ‘Look at her, she’s working and has traveled abroad despite being blind.’ The key is changing the mind-set of families.” Anju recently took a test that will allow her to become a primary school teacher. She wants to break stereotypes and lead as an example. 

The Philippines: Advancing female workers’ rights 

In the era of globalized neoliberal economies and free trade agreements, workers’ rights are the first casualties. In the Philippines, women workers face the brunt while corporations rake in the profits through exploitative working conditions. The 1987 Philippines Constitution guarantees multiple rights for workers, ranging from self-organization and collective bargaining to security of tenure and the right to strike. But today there is increasing precarity for workers, particularly women, many of whom work by piece rates and day rates.

Many parents feel disabled girls cannot even go outside the house.

Kilusan ng Manggagawang Kababaihan (KMK), or the Movement of Women Workers, used the Womanifesto as a tool to organize women workers in Valenzuela City in Metro Manila. The testimony they collected from women workers reveals the extent of mistreatment they routinely face. Eda, one of the workers contacted by KMK, said: “The company says that if we are not happy with our condition, we could always leave. That’s how little the company regards us; we are expendable. They say there are thousands of people who would love to take our place.” 

Before the 2019 general election, the KMK came out with a Womanifesto, which they describe as the “working women’s policy agenda.” Their Womanifesto is derived from the experiences of women workers and consolidated to a campaign for better working conditions, just wages, security of tenure and an end to discrimination and gender-based violence in the workplace. It’s an action plan of women, by women and for women in the working sector to encourage more political participation and collective action. 

The KMK closely works with the Gabriela Women’s Party, a political party representing women that was born out of the strong grassroots women’s movement in the Philippines. Among the demands of the women workers are the enactment of the Occupational Health and Safeties Act (OSHA) and the Extended Maternity Benefit Act. The former criminalizes unsafe working conditions and holds employers accountable, and the latter increases maternity leave for all workers to 105 days. These two laws, jointly undertaken by the KMK and its ally in parliament, the Gabriela Women’s Party, are a big win for the women workers’ movement. 

Representative Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women’s Party, its sole representative following the May 2019 election, is also the main author of OSHA. She says: “The Filipino president is the epitome of patriarchal feudal culture, and he has no hesitation in saying this to his constituencies. Still, he is very popular – even women believe in him. If you are a woman activist, he targets you with police and military.” The bills were passed due to tireless advocacy and organizing efforts by the Gabriela Women’s Party, in conjunction with the KMK. Despite the current climate of fear and attacks on women human rights defenders in the Philippines, these wins show how autonomous women’s movements and progressive women representatives can work together to effect policy changes. 

Community organizer Jacqueline Ruiz, from the KMK, said of her experience with the Womanifesto: “The Womanifesto affected my understanding of the process of legislation, how it’s important to organize affected sectors to forward legislative measures, how it’s important to educate them about their rights when not everyone has access to information, considering their hectic schedules at work. They barely have time to improve or learn other skills besides what they do at work. The only way to go is to organize and rely on each other’s strength to push for structural change.”

Currently, the KMK is working to closely monitor the operationalization of OSHA and the Extended Maternity Benefit Act, including continuous engagement with government agencies and implementing bodies.

India: Muslim and Dalit women united

India, called the world’s largest democracy, held elections in 2019. With only 14 percent of women MPs in its parliament, India is also a country that sees some of the worst violence against women, transgender people and marginalized people, especially those belonging to minority religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims and Dalits. In its second term now, the Hindu right-wing ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, continues with the trend of enacting neoliberal economic policies while using militarism and fundamentalism as tools to disempower large sections of the population and deny them their fundamental rights. 

In the run-up to the elections, Dalit and Muslim women across 10 villages in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh came together to articulate their aspirations for the government. The result was a radical Womanifesto asking for land reallocations to women along with better health care, mobility and living wages to end poverty. 

Kavita, 32, is a Dalit woman. She worked as the community organizer to bring together the women of these 10 villages. It was not an easy task to bring together women living in a very patriarchal and conservative part of India. It required convincing mostly male family members to allow the women to go outside their homes to attend meetings. Further, the women themselves often felt they had too much on their plates from agricultural labor and care work to take part. Kavita adopted innovative means to convince the women, including creating time tables scheduling all the tasks of the women so they could spare one hour per week. 

As governments across the region turn more authoritarian, there will be more violence against those wanting justice, human rights, equality and redress of wrongs.

“I went in with preconceived notions of what the women would want as part of the Womanifesto,” Kavita said. “Health care, especially around childbirth, is very poor in this region, and I assumed that their demands would relate to better hospital facilities. But the biggest issue the women highlighted everywhere was poverty: lack of fair wages, gender pay gap in agricultural labor and the lack of land tenure in women’s names.” 

Not only were the women able to identify the issues, they also self-appointed one woman in each of these villages as the local human rights defender. In one village, the women blamed early marriage and school dropouts among girls on the sexual harassment they faced on their long walks to school. Notions of parental honor being tied to the girls often meant that parents were reluctant to send the girls to school and felt they were better off married at a young age. “The women collectively solved this by proposing that girls get bicycles for faster commutes,” Kavita said. “The entire community rallied together to teach each other how to ride bicycles, often under the cover of night so as to not attract attention to themselves.”

Kavita also feels she herself has gone through a transformation in the process of building the Womanifesto. “I have conducted many trainings over the years. And by and large women remain skeptical of NGO interventions,” she said. “But I have never seen such transformation and enthusiasm among women and their will to engage with political processes for change before.” Before the elections, the women took part in self-organized rallies to meet the highest government functionary in the district and present them with the Womanifesto. 

Kavita’s mentor, Rehana Adib, from Astitva Samajik Sansthan, a nongovernmental organization, has fought for a long time in the region for the rights of marginalized women. She adds that, initially, government functionaries would scoff at the women’s agenda for change. But gradually, they have started taking their demands more seriously. 

Today, as India’s central and state governments are specifically targeting Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Act, women are facing immense state-sponsored violence for raising their voices. In the recent attacks, the internet in Muzaffarnagar was shut down and police entered the private homes of Muslims to beat them up and ransack and loot their homes. Rehana said that because of this incident, most women are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only succor they have in the midst of growing precarity is in the comradeship of fellow women with whom they marched together to present their demands to the government less than a year ago. 

The Future

As governments across the region turn more authoritarian, there will be more violence against those wanting justice, human rights, equality and redress of wrongs – the fundamental principles of democracy. From the women of Shaheen Bagh to the students of Hong Kong, today’s protesters are fighting insurmountable odds and resisting despite governments that are unrelenting in their macho-fascist stances. The resilience and spirit of democracy, and our hopes, ride on these protests. The Womanifesto is an effort to harness this spirit and amplify the voices of the grassroots and marginalized women who are the foundation in reshaping political power and overturning oppressive structures. 

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