Making Our Movements Stronger: A Look inside
Lynnsay Rongokea Regional Coordinator,
Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD)
" Stand like the Kahikatea,
Stand against the storm,
We will survive"
The Kahikatea tree has a shallow root system beneath the ground of which the roots form an intertwining mesh that provides the support for a tree to grow to great heights. This is how they stand together .
It is the intertwining of all women within the women's feminist movement that is the heart of my talk today – and a coming together of all of us to provide the support for this movement to allow this tree, this source of power, strength and life to grow to great heights.
Kia orana, Kotou katoatoa and warm Pacific greetings to you all
I am from the Cook Islands which is for those who don't know, a small group of islands in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. As an indigenous woman from the Pacific, I would first like to acknowledge the peoples of the first nation, I thank the AWID organizers for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences with you and for your attention. I must say that as a Pacific Island woman I feel honored and privileged for this opportunity to be one of the 3% representing the Pacific.
The verse I just shared with you was a song by a New Zealand/Aotearoa Maori artist, musician, composer, Hirini Melbourne, whom I had the privilege to meet many years ago when I was coordinating the first Polynesian music festival and I thought the analogy was appropriate for the discussion today.
I've been reflecting on my work with NGOs and other organisations and movements, along with the events and experiences I have been privileged to be part of over the years in both Asia and the Pacific, and this has prompted me to voice some of the problems that have been a source of much controversy and attention within our communities, organizations and the movement. With the focus today including strong and clear leadership and open communication we can take this opportunity to transform the dynamics of our organizations and deal with changes that are part of our dynamic culture.
I want to talk about how conflict resolution and good communication skills should be something that all members of any organization become familiar with and practice on a daily basis. For it is these skills that will assist us to move forward together, and work in a powerful manner together, to achieve our common goals. We learn conflict resolution skills throughout our lives – from the time we are able to talk to our siblings, fight with each other, negotiate with our children and make up with our partners and spouses – they are part of our every day life.
Participating in these panels of discussion is an opportunity to make decisive changes and create solutions for us to work on and adopt. This raises issues that are close to my heart, that I feel strongly about and that I have had first hand experience dealing with and therefore all I can do today is speak from my heart and share my personal experiences with you all.
This is an opportunity to engage women from different walks of life and value their contributions.
As we share the values of sisterhood and solidarity I would like to share with you this quote by Audre Lorde:
"When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak."
Well, I can stand here today and say that I have survived my experiences in my community, working within organizations which are similar to those which many of you here today are also working in and the movement, despite the impact on my mental health and well being. I have survived through all my experiences, good and not so good and in the process learned things and contributed to strengthening a better place for others to work in the future.
The APWLD network spans 23 countries with 150 members spread throughout Central Asia, East Asia, S.E. Asia, and S. Asia. In the Pacific in the countries of the three sub-regions, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The organisation is dynamic and like the life-cycle, ever evolving. It has a multi-generational membership, comprising of activists, lawyers, academics, social scientists, grassroots, rural and indigenous women, ethnic minorities, fisher folk, who are represented on two governance bodies, a women's human rights working group, 5 task forces and a secretariat. With different political, socio-economic, cultural backgrounds, personalities, ideologies, different experiences and life paths, education and opportunities, the challenge is how do we bring them all together to work towards achieving our common goals.
I came into an organization in crisis, financial and fragmented at various levels, this was not the first. We have survived. Every organization experiences crises at certain stages, tensions and unresolved disputes are dominant features of our time, how to address them is difficult if they are deeply ingrained, they have resulted in divisions within our organizations and the movement and some may never be resolved, but we must still work towards finding workable solutions.
I'd like to acknowledge, commend and celebrate and acknowledge, the strong women in our movement, the trail blazers, those women from the past, the present and those who will lead us into the future.
Our movement is based on personalities, our relationships with other women, our commonalities and differences – hierarchies are built around personalities – we work within hierarchal structures to ensure accountability, transparency and efficiency.
I believe we need to address the hierarchy of personalities and small cliques within our organizations and networks – the power play among the handful who make the decisions. What is our position on an issue if we have 150 network members and only 5 respond? We've all heard complaints and questions are asked of, who made this decision? who was consulted? why is it that the same people are always traveling and always attending meetings, its always the same people at these meetings, we want to see new faces and hear new or other voices.
