December 14, 2017

Sailing into the wind

Nationalist, authoritarian and reactionary regimes are gaining a foothold in more and more places – one only has to think of Trump, Poetin and Erdogan. Through new laws and measures, leaders all over the world are limiting the room for in which civil society organisations can manoeuvre. But feminist activists are taking a stand. In the words of a Russian activist in our Standing Firm report: “When they shut the door, we come in the window.”

Closing space for civil society is another name for the phenomenon whereby an increasing number of governments are trying to exert control over civil society organisations and social justice movements. They make it difficult for organisations to receive financial support from abroad, for example. They persecute activists for what they consider to be ‘anti-state propaganda’. Or they fail to intervene in defence of human rights demonstrations when opponents use violence.

Whereas the human rights discourse was paramount for decades, an increasing number of leaders no longer care if the world watches while they hunt and persecute activists, under the pretext of combating terrorism or driving out ‘hostile foreign influences’.

With the Urgent Action Fund, Mama Cash conducted research into the effects of this alarming trend on opportunities for women, girls and trans people to organise collectively. We interviewed activists from China, Egypt, India, Russia, Turkey and Uganda, identifying how activists are taking a stand and finding new avenues for action. The result is the Standing Firm report. “Many feminist activists are veterans when it comes to obstruction by the government”, states Zohra Moosa, since this summer Executive Director of Mama Cash. “Activists and organisations for whom this kind of resistance is new can learn a lot from them.”

“Whenever civil and human rights are at risk, women, girls and trans people will be the first to feel it.”

Zohra Moosa points out a widespread curtailment of freedom of expression, association and assembly. “Revolutionary ideas have also caused controversy in past decades. But we are now seeing drastic restriction in freedom to even express those ideas, as well as reduced opportunities to come together.” For example, in order to be allowed to begin a social organisation in India at the moment, you need to submit all the names of the people involved. “In the case of activists who are already being criminalised, including sex workers and LGBTQI activists, that’s out-right dangerous.” With these kinds of policies, activism is becoming increasingly challenging.

Canary in a coal mine
The Standing Firm report shows how women, girls and trans people are particularly affected by such forms of state violence. If you were already on the firing line, a further curtailment of your rights has an even greater impact.  Zohra: “Feminist activists are the proverbial canary in the coal mine – when they dropped dead, that served as a warning to miners that the oxygen was running out.  Whenever civil and human rights are at risk, women, girls and trans people will be the first to feel it – through increasing state violence, but also because fellow citizens are given free rein to take out their prejudice and aggression on anyone who deviates from the dominant norm.”

“By being labeled as ‘alien’ to the culture, [feminists] are pushed to the margins.”

You see, for example, that authoritarian regimes portray women’s rights as ‘foreign infiltration’ or ‘Western nonsense’, despite the fact that the women who are advocating for these rights are, of course, part of society. “By being labeled as ‘alien’ to the culture, they are pushed to the margins – a dangerous position, because then you are outlawed. Meanwhile, women who do remain within the patriarchal system are portrayed as ‘mothers of the nation’.”

Standing Firm maps out what activists are doing and what they need in order to resist this type of pressure. Zohra: “The groups that Mama Cash supports have always been targets, and have always been opposed by their own community or government. So they’re extremely skilled in dealing with repression.” One important lesson learned: be very conscious of ensuring your own safety as an activist, because whoever falls by the wayside is also no longer able to help others. Another one: if it’s not possible to do so openly, keep coming together under the radar, so that you have a basis and infrastructure to come into action if the opportunity arises.

Other ‘lessons’ are primarily directed towards funders. Such as: give groups the freedom to decide themselves how they want to use money and for what purpose. Only then can they find the loopholes in order to come together, take action and be visible in spite of opposition. “Groups must be able to take safety measures if they are attacked. Like hiring a lawyer if their work is forbidden. Spending a few weeks on complying with the newest NGO conditions. They don’t know that beforehand, so don’t hold them to a work plan. Simply give ‘flexible money’. And: above all, don’t withdraw your funding. Don’t think: I’m just going to support a slightly less controversial group or groups in a slightly less complicated country. On the contrary: stick with them!”

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