Guest Editorial: Agenda Nairobi +21

In 1985, while some of the sisters were meeting in Nairobi, I was in my first year of high school, a period of heightened activism amongst school-going youth in South Africa. I joined many of my peers on the streets in the fight for justice and freedom. At this time, I have to admit I was ignorant of how to connect our local struggles with global struggles against oppression. It was only in the 1990’s that I became aware, through my own personal journey of understanding why the ideology of faith (in my case Islam) did not oppress, but the practice and interpretation of it by religious leaders (mostly men) did chose to subordinate women; that I connected my activism to that of broader struggles of women in different faiths, communities and countries. Although I personally did not go to Beijing, I know that this conference was an important turning point for women, and young women in particular, were mobilized to develop their own proposals and present their specific proposals for the Beijing Platform of Action. Since then, young women have continued to create their own organisations and networks and have actively participated in decision-making processes at different levels.i Later, as I joined the stage of feminist organizing with other young women, I was aware that as young women, what we saw was engagement with international development institutions ii, and also of ‘institutionalized’ movements in the form of NGOs.iii Our view did not necessarily include the lobbying and advocacy that preceded the inclusion of feminist movements into these spaces. As young women, we saw what looked like a ‘separation’ in feminist organizing, where some role-players organize at the global/regional and national level and at the same time there are those groups working at the ‘grassroots’ level. Sometimes all these groups come together and sometimes they may not. We were aware that globalization has certainly resulted in advancing our means of communication as movements, allowed us to develop different means of organizing and engagement.

At the same time, as young women, we stepped onto the stage of feminist organizing enthusiastic with visions and ideas for making change happen. It is not surprising therefore, that when we started participating and engaging with the feminist movementiv that we started asking questions like – ‘What has changed?’, ‘How’, ‘How have feminist movements reduced violence against women?’, ‘How have they managed to effectively address new and emerging challenges facing women in their different contexts?’, ‘How do they deal with challenges of power and succession within the movement?’, ‘How do they deal with sustaining their energies, their spirituality?’.

This line of questioning in many cases have seemed unfair, and in some cases outraged our sisters in the movements. But, as young women, our goal is to add value to the efforts of previous generations of feminists by proposing new ways of looking at the same issues and hopefully new ways of tackling challenges. Presumptious you ask? Maybe! It is important to recognise, that for younger feminists, our moment in time is different, and that it will require a combination of experience, wisdom and new-fangled ways of risk-taking to effectively start addressing the challenges facing us. As young feminists, we feel it is important that we not lose sight of the integrity of the issue we are trying to take on, but that if movements are to survive, the ideology should be able to withstand revisiting and interrogation if we are to have an impact as a feminist movement.

There is no doubt in my mind that in the last two decades, women’s and feminist movements have made great strides in advancing the rights of women. The engagement of women in international development processes following the UN Decade of Women (1975 – 1985) signaled a transition for women’s movements they began developing holistic analyses of the issues impacting on women’s lives, and made connections among political, economic, social and cultural realities as well as the local, national and global spaces for organising and advocating. The resulting engagement of women’s movements with institutions also signaled a transition from loosely formed social and feminist movements, to the rise of institutionalized NGOs. This reorganisation has had important implications (some positive, others more challenging) in terms of organisational accountability and effectiveness.

It is now 21 years since the Nairobi UN Women’s Conference of 1985 and 11 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform of Action in 1995. We are at a moment where women’s movements and activists from all over the world need to collectively reflect on the advances, present and future challenges to women’s rights since 1985 and 1995. It is therefore also appropriate that this reflection should be one that is a multi- (and inter) generational one to show the diversity of perspectives amongst the different generations. So, to lay the groundwork for this dialogue, I will proceed to create a bridge between our own lives and past feminist action. This will include some reflections of key struggles and history of women’s organizing by at least two of my mentors (Peggy Antrobus and Devaiki Jain) to create a map of the road we have traveled in the last 30 years at least to show that the rights and achievements of the women’s movement were not always there. The purpose of this is to create a platform for exchange and learning to enable dialogue for purposes of moving forward collectively as women’s movements.

