Senior Programme Officer Vanina Serra talks about how the Voice portfolio supports women, girls, trans and intersex peoples’ self-determination and self-representation worldwide.

Do you know who decides what you see on your social media feeds? Who wrote that Wikipedia entry? Who selects what art will be exhibited in a museum? And who sets the parliamentary agenda? In brief: do you know who is telling the stories that influence public agendas, shape narratives and influence people’s lives? The answer in many cases is: not those who have direct experience of what is being discussed, portrayed and decided upon.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The power of stories

Stories are powerful. They are key tools in shaping our understanding of the world, of what is right and wrong, and on what values we base our lives. The spaces in which they are crafted and from which they are shared are often the same where decisions are made, social norms are shaped and resources are held. Control over these spaces is key to hold and exercise power – hence, it has historically been in the hands of those with gender, racial, class and economic privileges. In short, power – the power to tell stories, to set priorities, to shape our world –remains in the hands of a few privileged people that gain from deliberately silencing and ignoring other voices.Mama Cash’s Voice grantee-partners work to change this status quo by making sure that the voices of those they represent are elevated rather than shut down. They do not question only who is allowed to be in a space, but also whose voices are listened to in these spaces.

What is our focus?

While there are a multitude of spaces that can influence women, girls, trans and intersex people’s life and rights, in our Voice grantmaking, we have decided to focus on groups working on:

  • Decision-making spaces;
  • Digital spaces;
  • Cultural and knowledge production spaces.

Why? First, because we think that these are the spaces that provide people with most of the information and stories on which they base their understanding of the world and beliefs. Secondly, because our experience in funding in the Voice portfolio has shown that these spaces are a recurrent focus for feminist organising. And thirdly, because women, girls, trans and intersex people continue to have limited to no representation in, influence on and ownership of these spaces. Let’s take a closer look.

Decision-making spaces

Important decisions are made in parliaments, local councils, religious institutions but also at peace negotiations tables, village dispute mechanisms, and by the leadership of social and environmental justice movements. Underrepresentation of women, girls, trans and intersex people in these spaces is still a reality. Why does this matter? Because it influences not only the kind of laws and policies that are decided upon, but also the persistence of gender-biased social norms and customs. Voice grantee-partners go beyond working to make sure that their communities have a physical place in the spaces where decision are made. – Years of experience in this field have shown us that it is not enough to have a woman in parliament to achieve structural change; what is needed is the presence of multiple progressive voices in key decision-making spaces, including in social justice movements.

Migrant-led German group International Women Space (IWS) focuses on political activities with women refugees and migrants to frame their experiences as political. IWS supports them to take the lead of the migrant and refugee movement, which has been historically led by men. If women are not in the lead they say, their stories will not be told or included in the asks of the movement. In Kenya, girls-led group INUA claims girls’ right to be involved in public spaces and in decisions directly affecting their lives. With their work, they show that girls can be leaders in their communities.

Digital Spaces

Digital media, social media, blogs and news websites, and anything else that that can be displayed and visualised on the screens of digital devices, make up the digital space. The entirety of its content (or, sometimes, parts of it) is generated by users. This means that who has access to digital spaces, to what extent and with which skills, influences what we see. However, users are not often the ones who own these spaces.Behind the appearance of openness and democracy, it is those who own the space who have control over the content that it hosts. This often happens by means of algorithms that, far from being neutral data processing tool, re-create and re-inforce the unjust structures existing in the ‘real’ world.

Women’s access to digital spaces is still lower than men’s throughout the world. Data on internet content production and ownership of internet companies show that women, girls, trans and intersex people are largely underrepresented. Hence, what is included in digital spaces is often not a reflection of their true stories and experiences. Furthermore, women, girls, trans and intersex people expressing their opinions and identities in online spaces are much more likely than men to be targeted in gendered ways, including by receiving rape threats, online harassment and unwanted sexual attention. Mama Cash groups focused on digital spaces work to change this situation by increasing women, girls, trans and intersex people’s access to digital spaces, and making sure that their communities can benefit from their mobilising power. Groups like 5Harfliler in Turkey, AzMina in Brazil and Luchadoras in Mexico are all claiming access to and ownership over the production of media content by publishing it via their digital platforms. They do so recognising that digital spaces are an amazing organising tool for social justice movements all around the world – including for feminists. Harnessing their power is often the only way to continue organising in contexts where physical resistance is made impossible by political oppression.

Knowledge and Cultural Production Spaces

Whether it is a written narrative or poem, spoken word, theatre or a dance performance, a painting, a mural, a blog or a photo, it is important that all people get to speak for themselves, tell their own stories, and share their own knowledge. This is particularly true for people who have been silenced and excluded from public fora, communications platforms and other spaces of expression and decision-making.The access of women, girls, trans and intersex people to these spaces is key to make sure that their experiences are shared and become part of the wider public narrative. Unfortunately however, their access to and control of these spaces is still very limited or distorted by sexist and stereotypical views.

The groups funded by Mama Cash in this area focus on supporting their communities in finding channels to express their own experiences and realities, providing them with the skills and tools to do so, and challenging standard ideas on who can be considered as a legitimate producer of knowledge and culture. In its cabaret plays, Mexican grantee-partner Reinas Chulas exposes the ridiculousness of the strict social norms determining gender relations in Mexico. They portray the ‘machismo’ and denounce the normalisation of women’s hypersexualisation in mass-media and of violence against women. By engaging their audience through laughter, they, they move past defensiveness , change hearts and minds and thus foster sustainable change in their societies. Also based in Mexico,  Proyecto Intersexual is the only intersex group in the country (and possibly in the world) that focuses its activism on the value of art as a tool to increase safety and a sense of self-worth in intersex people.

Who tells the story matters

At Mama Cash, we think that who tells the story matters. It matters because it empowers who is telling that story; and it matters because stories told by different people can change the way we see the world. Our grantee-partners in the Voice portfolio work to make sure that their communities can bring their stories at the centre of the political agenda; they support women, girls, trans and intersex people’s freedom of expression, including artistic; and they make sure that the internet is a safe and useful space for them to engage in. The examples above show that despite the huge challenges they face, when properly funded their work can be successful – because feminist activism is the base for strong voices – and it works!