We need to be more inclusive, by opening up spaces for new voices, mentor, partner, empower those we speak for, including the younger generation and encourage them to speak for themselves. It is important for the gatekeepers of knowledge, to share with younger women and the less experienced in the movement, the keys to the storehouse of wisdom.
We are living through challenging times, and although there have been many achievements; violence against women remains a harsh reality in our families, our communities and in our nation. We now have a definition of violence, which includes psychological abuse. In many countries acts, policies and regulations are being reviewed with the objective of finding a solution to the problem. However, within our movement we have been silent on the psychological violence and conflict that goes on within our organizations, between and among women, creating stress and affecting our mental health and wellbeing.
One of the questions asked "How do we address diversity in the women's movement", we should also ask "how do we account for our own negative treatment of each other?" We say or we think in private, " Women, can be real bitches, condescending and arrogant". Women hurt, and humiliate one another and gossip (good gossip is okay we all do it) but it's the malicious and mischievous rumors that are spread that I am talking about, we believe what we want to about an individual, women also fear other women and lose their voices.
I've stood in front of my own board and members and told them that there were rumours abounding about me, as well as about the performance of our governance bodies and it was an issue that needed to addressed. How can one talk about sisterhood and solidarity, when we cannot openly address our differences, we talk about the promotion and protection of women's human rights and yet we cannot stand up and protect the woman we sit next to and work with. We need to be more open and honest, rather than talk outside of meetings, bring it into the open, and appropriate venue and spaces. We should stand and speak for those who are not present to speak for themselves, one of the fundamentals of feminism is defending your sisters.
Ko au, ko au, ko au - me, myself and I - As agents of social change, our starting point should be ourselves, understanding the political, economic, social and cultural environment in which we work and behave. We cannot change another person's personality or behavior, but we can adapt our responses. Our attitude is so much more important. Here is a quote that expresses that attitude. "Treat others, not the way you expect to be treated, but the way they want to be treated," with respect and dignity.
We have also seen how women have internalized sexist values, judging other women in patriarchal ways. I've attended meetings in the Pacific when women, nudge edge other, roll their eyes and raise eyebrows when a woman they do not like speaks, there she goes again and in Asia have experienced the invisible walls of exclusion and silence and women not saying what they mean.
Remember these words of Rev. Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate:
"If we recognize our own self-worth, we will respect the worth of others and have reverence for life."
We are facing new challenges and opportunities today with increasing militarization, fundamentalisms, globalization, the current financial crisis, and the lack of accountability and character by so many people in power or in control.
There is a more pressing need today for transparency, sharing of ideas and goals, and an organizational mentality that produces change when it is needed and accountability when it is warranted. Despite disagreements we must continually attempt to find common ground to work together towards change and an acceptance of multiple views and ideas.
I've recognized when I'm confronted with a difficult decision that I don't walk alone, and there are my daughters, my family, friends and colleagues that I can trust and depend upon. I know that they are non judgmental and they will provide support and guide me through the difficult times together,. With their support I have overcome many obstacles and difficulties by listening, communicating and knowing that I can make a difference and have made a difference. We must accept each other and embrace our differences. We talk about changes, to laws, policies and practices. The challenge is on attitudinal change - Please remember that our attitude determines the outcome so often when we at odds with the motivations we are moved by.
We all have to sit back on an ongoing basis and try and be more objective about situations that we are faced with, we all walk different paths in life and bring our different backgrounds and experiences to the table; one can never truly know what the other is thinking, we are all a product of a different time , different culture , different familial situation and different relationships – opening our minds and trying to see the other side no matter what we think should always be the first step we take together when considering issues. We are all part of the intertwining mesh that provides the support for a tree to grow to great heights and our role in that depends on our own approach and our own contribution to each situation.
Another well known saying from the Pacific is:
"E a'a te mea nui o te ao? E tangata, e tangata, e tangata e"
Which means "what is the most important things in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people"
We are all walking the same journey together, we are supporting the same tree to grow – it is time that we turn to each other in the same spirit as we turn to those we have come together to speak for and offer the same support and strength to our sisters walking our path.
I thank you for all your support and teachings and I look forward to the rest of the discussions during the next couple of days and again I acknowledge, the people of first nations, AWID organizers and all the people involved for bringing us together, the APWLD network, my Pacific sisters, especially Imrana, Gina, Viri and my daughter Marie, for walking with me on this journey and to all of you for having the patience.
Thank You and Many blessings
Kia orana e Kia Manuia
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