Challenges for Feminism in a Globalized World

Some feminist proposals for practicing diversity in a global context

Phumi Mtetwa*

Feminists have sustained broad theories entailing a bold commitment to women, by challenging the practices, ways of thinking and policies whereby the powerful define and often dictate what women are or should be. In so doing, they have developed a strong commitment to the ideas of inclusion, solidarity and respect for diversity. However, some challenges remain, in order to put this diversity into practice without conditions.

This is a very current concern, especially for young feminist women from the South, to integrate a cross-cutting theme of gender and diversity into the World Social Forum (WSF) discussions and proposals, so that the “Other World that is Possible” will reflect the aspirations of all women and men, by creating a new global context.

The “Other World is Possible” proposal by the WSF offers us new ways of thinking, carrying out actions and developing holistic visions, reviewing initiatives that social movements have undertaken, especially during the past century. This proposal visualizes a diverse, pluralistic world, together with the elimination of inequalities and the manifold forms of discrimination that reproduce and swell in the context of globalization.

In this effort, we must broaden the framework of feminist proposals in the global context in order to foster new visions that will fit into the new historical setting we have to live in. During the past century, the introduction of the gender concept and the definition of women’s rights in the international arena paved the way to affirm equality and eliminate discrimination from private and public spheres. The process that led to the Women’s Conference in Beijing, in 1995, its results and revisions, the Human Rights Conference held in Vienna (1993) and the adoption of a UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, have been major contributions to universalize a process of recognition –without turning back– for gender equality.

Moreover, inclusion of diversity has entered a process of meaningful recognition in the formulation of a number of international human rights instruments and those geared toward eliminating the multiple forms of discrimination, mainly formulated under the United Nations. In this process, social movements and discriminated peoples have gained ground by making their diversity visible and advocating for prohibition of discrimination based on place of birth, nationality, ethnic group, color, race, sex, sexual orientation, social origin, class or socio-economic status, handicap, health condition, age and so on. Even so, there are still many gaps, such as the denial of rights on the basis of certain identities, especially regarding sexual orientation and sero-positive status.

Now, to make this progress workable, it is imperative to guarantee that substantive recognition, respect and implementation of these guaranteed rights will be sustained in day-to-day life. It is also important to continue working to promote those rights that still face opposition to their recognition. This means taking a giant step from paper to action and guaranteeing that the responsible institutions will actually implement these rights – but also, above all, emphasizing the appropriation of citizens’ rights by all women and other discriminated persons.

These elements must also be part of the development of new, inclusive ways of thinking1, in which we need to grant priority to one right over another, to one vision over another one, making genuine practical progress in aspects such as universality, indivisibility and inter-dependence of human rights. For example, to maintain that the struggle against racism is more important than the struggle against discrimination based on sexual orientation –as we witnessed in the World Conference Against Racism– limits the possibilities for collective evolution and helps keep certain parameters of exclusion in place.

Similarly, it is important to move forward in recognition of the diverse forms of expression and thought, because the pre-eminence granted under the current model to technocratic visions, those that place technical or academic proposals above those of movements or peoples, leads us to a withering away of the openings for women’s participation in decision-making. If we wish to make any headway, we have to change the dominant exclusive patterns and to be more inclusive, to enable all to make their voices heard, expressing themselves according to their own cultures and in their own ways.

The new global feminism that we are constructing must emerge from a frank analysis and debate about North-South relations. This must involve thinking about all macro-social aspects, but also about the dynamics and even the power relationships among the organizations comprising the feminist movement and articulating our process. Neoliberal globalization, led by the North and the corporations, takes place at the expense of the indebted countries of the South, reducing the possibilities for autonomy and concrete enjoyment of their rights2 for women of the South. Thus, a new commitment is needed between feminists of the North and South, to jointly engage in the struggle for self-determination, sovereignty and economic justice, mainly led by social movements from the South. We can make a major contribution to this different world, by strengthening global feminism with inclusive approaches, in order to create a just, diverse world.

Diversity requires full recognition of singularities, identities and collective proposals. If this happens, our proposals will be applicable under all circumstances, worldwide, without any hegemonic standard or model imposed as a referent for the rest. A better understanding of the realities of women, men, girl and boy children throughout the planet will contribute to building a better world for all persons.

The last issue I would like to mention is related to the need to narrow the gaps between younger and more mature feminists, in our processes of struggles and the presentation of our proposals. To support the feminist proposals for a diverse, plural millenium, where every person is valued and where lives are worth more than profits, strong inter-generational, universal, multi-ethnic feminist leadership is needed. Recognition of the great theoretical and practical contribution by older feminists and integration of ideas from newer feminists will help open up new fields for creation, such as this one: the Global Feminist Leadership backed by ALAI and NOVIB, which will enable us to collectively imagine a different, plural world.

Opportunities for advocacy, such as this Seminar and the WSF, tell us a lot about the possibilities for change that are opening up as we move from the image of victims of discrimination toward more active roles, grounded in the citizenship that has been attained and that which is still to be won in all walks of life.

Basically, my point is that this different world must be constructed from a pluralistic position, recognizing personal and collective identities –the diversity that enriches the peoples of the world– and economic and social justice for all women and men.


* Convenor of the South-South Dialogue of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans-Gender People, South Africa /Ecuador), FEDAEPS, Ecuador.

1 Irene León, Pluralizar el Mundo, Diversificar las Voces (Pluralizing the World, Diversifying Voices), ALAI 2002.

2 Irene León, Promoción de la igualdad de género, especialmente ante desafíos sociales como la educación, el empleo y la salud, Informe para la Cumbre de Presidentes Europa-América Latina (Promotion of gender equity, especially in the face of social challenges such as education, employment and health, Report for the Europe-Latin America Summit of Presidents), RECAL, Spain, 2002.

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