The 13th Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe in Peru

Edmé Dominguez participated in the 13th Encuentro or meeting of feminists from Latin America and the Caribbean that was held last November. She reports about the meeting.

This Encuentro (meeting) should be framed in the general tradition of Latin American feminist meetings that have been taking place since 1981. These are meetings of grassroots movements working for women’s rights in a very broad form. Through all these years such Encuentros have witnessed the evolution of the movement through an enormous diversity of “identities” that are gaining recognition and collective organizing. The objective of these Encuentros is not the shaping of common strategies by the women and feminist movements but the acknowledgement of the evolution of its different sectors and issues, the dialogue and discussion among different perspectives and even opposing viewpoints and finally the negotiation of differences reflected in broad joint declarations.

This 13th Encuentro was not an exception. Fierce debates, reflecting different interest, identities and intersectionalities, took place specially during the plenaries. The plenaries were 3 and had as themes: 1) interculturality and intersectionality; 2) Life sustainability and 3) body and territory. Each of these plenaries was organized as a panel with different participants, all of them representing different sections-countries of the movement.

The first panel was moderated by Virginia Vargas, the legendary Peruvian feminist leader working at the Flora Tristan Center in Lima, and gathered Soledad Bermudez from Colombia, Gilda Parduccio from El Salvador, Lourdes Huanca from Peru, Julieta Paredes from Bolivia, Lilian Celiberti from Uruguay, Veronica Santa Ana from Brasil and Malu Machuca from Peru. Three of these participants (Huanca, Paredes and Santa Ana) represented either peasant or indigenous women or both. However, their contributions had very little in common: while Huanca spoke about the struggle of peasant and indigenous women to liberate themselves from the traditional practices of patriarchality, to recover the control of women’s bodies and pleasure and addressed the assistance and contribution they had got from feminists in general, Paredes gave a rather sophisticated speech on “communitarian feminism”, a post-colonial feminism, de-patriarchalized but also against institutional and traditional feminism, a “feminism that goes together with the revolutionary struggle”. Santa Ana, for her part, spoke of the struggle of the rural women in the Nordeste in Brazil to make their agrarian productive labour recognized at the same level as the men’s. She also spoke about the agro-ecological practices of these women and about their participation in the “March of the Margaritas”.

In this first panel, Malu Machuca represented trans-sexual women and spoke of their need to get more recognition as trans-sexual besides their feminist belonging: “to think that only women are the privileged subject of feminism is as erroneous as looking at the proletariat as the only revolutionary subject of Marxism”. Celiberti from Uruguay representing the “Articulación Feminista de Marcosur” spoke about the need to carry out a critical revision of feminism but always “constructing feminism from where we are”, without denying what we have attained (“I was in Bejing and I don’t regret it”), trying to intersect the different realities of oppression but giving way to new capacities of alliances within a framework of respect.

The second plenary’s theme, “Life sustainability” gathered also a broad spectrum of the feminist movement: Elizabeth Peredo from REMTE- Bolivia, Lida Posada from Colombia, Luz Maria Coji from the network of indigenous women in Ecuador, Miriam Nobre from the Women’s March from Brasil, Belinda Sosa from an organization of food cooperatives (comedores populares) in Peru, Thannya Irias from Nicaragua and Fabiola de Jurado from the Coordination of indigenous women in Mexico. Four “knots” or tensions were approached by this discussion: 1. autonomy in front of the state vs the de-politization of feminism through its co-optation into the government; 2. the inclusion of “trans-subjects”; 3. the questioning of binary categories by queer feminism and 4. the relationship North-South.

The presentations gave varied approaches to these subjects, sometimes even ignoring them altogether. Some of these representatives approached the issues of sustainability in a classical, somehow essentialist, way by giving an account of how women had taken the initiative to defend natural resources against elites and transnational companies’ depredation, against all kinds of contamination produced by industries or by infrastructure-developmental projects. According to Belinda Sosa it was women who had sustained life in times of war (for example the Shining Path period), in times of crisis, “women are not vulnerable, they live in vulnerable conditions for which they’re not responsible”. The indigenous women spoke about the challenge to find an equilibrium between women and men and between humans and the nature but also about what they had attained as organizations. The Brazilian representative did approach the issue of co-optation of the movement and spoke of the need to avoid being “functional to the system, being an alibi”. That’s to say, it was necessary to force the authorities to recognize that women’s time was not an endless supply, that it should be treated with the same care as any other natural resource.

The third plenary addressed the issue of “Bodies and Territories”. Among the panellists: Maria Isabel Cedano (Peru), Natasha Jimenez (Costa Rica), Betania Avila, (Brazil), Elena Reynaga (Argentina), Adriana Guzman (Bolivia), Magaly Pineda (República Dominicana) and Dirce Rivera (México). The presentations revealed the tensions and the “knots” already mentioned during the second panel. Sexual workers voiced their frustration at being marginalized by the feminist movement: “we have to struggle to be mentioned in the official declarations of the meetings only to discover that later this paragraph will be dropped out”. The “trans”movement voiced similar resentments. And Adriana Guzman from the “communitarian feminism” in Bolivia, following Paredes view from the fist plenary, was again very critical of traditional feminism and of the use of a “gender” concept that “only hid the patriarchy”. According to her views the concepts of body and territory had been co-opted and it was necessary to re-construct a “useful feminism” that gathered the women’s memory regarding space, time and body. Another tension was raised by the Mexican panellist who spoke about the problems young women faced, specially in Mexico because of the mounting gender related violence but also because they felt “measured” by a “feministromeno” always questioning their feminist credentials.

