Empowerment world-wide

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Comment by Julia Kraft, Andreas Speck

In February 2001, a little later than originally planned, 70 people from 20 countries on five continents met for a week at the Gandhi Labour Foundation in Puri on the Gulf of Bengal, in order to exchange experiences of empowerment, to raise questions, and to search for new answers1.

The venue was well-chosen. The Gandhi Labour Foundation, an educational centre of the Gandhian union movement, lies at the edge of a place of pilgrimage – Puri – and only a few minutes walk from the picturesque beach of the Gulf of Bengal. The climate was still agreeable, even if, compared to the European climate, very summery, it contributed very much to the relaxed conference atmosphere, as did the possibility of a cooling bathe in the sea, and the friendly service by the personnel of the Gandhi Labour Foundation and the team of 20 volunteers from our Indian host organisation – Swadhina. The Indian team of interpreters did a wonderful job, without which our communication would not have been possible. The organisers from Swadhina proved – with their self-built simultaneous interpretation equipment – that a lot of money can be saved through creativity! The conference programme ranged from personal experiences with empowerment and disempowerment, to working in groups and organisations, to social movements and to international co-operation (or disempowering tutelage?). It isn't possible to provide an extensive overview in this article, and so we will restrict ourselves to a few of the more exciting aspects2.


The question of what social empowerment actually means – what power we actually want - was approached from three different perspectives: José Araya from Chile, Pushpa Bhave from India and Ellen Elster from Norway approached the topic from their own backgrounds. Ellen Elster, a member of the WRI Executive, portrayed the successes of the women's movement of the `70s, which are very visible especially in Scandinavian countries. However, what social changes did this “participation in power” bring about? She also gave serious critical thought to the increasing tendency of “professionalisation” of NGOs, that goes along with a reorientation towards lobbyism and dialogue with state power. This may lead to more influence on government decisions. But does it also lead to more empowerment at the grassroots?3

What power do we want?

In the first two days, several workshops pursued aspects of the power we strive for, or against which we turn. Keith Goddard of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe reported on attacks by the Mugabe government on gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe, attacks that were essentially justified by the “rights of the majority in opposition to the minority”. It led to a discussion on power, majority, minority and identity, and what relationships exist between these concepts 4. In a report on her work, Amalia Paillalaf, a teacher in an indigenous community of the Mapuche-Tehuelche in Patagonia, Argentina, emphasised the necessity of the protection of indigenous identity. Amalia emphasised the importance of teaching the traditional knowledge of their people in schools and of preserving it through writing. She had to ask the elderly people in her community to pass on this knowledge, though at first they didn't want to, as they thought it would be of no more use in today's world. Furthermore the teaching in Amalia's school had to be organised in a way so that it related to the living conditions of the Mapuche in the region, where people can live over 100km apart. So the children go to school for two weeks and then stay at home for one week, while the other siblings, who previously stayed at home, go to school.

Case studies

Case studies on different campaigns and movements, which had been specially commissioned for the conference, were an important element. They covered four topics: empowerment for economic alternatives, for social “decontamination”, for the protection of the environment, and for demilitarisation5.

Economic alternatives

We worked with several “resource people” when we looked at economic alternatives. These included: Khoboso Nthunya from SEWU (Self Employed Women's Union) from South Africa, a union for women who work in the informal sector; Srichandra Venkataramanan from the Indian organisation Swadhina, which was established in 1986 (for both the economic empowerment of women is the main focus of their work) and Edda Isernhagen from Brazil from the organisation Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the Brazilian landless workers movement. While SEWU primarily organises with women in small businesses in South Africa, such as street vendors, Swadhina mainly organises with women in rural areas. Both devote themselves to empowerment of women. While SEWU places the organising and advanced training of working women who are already economically independent as goal for itself – through support and education in the areas of leadership, negotiation and lobbying – Swadhina's first aim is to develop the economic independence of women. Furthermore SEWU promotes the development of basic skills such as management and conflict resolution and the furthering of particular skills like house construction, carpentry, and electrical work. These are not traditional activities for women, but are an area in which they can earn money and open their own small businesses. The women must finance a small part of these advanced trainings themselves, while SEWU contributes 80 percent of the costs6. For Swadhina, the economic empowerment of women is the main focus of their work, since many of the problems women encounter have economic roots. Their work comprises three steps: women must become confident that they are capable of being economically independent; their self-confidence must be strengthened; and they must understand that they are equivalent to men to empower them in challenging discrimination, for example disparity in wages. Finally, they must learn how to deal with money. Initially, Indian society was not willing to accept strong women. So the women organised themselves in grassroots groups, choosing a president and a treasurer. Savings funds in the villages were established by the women themselves, from which they can now borrow.7 MST differs in many ways from SEWU and Swadhina. The movement doesn't refer specifically to the empowerment of women. MST wants to challenge the existing world order. They have groups in 23 out of 26 Brazilian federal states. The movement began when some families from the south didn't want to be resettled. They said, “We have land here.” They demanded land, food, drinking water, seeds and dignity, and the right to be Brazilians. They need public support in their work, so they organise marches, often for weeks and over several thousand kilometres, during which they visit people on the way in order to explain their concerns.

Empowerment for demilitarisation

In the area of empowerment for demilitarisation, two examples were highlighted: the struggle of the population of Vieques on Puerto Rico against the seemingly overwhelming presence of the US military, which uses a huge part of the island of Vieques for military practices8; and the conscientious objection movement in the state of Spain, a movement which essentially contributed to the abolition of conscription through their insumision total objection campaign 9.

Development of counter power

In her contribution, WRI Chair Joanne Sheehan explored whether the Seattle protests in 1999 were more than just the media event which they are often perceived as. The practical non-violent blockading of the meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was only possible through long-term preparation and coalition-building work. Joanne Sheehan asked, critically, whether the simple repetition of Seattle – in Washington in April 2000, in Prague, Davos, and Genoa – is in itself a successful strategy against the World Trade Organisation as well as against globalisation, or whether this may be a blind alley. Seattle was successful in bringing the WTO from darkness into the light of the public – so how can we build on this success in order to at least restrict the power of the WTO? Keith Goddard explained the strategy of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe on the basis of a “force field analysis” following president Mugabe's first anti-gay remarks. He explained how GALZ developed its own strengths, and tried to weaken forces working against the group. He pointed out that Mugabe's behaviour – contrary to the original assessment – proved to be a factor in strengthening the movement in the end.


More than providing new answers this conference raised new questions, and again raised old questions in new circumstances. “Globalisation” and its effects ran as a thread through many plenaries and working groups. What are the effects of globalisation on social movements? What possibilities exist to counter the “globalisation of multinationals” with a “globalisation from below”, a globally connected resistance, that is empowered by its variety? And what about the question of fundamental social change? Of not only striving to reform capitalism, but to create real revolutionary change? Are we – and by “we” we mean War Resisters' International – afraid to even speak of revolution any more? Is this why the word doesn't appear in the WRI Statement of Principles anymore? What about our own empowerment?