‘Reflection is critical. If we know where we’re going, we have to know where we are coming from’

Pre-1985 – Mexico and the birth of the global women’s movement

Most significant event for this period was the first official International Women’s Conference held in Mexico in 1975. It was the first conference of its kind with over 6500vi women from across the globe attending. Antrobusvii credits this as the defining moment that gave birth to what is now known as a global women’s movement – where women learned about each other’s situation, and the groundwork was laid for women to explore their commonalities and their differences. The Mexico conference also gave birth to the Decade of Women (1975-85), credited for creating the momentum and opportunities for setting up special mechanisms such as national gender machineries, research, the establishment of women’s studies programmes and new women’s organizations. Devaki Jainviii echoes this by reflecting that the Decade can be credited for changing the tenor and content of the development discourse significantly. Like Antrobus, she contends that it was the Decade which gave rise to the emergence and growth of a self-identified worldwide women’s movement stimulated curiosity, enthusiasm and the demand for more information, not only about the difference between men and women, but also about the condition and aspiration of women and the larger picture. The so-called ‘national machinery for women’ was set up all over African during and after the decade. Indeed Africa appears to have pioneered the national machinery. These structures though received minimal support from government and women’s movements have remained far too grateful, and rather silent on the fact that national structures and policies were not accompanied by national resources as states had the expectation that these machineries would be resourced by external funding, expertise etc. Till today, these structures remain skeletons without flesh unless we rise to the challenge of making them more organic, more capable of pursuing the interests of ordinary women.

Whilst acknowledging the gains of the Decade, Antrobus is also critical in her analysis of its limitations. She says that despite changing laws, the establishment of programmes, special mechanisms and projects for ensuring the increased participation of women in development activities, the situation of women continued to deteriorate, both in terms of the widening gap between rich and poor within and between countries, and in terms of the incidence of violence against womenix.

1985 – 1995 – From Nairobi to Beijing

This period saw an increasing role of the Bretton Woods institutions in global economic governance and a decline in the role of the UN and its structures in negotiating global economic justice. The neoliberal paradigm, the market-led approach, weakened role of the state, and since the UN is a parliament of states its access to influence was reduced.

During this period, the global women’s movement matured in its understanding of and its intersection with development debates and practice in a number of significant ways. At Nairobi for example, the many opportunities to meet and build bridges matured and politicized the women’s movement and exposed them more intimately to the politics of global governance and allowed for the recognition that political issues are women’s issues, and that the women’s movement is fundamentally a political movement. x Network such as DAWNxi played a critical role in exposing the links between poverty and macro-economics. The groundwork laid by the network created an awareness among women of the links between the economic, political, social and cultural consequences of the policy framework, and they brought this understanding to bear as they organized to participate in the global conferences of the 1990’s.xii The Beijing Platform of Action on the other hand consolidated and expanded concepts of women’s human rights and was seen by many as a culmination of the journey started in 1975. It brought all the elements of the diversity that was increasingly represented at world venues, yet it represented the unity of women in relation to the state and unjust regimes, including economic regimes.xiii Beijing was also considered the end of a process as the outcome document was so comprehensive that it was meant to guide nations and movements for some time. However, the translation and implementation of Beijing has been practically non-existent. Once again raising the question of whether all the energy and resources expended in advocacy for these meetings were really advancing our agendas.

During the 1985 into the 1990’s, women’s engagement with the UN continued as more women were mobilized to influence policy and take on leadership positions in a flood of flood of UN conferences. However, according to Jain, the picture was not as straightforward:

While women fought to create space for themselves within the UN and worked to improve the understanding of women’s location in their economies, inequality, poverty and conflict and its injuries were rising and women were the worst hit – a painful disjunction

Antrobusxv expands on the limitation of women’s engagement with the UN and notes that an inability to gain consensus on a critique of the neo-liberal policy framework meant that most of the recommendations from these key conferences could not be implemented. Secondly, she noted that it was easier for the women’s movement to argue for political and civil rights for women than to advance the agenda for social and economic rights, or for sexual and reproductive rights. One of the other significant limitation was the disconnect between the global and local movements. Whilst the global women’s movement was clearly instrumental in negotiating frameworks for looking at women’s rights and its connections to other institutions and relations of power, the effectiveness of their advocacy depended on the capacity, or willingness of local women’s movements to make them part of local struggles.

What has changed and what needs to change?