Apart from these plenaries there were lots of workshops, round tables, individual presentations that continued to develop the diversity of causes and views already presented during the plenaries.

One of these workshops was particularly interesting. Its theme was women’s political participation and their transformation of power. The project had been performed among indigenous and black women’s organizations from Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. This was a committed research project. The methodology was particularly interesting: the women object of the research became part of the researchers and had a voice in the choice of methods, themes and in the analysis leading to the conclusions. Part of the goal was to recover the memory of the women’s political participation in the different organizations, since the 1980s when the first organizations appeared as a result of international pressures and feminist groups. One example given was the work among the indigenous women’s organizations in the Chimborazo province in Ecuador (more than 600 organizations). The research had led to the integration of women’s rights within indigenous cultures through collective and individual approaches. However, it was pointed out, the political incidence of this work was limited because of the “transversalization” policies which diluted the gender equality efforts.

But plenaries and workshops didn’t manage to dilute tensions. And these came up in different ways. For example in the protest resolution read by Afro-Latin American women who had felt somehow neglected by the plenaries composition (something the organizers denied and tried to explain as caused by misunderstanding and failures within the planning). This was a rather dramatic moment at the end of a plenary meeting when all the Afro-Latin American participants occupied the scene and read a beautiful and strong declaration that finished with an enormous applause. Their point was made and everybody seemed satisfied.

However, the second tension seemed less easy to neutralize. It had to do with the election of the country where the next Encuentro would take place. Apparently, the committee preparing this election did not receive many candidacies but when they were presenting the few alternatives, of which Uruguay looked the most plausible, suddenly a new candidate presented itself: Bolivia. It was Julieta Paredes who launched Bolivia’s candidacy in a rather surprising way. She framed it as the candidacy of indigenous feminism. Many became very excited but there were also those who regarded this with certain suspicion. Suddenly a Bolivian delegate came up to the podium and had the courage to say this was not a serious and well anchored proposal within the Bolivian group, moreover, she argued, Bolivia was not prepared for such a responsibility. The response of Julieta Paredes’ supporters was, not surprisingly given the tensions and emotions hanging in the air, rather aggressive.

It became clear that the choice was between Bolivia and Uruguay. The organizers seemed to lose control given the mounting polarization, heated supporters from both groups took the podium and refused to leave it and after long discussions on how to proceed it was decided that those in favour of Uruguay would move to one side of the auditorium while the rest would take the other side. The results were clear: two thirds of the participants favoured Uruguay who finally got to host the next Encuentro in 2017. The losers admitted defeat but Julieta Paredes resorted to a new initiative: Bolivia would instead organize the first feminist Abyayala Encuentro, that is to say the first feminist indigenous Encuentro. Several participants interpreted this as a divisive strategy and started protesting “Un solo encuentro”, one single Encuentro. How can one interprete this opposition? The indigenous feminists against the white-middle-class-European descendent feminists? However tempting this would be a gross oversimplification of this “conflict”. As I explained below one cannot speak of one feminist indigenous movement, that would be an oversimplification. But we can see a rising intellectual post-colonial indigenous position that is trying to find its place by confronting itself to the classical feminist traditions. Neither can we speak of a white-middle class feminism but yes we can recognize that the Uruguay candidacy reflected the long standing credentials of a consolidated and strong feminist movement anchored in a century of feminist struggles.

As part of the synthesis presented by the organizers after the plenaries, several issues came forward, for example: the struggle against essentialism, the need to make space for everybody within the movement, the relation body-territory and the recognition of sexual work, the Afro-American heritage, autonomy and sustainability among others. As somebody put it “An Encuentro cannot undo the knots but it can recognize them”. In other words the eternal challenge: the recognition of diversities without renouncing the aim of broad alliances.

From a theoretical perspective and having never attended one I had always imagined the continental “Encuentros” as somehow mythical places of discussion among grassroots movements, collectives, groups, individuals. I knew, I had read, there were tensions, discrepancies, conflicts but also compromises and the renewed will to continue marching together under the feminist banners. My first experience of such an Encuentro didn’t disappoint me, it confirmed my previous knowledge and it enriched it beyond any expectation. I was there as an observer but also as an engaged participant, trying to meet different women and understand their views, their struggles and quite often, their dilemmas. I was surprised for example by the vitality and the diversity of the indigenous women’s movements. And I speak in plural because one cannot say it’s a single movement, their experiences, positions, aims and strategies are very diverse. Inter-sectionality as a perspective, trying to see how different nodes of oppression intersect, has to be used to understand these women who are also peasant or workers, intellectuals or illiterate, heterosexual or homosexual or even transsexual, sexual workers and/ or wives, mothers, daughters, and not the least feminist, many identities under the one they have chosen to politicize. And I was fascinated by their strength and self-confidence, something I could not have imagined 20 years ago in a continent so deeply marked by class and race.

I also discovered and was impressed by the sexual workers and the trans-sexual groups, by the strength of their collective identity, always contrasting themselves with the rest of the feminist groups, expressing their resentments but also their expectation of solidarity.

In other words, I had a lot of expectations when I arrived at the Encuentro and these were not disappointed. I expected diversity and I was overwhelmed by its richness, by the maturity of the different groups composing this mosaique and by the potentiality of these movements in spite or perhaps because of their contradictions. A lot has happened since Beijing 1995 and one thing is clear for me, there is no way back, no backlashes can turn the clock back.


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