Celebrating the hand-over of the Board Chair position, WEDO ED Cate Owren caught up with outgoing Chair Monique Essed Fernandes and incoming Chair Marcela Tovar Restrepo for a chat about WEDO, the women’s movement and what they both envision for a just and healthy planet.
Cate Owren (CO): Monique and Marcela, first of all, thank you for making time to chat in your hectic schedules! We are all so busy these days, it seems – it feels like our work multiplies every year. Are we making progress? And how do you stay so personally motivated to continue working toward realizing women’s rights, gender equality and a sustainable planet?
Monique Essed Fernandes (MEF): We sometimes have to keep reminding ourselves how much we have progressed, as our work is of course never ending and as next generations are confronted with ever faster social and environmental changes. [But] it only takes one young woman or one young man defending women’s rights, gender equality, human rights, a sustainable planet – whether they are talking among themselves, with their family or daring to speak up in public – to keep me motivated, because from experience I know that one little persistent voice can make a difference. So, as long as there is even only one voice speaking up, I am obliged to continue.
Marcela Tovar Restrepo (MTR): There is always time to continue working for WEDO! It is a wonderful organization committed to sustainability, human rights, environmental justice and gender equality. Its mission and work are unique and immensely necessary for our planet. Founded 20 years ago by pioneer women, our organization has achieved fundamental goals putting women’s needs and interests at the center of development agendas, policies and platforms. WEDO has always been an innovative leader demonstrating the existing linkage among environmental resources, social and economic justice, political participation and women’s rights. Ignoring their interdependent relationships will prevent us from building strong and robust democracies in a globalized world. No doubt we have made progress and continue to move forward on today’s burning development issues such as climate change. However, we know much more must be done and can be done. That is why it is so energizing and exciting being at WEDO… Nothing better in life than working close to friends to achieve common aspirations: a better future for all.
CO: Monique, we will continue to be in awe of you and celebrate your being the first woman to run for President of your country, Suriname. There is a lot of discussion now about the importance of women in decision-making positions and aiming for gender ‘balance’ – including, for example, on governments’ delegations to the climate change negotiations. So what do you think: are quotas and targets for parity useful? Is the emphasis on gender balance a step toward our vision of equality?
MEF: Sadly the issue of quotas and targets for parity still brings out a lot of negative emotions in many of our countries, especially where women are vastly underrepresented. The fact that women and men are afraid of negative consequences negates the fact that these are tools that can be useful in many positive ways for both women and men, i.e. the message it sends to society as a whole, but most of all to all those young women and men to provide them a level playing field. During my campaigns it was amazing how parents and children felt empowered by simply telling them that their child could someday also be president of our country. If a 14-year old girl comes up to you and says that she will also run for president when she’s grown up, how can you not continue to fight for her rights?
CO: Marcela, as a scholar, you have done some fascinating research on the intersection of ethnicity and gender identities. Human rights are interlinked and indivisible; how have you seen this play out in your research? How can we strengthen human rights advocacy?
MTR: My knowledge and experience as a scholar has been enriched by my work with social movements and governmental institutions both in low income and high income level countries. I have been very lucky to work with Indigenous movements in Latin America as well as with women’s movements. I learnt a lot about the complexity and intersectionality of multiple identities and forms of discrimination. As we know, unequal forms of power and “politics of difference” deal directly with identity markers such as religious affiliations, sexuality, literacy, location, status, income, race, ethnicity and of course gender. For this reason today we need a multidimensional and more nuanced analysis about women, knowing that different identity intersections inform their experience, affect their power relations and their negotiation ability. Of course, this is full of tensions and contradictions, however we can still talk about women’s rights and struggles in a political dimension. The historical struggle that many different women have carried on for their rights during decades is the struggle for autonomy. In my view, autonomy should be the political standard that defines/re-defines ethno-gender identities, social practices and institutions. Autonomy means that all women –collectively – appropriate their social instituting power and their capacity to self-generate new social forms and identities.
CO: You have both been committed to WEDO for about 10 years – each of you playing multiple roles over the years, across different areas of WEDO’s work. I take that to mean you have great conviction for WEDO’s mission and its unique focus at the nexus of women’s rights, environmental sustainability and development. What do you think is special about WEDO? What do you think the organization should be focusing on next?
MTR: We need to keep working close to our strategic plan, meeting our commitments with partners and donors who trust our work capacity and extensive experience. We must continue championing through advocacy and training gender justice and sustainability, demonstrating how women are powerful agents of change at all levels. By occupying strategic positions, innovating and establishing key partnerships with multiple stakeholders, our work should have a multiplier effect. I see our organization growing and reaching out to new partners like local authorities – especially in cities – human rights organizations, academia, private sector and companies, and most importantly to community based organizations in both rural and urban contexts. Our cumulative knowledge and experience can enrich and improve sustainable development processes, overcoming poverty, and lack of democracy and political participation. Emergent development issues like food security, climate change and negative impacts of global economic crisis, are some of the arenas where we shall contribute by bringing our expertise.
MEF: WEDO’s mission is as relevant today as it was when I first became part of the organization many years ago. I think it’s fair to say that WEDO’s focus on the three crosscutting areas of women’s rights, environmental sustainability and development is better understood today and is being adopted by many organizations. To me and many other women in developing countries, WEDO’s work and successes at the global level were inspiring and useful tools for us in our own work with our national and local organizations. For the next generations, it will be even more important to be able to partner and connect given the fast pace of changes. Conversely, no woman need be silent anymore given modern technology and the global reach that we can have. The challenge will be to move forward with WEDO in sharing with many partners all over the world and creating a collective WEDO strength to be used by women and men alike.
CO: Anything else you want to add? You know, for example, we have a current focus on establishing youth-gender caucuses and networks of young women leaders for a sustainable future… Any words of wisdom for our young(-er) champions?
MEF: To our young champions all over the world and especially from my own country, I say: Learn from our mistakes and build on our successes. Be bold and generous in thoughts and ideas. Never waiver from what you believe in and never be afraid to lean on others. Use the WEDO platforms at every turn of the road and know that you are never alone. Speak out, speak up and share your knowledge!
MTR: Working collectively gives us extraordinary power to transform the world in the way we want it to be. At WEDO we share, we learn, we work and we transform the lives of many. Learning from women’s creativity, courage and resilience to face conflict, discrimination and environmental injustice, we must keep working at the frontline on equality issues, human rights and peace. Bella Abzug and many other great women have set a wonderful path for all of us. Many young women and men are encouraged to take over the lessons learnt and experience from previous generations in our work for a sustainable, just and healthy planet. It is a great gift and opportunity!