The global pulse of young feminists organising

Young feminists are organising across movements in an intersectional way, locally, nationally and regionally, and they are using artivism and technology as core tools in their work. 

Deepa Ranganathan Ruby Johnson
8 March 2016

In memory of Berta Caceres, your struggle continues in each of us. We express our support to all activists in resistance. Do not let fear paralyse us. More than ever, now, we must keep struggling together.

From Lithuania to El Salvador to Brazil to Kiribati to Mozambique to Zimbabwe to Guyana to Morocco, diverse young feminist organising is sprouting across the globe, working to dismantle power structures and stand strong in the face of violent backlash and discrimination. Creativity and occupying space are the order of the day, with young women, girls and trans* youth reclaiming their bodies and redefining their own feminisms. Coming from diverse social movements such as youth, climate justice, sex workers, LGBTQI, indigenous, sexual reproductive rights and health and disability rights, intersectionality moves between us, flowing like rivers powerfully and fiercely into each other across space and time.

Girls For Life, Morocco are passionate about challenging the enemies of women, art and diversity. Credit: Girls for LifeSince forming in 2010, FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund has been receiving up to 1000 applications from feminist led groups in more than 120 countries almost every year. Of the 850 applications received in 7 languages last year from Asia and the Pacific, Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central, North Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East, North and Sub Saharan Africa, it is evident that young women human rights defenders are inventing alternatives, creating safe spaces for political activism and challenging concepts of sexism, racism, patriarchy, capitalism and consumerism. The majority of groups that applied are fairly new, with 61% having formed in the last 3 years, and 22.6% before July 2015. Many have informal structures with 57% of the groups not legally registered and 68% never having received funding before. Across all regions, groups say that their motivations for forming were personal experiences of discrimination, violence, backlash and lack of public space for their work.

Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central North Asia

The countries in this region have a shared feature: a strong patriarchal stream with a pinch of religious conservatism. In Central and Eastern Europe it is believed by many that inter-generational relations should be hierarchical. This can create a barrier for meaningful participation of young feminists in mainstream women’s organizations. This is amplified by the fact that many existing women’s rights organizations are built on the strong leadership of one person rather than horizontal structures, and resources for women’s rights are incredibly limited. Struggles for survival limit organisations’ capacity to engage in a dialogue with its constituency and young women are likely to be perceived as threat or rivals, not equal contributors and supporters.

An artistic display

Tiiiit! Inc. Macedoni, engage in the field of women’s rights, female intellectual and creative production. Credit: Tiiiit! IncThe trends are changing; being a formal organization isn't compulsory anymore in order to make a significant and positive impact. There has been a surge of more informal initiatives working, minimizing bureaucracy. In a context where arguably some established women NGOs have forgotten about their roots and how they began their journey in the most informal and organic ways, it is refreshing to see where the new wave is taking us.

People sit along a banner

Sapfo Collective, Lithuania LBT group travelling across country on bicycles to talk about LBT rights. Credit: Sapfo CollectiveYoung, emerging groups come with the knowledge that gender-based discrimination isn’t the only or even the most important form of oppression, and thus, there is an ambition to be inclusive of diverse groups of women and persons from the wide gender spectrum. In fact, young feminists contribute to mainstreaming feminism in a sense that their activism includes the needs of non-heterosexual women and women in rural areas or women living in poverty. These groups are working within local communities seeing real change through social interaction at the micro level of everyday life. 

Asia and the Pacific

The diversity of countries and movements we receive applications from in this region has increased annually and included high percentages from Pakistan, Nepal and India in particular. Some of the contexts in which young feminist groups are working include harmful traditional and cultural practices or beliefs such as early and forced marriage, violence and sexual harassment. The challenges applicants shared were a lack of feminist approaches both in the general community, but also in terms of activism and organising, competition between CSOs, and a lack of appreciation for young feminist organizing.

Groups applied from the Pacific Islands, including Kirbiti, Fiji, PNG.  The issues they reported facing ranged from climate justice, women’s leadership and political participation, to trans* rights and economic empowerment.  In a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, Michelle Kepa, a prominent local young women leader said “It was also a surprise to many women that FRIDA was specifically for young women causes. Many times we tend to think we are not qualified or experienced enough to lead a project of our own so knowing that FRIDA makes this possible and provides capacity support is empowering for women to just even know about, because it challenges younger women and makes them want to explore their leadership potential, as often we find that it is older women leading, and younger women that follow.” With the huge climate impacts in the region, young women are  becoming agents of resilience, in the Pacific and beyond. Emerging Leaders Forum and Alumni (ELFA) from Fiji, for instance, has special modules on women and climate change to equip young women for their role in sustainable development.

The Pacific region consists of some highly energised groups. Haus of Khameleon defines itself as a movement led by young transgender women who are lobbying, campaigning, organizing for transgender equality. Women in Martial Arts (WIMA) was formed last year seeking to fuse Kiribati traditional dancing with self defense to inspire young girls and help them prioritise their health and body.

2015 was the first year we made our application process available in Mandarin, and the first year we had advisors and new grantees from China. This was particularly significant given the overall environment in China, including the recent crackdown on young feminist activists; but also the recent trends of the growing philanthropic community there. Some of the dominant issues highlighted in applications included sexuality, LGBTQI rights, building connections between the lesbian and feminist movement, creating safe spaces and support networks, claiming public space and drawing on creativity such activities like queer movie screenings, rainbow cycling, feminist book clubs and performing vagina monologues. One group was working to overcome discrimination and stereotypes that women cannot engage in STEM via an interactive media platform and capacity building.

