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The dos and don’ts of cross-border feminism

United Kingdom

Members of the NGWF out in support of British workers. Photo reproduced with permission..

‘Solidarity’ is a word often bounded about in leftwing circles, but its meaning is rarely discussed. UK Feminista’s Summer School tried to get to the nitty-gritty of this last weekend in a panel called ‘How to build feminist solidarity and activism across borders.’

Donna Carty, Arti Naithani and Mahlet Mairegu from Million Women Rise and Nadia Idle from War on Want, all passionate and enthused speakers, made it clear they didn’t see borders as just a geographical thing, but also as the ‘differences’ in our own communities.

Million Women Rise has an international perspective as well as a focus on under-represented women, for example those from ethnic minorities – both black and white. Mairegu, from Ethiopia, became involved in the movement through her campaign Never Forget against a €127,000 ($157,000) mausoleum and memorial park in Italy dedicated to the fascist Rodolfo Graziani, also known as ‘the butcher of Ethiopia.’

For her part, Naithani became disillusioned with feminist and activist circles where she felt like an outsider as an Asian, working class woman. With its focus on dialogue, she felt the Million Women Rise movement was more empowering and representative than anything she had been involved with before.

It is not always easy to know how to support people on the other side of the world – that’s one of the reasons people give to charity. But the speakers, including Idle from the charity War on Want all agreed that this isn’t always the best option.

Idle questioned major charities’ close relationships with governments, adding that while many had progressive roots they were now more akin to corporations.

Carty said branding and politics could sometimes take precedence over peoples’ needs on the ground. She was part of a group that had approached a major British charity for money to fund the costs of sending supporters to Congo, where women had asked for help for a demonstration against gender-based violence. The charity had agreed, on condition that Million Women Rise didn’t speak about Rwanda. So their group turned the money down.

Idle also warned that the current British government’s re-branding of the Department for International Development as UKaid represented a step backwards. She felt the new word choice with its large union jack logo, only served to accentuate difference and pointed to a coalition called the Progressive Development Forum which is trying to reverse this trend.

The main advice all the speakers had for people seeking to make global links was to make a beeline for the people you want to support, directly – and that it wasn’t always about money.

War on Want explained that it was most important to listen to groups in the majority world, and find out how they wanted to be supported. One of the areas that War on Want campaigns on is the exploitative garment industry, where 80 per cent of the workers are women. Idle spoke about the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) in Bangladesh, whose members asked people in Britain not to boycott clothes they were making – so War on Want made sure not to make this part of their campaign.

Idle then told the story that summed up the two-way street that is cross-border support. On 30 November 2011, public sectors workers went on strike across Britain. Demonstrations took place across the country. But hundreds of garment workers were also in the streets, this time in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, as women took part in a solidarity rally for British workers.

This action shows the parallels between groups who speak out against injustice worldwide. People need to know that they are not alone and that, despite borders, there are similarities in all our struggles.

UK Feminista helps activists organize feminist campaigns and events. They are holding a lobby of the British parliament on 24 October 2012. Find out more from their website.

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