The World Social Forum is here. Hotels in Nairobi are full. All roads lead to Kasarani, where the WSF village has been set up and most events will take place. And Kenyans can be bemused by the number of clearly atypical and non-conformist non-tourists exploring non-tourist parts of town in search of insights into the ‘real’ Kenya.
This is the first time that the WSF has been held in Africa. It is hoped that the presence of such a range of activists from all over the globe will stimulate discussion on African citizens’ mobilisation and organising to achieve the other world that is the promise of the WSF. In direct response to the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum, happening in Davos, Switzerland at the same time, the WSF addresses the negative impact of neo-liberal globalisation on the majority of citizens around the world. Globalisation which promises much to the minorities with capacities to consume within the underdeveloped south—but which has shown itself to work against the capacities to produce.
There will be many discussions, meetings, rallies, workshops during the course of this week. They have been preceded by an almost equal number of the same last week as everyone tried to maximise on the opportunity to convene cross-regionally.
One such cross-regional convening was the Feminist Dialogues, convened by 12 feminist organisations from all regions and which drew together just under 200 feminists from Africa, Asia, Europe, north and south America.
The theme of the FD was ‘feminist democracies: visions and strategies.’
Attended by many Kenyan and other Africans, it aimed to discuss the ways in which economic, ethnic and religious fundamentalisms fuel and are fuelled by militarism and neo-liberal globalisation to women’s detriment worldwide. It also aimed to critically analyse strategies through which women have sought to engage with the political process—nationally, regionally and internationally—in attempts to bring not only more women on board, but also more attention to women’s daily lived experiences.
The most basic understanding of democracy is, of course, government by and for the people. Which raised the first point of contention as to whether or not ‘democracy’ is or is not working for women’s interests.
Because it raised the question as to who ‘the people’ actually are. In much of Africa, women’s citizenship is still constrained, achieved only through women’s association to the fathers and husbands in their lives—a fact that has been at the heart of many Constitutional and legal reform efforts in Africa.
What has been less expressed, however, it the understanding that African women have complex identities and subjectivities, making the struggle of the rights ideally associated with citizenship even more difficult.
Africa women are, for example, the majority of refugee communities in Africa (and Africa is host to the largest numbers of refugees in the world). Then there are African women who experience other forms of systemic discrimination—African women who are members of forest dwelling and pastoralist communities whose livelihoods are under threat, African women who are members of ethnic, racial and religious minorities, African women who live in utterly un-serviced low-income urban neighbourhoods, African women who are lesbians and so on. In short, different forms of systemic discrimination compound. And strategies used by the African women’s movement to advance African women’s citizenship must begin to more consciously and consistently take these issues on board.
Then is the issue of what ‘for the people’ means. To work ‘for the people’ means both that access to political decision-making has to be enabled and that that access must be afforded to a mass critical enough to feel accountable to the constituencies from which they come. While significant gains regarding African women’s access political decision-making have been realised in some parts of Africa—Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda for example—access remains constrained and out of reach in most of Africa. And even the positive examples, in an era in which African women have gained our first Presidency in Liberia, prove the point that the old argument about critical mass does not necessarily pertain.
African female parliamentarians often show their allegiance more to the political parties that nominate them than to the African women they purportedly represent. A particularly chilling example of this was evident in the near silence among South African women parliamentarians with respect to the widely-publicised rape trial of Presidential hopeful Jacob Zuma. And, where legislation in favour of African women’s human rights has been passed, it has always done so with mass mobilisation and organisation of African women outside of national parliaments.
The debates on representative versus participatory forms of democracy therefore have—or should have—real resonance for African women. If strategies used by the African women’s movement to advance political participation have to move beyond the focus on quantity, they also must move beyond the proposed focus on quality—for the latter implies that the problem is merely one of the conscientisation and ethics of the African women who have entered the political domain. The problem is the processes and systems that actually define and frame the political domain. A powerful example of this was provided by women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo regarding their recent elections—the first in over 40 years. Of the 33 Presidential candidates, five were women. They did not stand a chance and the commitment to a basic level of women’s representation was ignored without consequence.
We have a long way to go. May the WSF debates catalyse us forward.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is a political scientist based in Nairobi, Kenya