I have shared quite a bit of what has changed in terms of our organizing in the sections above. However, to summarize, I would say that at different moments, as women’s movements we have changed people’s attitudes, their thinking, the laws, concepts and institutions. The reality though is that not all change has been good, and in fact some of our changes has been undone – and now in the 21st Century the women’s movement expends a lot of energy and resources to ensure that the laws, policies and language we so painstakingly negotiated and fought for in the 1980’s and 1990’s are not eroded. At the same time as our debut onto the international advocacy stage, we have progressively seen an increased onslaught against women’s bodies, violence against women, fundamentalisms (such as reintroduction of virginity testing), increased feminization of poverty and the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on women.

The 2005 Beijing +10 processes illustrated how good the women’s movement have become at understanding the challenges that they are facing at an external level. However, the reality is also that the environment that we are engaging in changes on a continuous basis. Although we have advanced in developing sophisticated models of strategic thinking, the reason why in many ways it seems that things have not shifted as much as we would like it to have, is that we also need strategies that are different, cutting-edge and innovative. Herein lies our challenge. It is not enough to understand the challenges we face, we need to learn how to use this understanding to start employing and accepting different ways of ‘doing activism’. This is where a multi- generational movement becomes critical, younger feminists are able to take what has already been done and initiated by previous generations of feminists, and build on it with their understanding of the issues, with their possibilities and their resources for creating changexvi. Alpizar and Wilson adds to this analysis by saying that “by using more flexible definition of activism ad exploring new ways of engagement, younger generations can help create the creativity and momentum to move forward”.xvii It is no surprise therefore that younger feminists are pushing for feminist movements to be more reflective of its strengths and weaknesses to help movements refocus on its goals (for the short and longer term); not only on states and institutions, but on the ways those states, institutions and movements for change function.

There are 3 issues that I propose we prioritize moving forward: (i) strategy and action; (ii) power sharing and multi-generational tensions; (iii) radicalizing and politicizing agendas.

(i) strategy and action

(i) Research and analysis translating into action: We need to be more proactive around challenges, to find ways of generating new knowledge on a range of issues to ensure that we have a comprehensive view of the world that we are organizing in. For example, understanding the interplay or connections between militarization, conflict, corporate control, religious and political movements. This analysis should help us to strategize around how we integrate these issues into our core strategies and agendas.

(ii) Limited resources and donor agendas– the amount of money available for work on women’s rights are scarce. We need to strategize on how to use these resources and how to generated or access new resources so that we are at the forefront of defining political agendas rather be at the mercy of donor agendas to continue with the de-politicized work of gender mainstreaming which has not had the desired outcomes of putting women rights at the centre of social transformation.

(iii) How do feminist movements engage with states and institutions of authority, without being co-opted and still be able to challenge it? One of the key issues is whether the strategy for feminist engagement with institutions is one of resisting these institutions or reforming them. We need to be conscious of our insider and outsider strategies – where we understand how they support one another to achieve the desired outcomes. In Africa in particular, feminism has been directed at the state was seen as a mechanism for ensuring rights and providing access to resources and basic needs. In a context where the role of the state is changing, we need to understand how we negotiate these rights and engage with the state on our own terms? One of the lessons from most of our more experienced feminists is that we need many possibilities for our engagement. Whilst it is important to engage with institutions, it should not be the only aspect of our strategy for achieving social justice. Thus we need to toe a fine line of resisting and challenging the institutions and also engaging with them with the aim of transforming them. In the background of all of this – is our own relationships with women at all levels, ensuring that when we do represent them in our engagement with power players that the issues we present represent the diverse range of realities of women. Thus we need to ensure that while we are strong in our presence at the global level, our connections at the regional/national/local levels (grassroots) are even stronger. This once again brings us back to the challenge identified by Antrobus previously and I think one we need to think very carefully about and find sound strategies for.

(iv) Feminists have always been part of different movements, however, it is important for us to strengthen these efforts. In a world that is volatile, if we are to survive as movements, we need to accurately assess moments and opportunities, prioritizing when the various movements and organizations need to act together. There are also moments when we will have an adversarial relationship with other movements, but this is all part of the context we engage in. In addition, we also need to support women who are working within other social movements, through analysis, through dialogue but also to support them in advancing the feminist agenda within those movements. It is only through working together that we will achieve our vision of a new tomorrow. Young feminists in particular have consistently raised the engagement and collaboration with young male feminists. Peggy Antrobus, advises us to “distinguish between men who are open to partnership with feminist leadership and those who are not, and to make strategic alliance with those who do understand that there is no justice for men without justice for women.”xviii The challenge is therefore to build on a growing network of men who are working on gender equality and social justice – to strengthen our collective analyses of how gendered identities and roles have and are changing in a globalized world. Working with young men in particular is an opportunity that needs to be capitalized on in order to ensure that a new generation of leaders see the necessity to address systemic gender inequality in order to achieve social justice.

