Without Grassroots, the Tree Will Not Stand

Andrea Lunt and Kanya D’Almeida

HAVANA TIMES, March 8 (IPS) — Women from grassroots organizations all across the globe arrived in New York this week for a five-day summit dedicated to bolstering female and community- based representation at the all levels of political decision making.

Following on the heels of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Grassroots Summit on Women’s Leadership and Governance, hosted by the Huairou Commission, attracted individuals from a range of institutions, spanning village healthcare advocates, to international scholars.

The event offered a chance for participants to share local success stories and challenges, while creating a platform for grassroots organizations to strengthen their partnerships with entities such as the newly formed UN Women.

Jan Peterson, chair of the Huairou Commission, told IPS the women were challenging traditional decision-making structures at both the country and global levels.

“For all of this time policy makers and academics and other NGOs have made the agenda for grassroots women, for what leadership they need,” Peterson said. “But in this case grassroots women leaders themselves are saying ‘Hey, we’re here, we can speak for ourselves, we can analyze ourselves, and we can organize how we want to move in partnership with others, but we need to get our own voices together first’.”

Among the participants at the summit were Naseem Shaikh and Godavari Dange, from Maharashtra, near Mumbai, India.

The pair represented Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a community organization that facilitates ties between grassroots women and district-level health officials to ensure better access to healthcare for the poor.

As part of its work, SSP mobilizes grassroots women into aptly named Self Help Groups (SHG), which monitor community needs and act as “decentralizing” links between issues on the ground and policy making at the top levels of government.

Today SSP’s combined operations work with more than 300,000 families across India.

Dange told IPS their organization was a successful example of how community leaders were stepping up to have their voices heard. “Before decentralization there was somebody ruling from the top and people following that,” she said. “Now because of decentralization, grassroots women are contributing to who is making the policy… But we still have challenges. We are a big country so we have to continue to fight for a space at the state and national level.”

Fellow summit participants who had travelled to New York from 22 different countries echoed the Maharashtrian women’s struggles for political participation.

Representatives from Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Tanzania acknowledged that while their struggles on the ground may differ – responding to the particular manifestations of patriarchy and the specific shackles of the free market across the world – the overall goal of women’s empowerment knows no borders.

Everywhere women are united in their fight for economic justice and political representation.

Speaking on behalf of the Maasai Women and Development Organization (MWEDO), Espupat Ngulupa stressed the fact that Maasai women are one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in the world. Maasai women struggle daily against the leash of male dominance – they are in dire need of swift political change, and are dedicated to etching out spaces in which their voices will be heard.

Piyoo Kochar, a representative of the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKNOW Politics), highlighted the fact that her organization’s objective is to bridge cultural, linguistic and geographical chasms between women around the world via an online, multi-lingual forum dedicated to improving women’s access to resources and information.

“We are keen for women to share their experiences and build collaborative knowledge,” she said. “Already we have 9,500 members, constantly sharing skills… We believe in the cross-fertilization of strategies, relying on a network of networks that already exists at the country, regional, district, local provincial and levels.”

Today, there is a greater need than ever for platforms like iKNOW’s website.
Kathy Karapa Tom, the founder and executive director of Widows Orphans Deserted Association (WODA) in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, discussed her struggle for equality in a country that is home to 800 languages and millions of slum dwellers.

“I work with women whose husbands have passed, and though this is a tragedy it is also an opportunity for us to break away from the control our husbands have on us, and organize around providing education, food and love to our children,” Karapa Tom told IPS. “We are the victims. We are the ones who work and suffer. We know what is best for ourselves, so we need to form our own organizations.”

“It cost us twenty dollars to register our organization with the National Council of Women, a branch of the government,” Karapa Tom added. “In order to do this, women sat in the marketplace for hours and sold their produce and their fish so they could earn a little extra income.”

“It is a struggle, but we do it, we succeed,” she said. “We are more than cooks and baby factories. We have human rights and skills and potential and we will realize them.”

Although her message was powerful, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the uphill climb ahead of most women. Emily Tjale, the director of the Land Access Movement of South Africa (LAMOSA), is fighting alongside farmers and peasant women to reclaim their ancestral lands in South Africa.

“We started our movement in 1989, just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison,” Tjale told IPS, adding that the battle for land is a war against the post-colonial bureaucracy of ownership papers and title deeds – a system most farmers are unable to navigate.

Despite her exhausting work, Tjale remains convinced that any lasting national or international changes have to be guided by women’s voices from the grassroots. “Without roots, the tree will not stand,” Tjale told IPS. “Without a firm foundation, nothing you build can last.”