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Women who have moved worlds


Medha Patkar

Illustration by Sarah John

is a leader in one of the largest social movements in the world – the fight against dam projects that threaten the right to life and livelihood for the people of India’s Narmada valley. In 1985 Patkar began mobilizing massive marches and rallies against the project, and, although the protests were peaceful, she was repeatedly beaten and arrested by the police. She almost died during a 22-day hunger strike in 1991. Undaunted, she undertook two more long protest fasts in 1993 and 1994. With each subsequent summer monsoon season, when flooding threatens the villages near the dam site, Patkar has joined the tribal people in resisting evacuation and resigning themselves to drown in the rising waters. She believes that development ‘cannot be contained within national boundaries... We have had to fight that at the local and national level. We have to ally with friends across the world... We have to have joint plans and action.’

Madjiguene Cisse

Illustration by Sarah John

Her mother was illiterate, her father a bus driver in Dakar, Senegal. She was always a fighter, becoming involved in the student movement at the end of the 1960s.

In 1994 she moved to France with her two young daughters. There she got involved in the plight of fellow immigrants and began to organize. In May 1996, together with 300 African women, men and children, she occupied churches, went on hunger strike, held women’s marches and other actions in protest against new immigration laws which took away their right to stay. It was the start of the Sans Papiers movement. Today there are more than 24 Sans Papiers collectives across France, and sister organizations in other European countries.

‘At the beginning it seemed to be taken for granted that women would not participate in general meetings: it wasn’t necessary, since the husbands were there!’ says Cissé. But women went on to be at the forefront of the movement. ‘Every time the battle lost momentum, women met and found initiatives to re-launch the struggle.’

The French authorities responded by deporting her. Her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights failed and she is now working for an NGO involved with women’s development issues back in Dakar.

Tania Major

Illustration by Sarah John

believes the best way to represent her people is to tell the truth. It’s a rather unusual stance for a politician. But then, she’s rather unusual. Within her community she is the only person to complete a university degree. Indeed, she was the only person in her year successfully to complete year 12. At 21, she became the youngest person to be elected a Regional Councillor within Australia’s indigenous governing structure, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) – a structure presently under attack by the Howard Government.

She laments the lack of a strong leadership amongst indigenous women. ‘There’s no education to drive the self-confidence they need to take a leadership role,’ she explains. ‘Young women need family support or backing, a mentor.’ These things – present in her life – have prepared her well.

It was not easy. In Aboriginal communities such as Tania’s – Kowanyama, on the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland – life expectancy is about 20 years below the national average. Communities are plagued by alcoholism, and their sons and daughters are 15 times more likely to be sentenced to jail than non-indigenous people.

Tania meets all this head-on, asking her people to take control of their destinies. ‘Children are being molested by our own. Domestic violence is perceived as normal. We need to change our whole mindset.’ Alcohol? ‘The same!’ Welfare dependence? ‘We need to break out of it. If the majority of the people don’t listen to me, too bad. I’ll work with the minority who do.’

Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi

Illustration by Sarah John

is not afraid to speak out: ‘I do not condone terror, no matter who carries it out. I think a terrorist is someone who uses means – whether physical, moral or mental – against civilians for the sake of achieving political ends. When you adopt the methods of the occupier, when you reflect the same nihilism, then you are lost.’

Dr Ashrawi’s father, Daoud Mikhail, instilled in his young daughter a belief that ‘women deserve equality by right and not as a gift condescendingly bestowed by men’ and that in order to ‘liberate yourself, you liberate the land’.

A Minister in the Palestinian Authority until 1998, she is currently Director of MIFTAH, a non-governmental organization that she founded to foster respect for human rights, democracy and peace. It is also concerned with supporting future Palestinian women leaders and encouraging youth leadership.

In spite of everything that has happened in her country, she remains hopeful: ‘Where governments fail, ordinary people can make a difference. I salute the International Solidarity Movement, and the many grassroots groups who risk their own lives for the sake of the Palestinian people. These voices are the conscience of people and they should make governments feel ashamed.’

Marina Da Silva

Illustration by Sarah John

is the daughter of a seringueiro – or rubber-tapper – in Brazil. One of 11 children, from a young age she worked in the fields and helped to extract rubber from the trees. There was no school where her family lived. At 14 she was still illiterate. A year later her mother died. Then, at 16, she contracted hepatitis. ‘I was unable to do the heavy rubber-tapping work,’ she says. ‘I asked my father if I could move to the city because I wanted to study.’ In three years she completed and passed all the necessary exams to enter university.

When the rubber-tappers’ union president Chico Mendes helped found the Workers’ Party (PT) and decided to be an election candidate in Acre, she joined him. His assassination in 1988 was a personal tragedy for her.

Da Silva went on to become a local councillor in the state of Acre and then in 1994 became a Senator. In 2003, President Lula, who leads the PT, appointed her Minister for the Environment.

‘They say I am a fighter,’ she says. ‘I agree, but I think that, for me, the fight comes after the dream.’

Tania Major text by Chris Richards. Others by Nikki van der Gaag.

New Internationalist issue 373 magazine cover This article is from the November 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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