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Women are the Bellwether of Global Rights

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A chance meeting with a person who works on the religious fundamentalisms project at Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), in the midst of the local assault on social services has helped me to see more clearly how Mayor Ford's locally proposed cuts reflect global trends.

Think global, act local. AWID is an organization that is connecting the dots between local and global interventions and impact.

For instance last month, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Norma Andrede -- a mother and a longstanding and outspoken voice on behalf of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa -- NHRC (May Our Daughters Return Home) an organization that fights for justice for the victims of femicide and their families in the Mexican state of Chihuahua -- walked out of her house and was shot five times.

AWID's defend the defender's project goes to bat for those who throw it down for the rest of us. One of Norma's daughters, Lilia Alejandra, was abducted, raped, tortured, and murdered in Ciudad Juarez in 2001. According to Lydia Alpizar, the Executive Director of AWID, Andrede was subsequently evicted from the hospital where she sought care after it received death threats. A new study estimates that since 1985, almost 35,000 women, including Lillia, have been murdered. But some mothers, like Norma, are fighting back.

What happened to Norma represents how the relationship between local and global human rights and social justice can be expressed. Although it manifests in a number of ways, it is typical of the violence, says Alpizar, cutting into the lives of women and LGBT activists -- criminal, physical, and economic; global and local. Women like Norma speak out against narco- and government-sponsored (or ignored) violence, while women in India commit suicide to escape crushing debt.

Take Shobha Srinivas, a local women's micro-lending organizer, who doused herself with kerosene and ignited a match to escape debt created through micro-lending. Unregulated predatory lenders are able to earn massive interest (think over 36 per cent) while borrowers remain unprotected by the governments charged to protect them. Think the Occupy movement. Think Indignados. Mexico is one more place, among many, where the state of global women's and LGBT rights is being expressed on bodies and in daily lives.

As bleak as this may sound, it represents opportunity. In the last five years, major international actors such as the World Bank, the UN, Unicef, and CARE USA have shifted their attention to the plight of women and girls. But, according to Alpizar, that shift has missed fundamental structural inequities. The state of women's rights and development cannot be ameliorated solely through entrepreneurial endeavours.

Setting women up with the ability to borrow small sums (micro-lending) with the same predatory lending practices at work as in say, the U.S. sub-prime mortgage market, leaves whole families and communities vulnerable. If we listened to any of the Occupy critique, then this analysis should sound familiar.

Interventions, such as microlending, are linear and narrowly focused, says Alpizar.

It doesn't really do the trick, let's say. Transforming the lives of those women, to lives where they can exercise fully their rights, where they can live lives full of dignity and respect, without violence, with exercising reproductive choice and sexual choice, and really having meaningful political participation, as well.... The problem with those interventions is that they're designed in a very narrowly focused way. In the end, it doesn't work like that, especially for women because of the complexity of women's oppression and how it is structurally cannot be transformed with such simplistic interventions.

They're good, but not good enough. They do not address the underlying inequities that prevent women's full participation economically, socially, or politically.

The global financial crisis presumes a shortage of resources. As government social services are cut, women fill the gap, according to Alpizar. But, the needs remain. As the plight of women worsens, so it will for all of us -- exponentially. This is because most economic statistics, measuring the impact of cuts, do not recognize the work women do on an unpaid basis. When their role goes unsupported, uncounted, and unacknowledged, so does the devastation wrought when they, and services, are undermined or eliminated. We have the resources, but choose to not use them to support human rights and social justice.

A lack of accounting might explain why, for instance, among 1000 self-reported woman's rights organizations surveyed by AWID, the total budgets for all of them combined was about $78 million dollars. That's $78 million for 800 organizations who serve women's interests at the local, national, and international level. That amounts to slightly less than $100,000 per year per agency, if it were distributed evenly. However, most of these groups operate on budgets of between $10,000-50,000. In contrast, larger, similarly progressive actors such as CARE USA (assets at over $400 million or UNIFEM with income of just over $180,000), have substantially larger budgets.

We won't even mention the billions that have been, and are being, transferred into private hands. AWID and its members are connecting the dots between the knowledge/expertise built up over decades of feminist struggle and how the lives of women -- and ours -- can be transformed to favour human rights and social justice.

To address the gap in the interventions made on behalf of women's rights, AWID is active on several fronts. First, as an international actor that connects organizations, small and large, local and international, to each other. This means that a women's organization fighting for the rights of sex workers in Vancouver, for instance, could be aware of what similar organizations have learned in Mumbai.

Coordinated responses to oppression and violence is urgent but could, and should, target structural inequities. A sustained and systematically built awareness of practices and the flow of resources at the global level can emerge to have, with the help of an organization like AWID, exponential impact with local outcomes (and vice versa).

These practices emerge globally with AWID initiatives such as the young feminists project, the "CF" project challenging religious fundamentalisms, the "Violence against Women Human Rights Defenders" and projects that AWID supports, such as Take Back the Tech.

In order to discuss, disseminate, and discover alternative ideas -- grassroots activists, women's rights leaders, donor agencies, development practitioners, and activists will come together next year in Istanbul as they have every three to four years since 1983. The International Forum on Women's Rights and Development is the largest recurring event of its kind as it defends the defenders like Norma Arande or the exploited like Shobha Srinivas but also to build alliances that strengthen and coordinate engagement and action in both the global and local arenas. Women are in a unique position to assist themselves and their communities because of the way all of our interests intersect with their lives and the concrete initiatives with which they engage.

If you'd like to support the work of AWID, you can become a member of AWID or -- perhaps better -- read and distribute the information published weekly on their website to have your own exponential effect. What is happening is an opportunity. We decide whether to step up and use it -- or not. Use AWID to connect to a larger community of people who care about, and seek to transform, the lives of women -- and so, all of us. Our times warrant nothing less.

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