People smiling

Hashtag Generation Sri Lanka, build platforms for young women to engage in politics. Credit: Hashtag GenerationThe applications from groups in South Asian countries focused on demanding justice and human rights, women’s rights, sexual rights and political rights. This signals a shift from the traditional development framework that has often framed women as a vulnerable group and recipient of aid - rather than agents of change; a beneficiary instead of a change maker. The political work also went beyond focusing on “women and girls” de-constructing gender and sexuality, with work led by trans* and queer activists, as well as including young men and boys and questioning social constructions of masculinity. Young feminists  are working directly to challenge and dismantling hierarchal South Asian society, changing the narrative in a political way with the gola of transforming society in a radical and concrete way.

Latin America

More than 240 young feminist groups in countries applied for grants representing the region’s feminist movement in all shapes and colors. These are 240 reasons to support the feminist movement in the region: 240 groups who fight daily for women's human rights in their cities, states and countries.

People hold up a banner

Red de Información por el Aborto Seguro,Venezuela, reduce the risks of unsafe abortion. Credit : Red de Informacion por el Aborto SeguroA region with sharp economic growth contradicted with stark inequalities, Latin America presents a complex reality. Over the last decade the region has seen a steady withdrawal of international aid, accompanied by a resurgence of religious conservatism, directly threatening young women’s access to their rights. Despite this context, we continue to see a resurgence and growth of young feminist groups with powerful, inspiring and innovative forms of resistance and activism aiming to de-construct a more equal and just society. Patriarchy, machismo and discrimination are defining factors young feminists face. Despite their immense diversity, commonality can be seen in activist creativity - from the use of technology, to community radios, innovative ways of collective learning, to graffiti, music, dance and poetry.

Aggressive state and non-state violence and femicide continue to be a reality for women, where the intersection of struggles over land, territory, environment and womens bodies, along with migration is producing the highest rates of femicide for women globally. Young women human rights defenders have experienced attacks in particular in the online domain, such as La Menstuadora, as well as physical violence and assassination as in the case of Nadia Ver in Mexico earlier this year. The right to decide over their bodies and the access to safe abortion continues to be a huge challenge. Centre for Feminist Action (CAF) Chile, tackles these issues. This group was born as as a political action strategy and physical space of converging lesbian, feministand trans people.  The group considers its networking with activists and grassroots women as its biggest achievement, and who have now broadened their approach with a feminist perspective.

Large group of young women pose for the camera

Minas Programam, Brazil, collective that aims to empower women through technology. Credit: Minas ProgramamWe received 130 applications from Brazil, compared with 10 the previous year, demonstrating the vast number of young feminist groups emerging and the limited funding alternatives available. With such limited resources and a tendency for resources to be concentrated in the hands of more established organisations, we are seeing increasing alternative resource mobilisation methods and reliance on self sufficiency. As Brazil is experiencing a rise in conservatism, cracking down on social movements, supporting autonomous young feminist organising is timely. The applications included themes and strategies ranging from trans* rights and use of comics and zines and collectives of young indigenous women and young black women working together fusing feminist technology with tradition through story telling like the Minas Programam.

Our analysis shows that in the Brazilian context, organising is becoming a more active and creative fight with art, and the alliance between social movements at its core. The shared practices by the collectives orient political patterns, and transform institutional, personal and everyday power relations. By Indigenous Women was formed in 2014, and acts within their community organizing women’s groups, film clubs and conversations to talk about women’s rights and to fight against violence. Their website already has more than 500,000 pageviews. Their book By Indigenous Women, written, photographed and drawn entirely by indigenous women, has become a reference on the lives of indigenous women in Brazil.

A woman painted blue

REMJINA, works to demand the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican young women. Credit : Jorge Zorilla

Political, creative, locally grounded, and intersectional

Reflecting on these three distinct regions, some patterns can be traced. Many young feminist activists work in informal activist structures without physical office space or staff. This signals a push against NGO-ization and bureaucratic structures and systems. There is courage to experiment and to challenge, while building on the important groundwork of the broader feminist movements. Part of the challenge now is to ensure , that we recognise such models as legitimate contributions to social change with potential for collective impact, and to provide the core resources for it to flourish.

The contexts young feminist are organising in are volatile, dangerous, and the stakes are high with increasing fundamentalisms and discrimination against girls, young women and LGBTQI people. Whether access to safe abortion staked against religious fundamentalisms in Chile, queer and lesbian rights in Lithuania, reclaiming public feminist space in China, or speaking out against child marriage in Pakistan, young feminists almost always work on the issues generating heat and controversy. With such informal structures paired with frontline visible work on sensitive topics, and minimal access to funds, insecurity is heightened.

Young feminists are organising across movements in an intersectional way. They are creative, using artivism and technology as core tools in their work. Although Inter-generational tensions continue to be high in many contexts, we believe on both sides – in older and younger activists - there is a willingness to listen more and to find common safe spaces for learning. But it is important to name and recognize when adequate space is not made for young people to have a voice and their activism is not taken seriously. It is equally important to better document the positive experiences of working across generations, and create safe spaces to talk through the tensions, of which there are many.

In the wake of the assassination of warrior Berta Cárceres, as our hearts heave, our bellies burn and our tears flood, let us open space for understanding, let us find space for dialogue across generations, geographies and movements. Our collective resistance is interwoven, we find common ground in our spirits, our bodies, and our connection to land and water. As Berta Cáceres said, “When we started the fight for Rio Blanco, I could go into the river, and I could feel what the river was telling me, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I also knew, we were going to triumph, because the river told me so. Berta Cáceres

With thanks to FRIDA's community of activists and staff who collaborated in writing this article. This analysis is only a small preview of a larger piece of research in partnership with AWID’s Young Feminist Activism Program due to be released in May 2016. A further article will be published on openDemocracy in May.

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