(ii) power sharing and multi-generational tensions

Whilst a basic tenet of feminism is to deconstruct power, propose alternative paradigms for power sharing, in reality, within feminist movements, the engagement with issues of power and to redefine participatory engagement, leaves a lot to be desired. Our diversity as a movement at the global, regional and national levels is symbolized by feminists identifying as black, rural, indigenous, lesbian, transgender, HIV positive, disabled, as well as young. In terms of representation, we seem to have our bases covered, but our weakness is discerning how to ensure meaningful participation and also acknowledging that this diversity will sometimes allow for moments of conflict, disputes and contradictions. Not only do we share diverse identities, within feminist movements there is often also ideological differences – sometimes because of interpretation and application. All of these can lend itself to very complex relationships to power which is not unusual for social movements.

For the over a decade now and maybe even longer, our attention has been drawn to the difficulties within the feminist movement in dealing with issues of power and leadership. We have heard the voices of different generations of feminists talking about the ‘generation gap within the women’s movement, and a marked absence of younger women in leadership positions’.xix Many feminists before have eloquently argued that the feminist movement needs to become truly multi-generational. Alpizar and Wilson argue the importance of the movement(s) in encouraging young women’s participation in order to: (i) to allow the movements to reinvent itself; (ii) consistency with the principles and values of feminism – and as we are challenging power and privilege – it is important that we also do so amongst ourselves; (iii) building strength and sustainability.xx A committed engagement with these issues will provide the foundation for developing intra-generational solidarity and power. Whilst recognizing the wisdom of those who had been involved for longer, it is as important to acknowledge the ‘experiences’ of this generation of feminism which can also add to our pot of wisdom in the movement. Therefore, in re-negotiating our relations of power to each other, we need to recognize that at different moments, we will either give or receive inspiration/wisdom/ideas and momentum from other members of the movement (and this is not based on any age defined principles).

(iii) radicalizing and politicizing our agendas

Over the last two decades, we have seen our agendas being diluted with the development project of gender mainstreaming. With more funding going towards gender mainstreaming, there has not been as much support for progressive agendas for social justice. In Africa, like everywhere else globally, women’s rights has been pitted against patriarchal relations of power and the institutions that perpetuate them.

Amina Mama acknowledges that the UN has been a good vehicle for bringing feminist concerns to the international arena, but she worries that UN feminism has co-opted the more radical voices from the various women’s movements. She calls this the bureaucratized version of feminism spawned by the United Nations and feels that individuals who represent this kind of feminism are responsible for the burgeoning development industry that Africa has been subjected to.” We need to be honest in our reflections of the limitations of these agendas that do not have the outcomes we had envisaged years ago. We need to move beyond our euphoria of figuring out how to engage with institutions and our own diplomacy to once again call for accountability from these very institutions and powers. At the same time we need to understand how our movements has become weakened and depoliticized. We need to figure out how to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, and the divide between the academy and activists. A schism we are often reluctant to engage with as there are bigger fish to fry. It is important that our theory is informed by our activism. As Sylvia Tamale notes: ‘When feminist theory does not speak to gender activism and when the latter does not inform the former, the unfortunate result is a half-baked and truncated feminism’xxii We need to therefore rediscover our radical politics and infuse all of our generations with the energy, the vision to be innovators in tackling all these issues that now confront women globally.


The last two decades definitely show that we have been making waves and transforming institutions and movements. However, it is not enough to only understand and acknowledge our achievements, we need to be bold in naming our weaknesses and limitations and daring in our strategies for moving forward. As women’s movements, we need to continuously push ourselves to look deep within ourselves to understand how we are living the ideologies of feminism and what is our vision for the movement to actualize its values and principles. It is critical that we assess our resources, energies and visions and harness these to move between spaces – to move between the local – regional – global, and build stronger and smarter movements that can take us to the next level of organizing.

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