Defiance at the world’s unjust treatment of women

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Defiance at the world’s unjust treatment of women

Between panels that regularly provoked tears, belly-laughs, chants and standing ovations from the audience, hundreds of buzzing chats took place. Becka Seglow-Hudson reports

Had you walked past the cafes of Hampstead in north London this past weekend you might have noticed people chatting outside the former town hall. You may even have heard some whoops, applause or chants escaping from the building.

But you could be forgiven for thinking nothing remarkable was going on.

If you had stepped inside, however, as my mother and I did, you would have seen a room teeming with experience of the world’s injustices and of the defiance, strategies and hope tackling them.

Between panels that regularly provoked tears, belly-laughs, chants and standing ovations from the audience, hundreds of buzzing chats took place.

Scottish kinship carers sipped tea with a Haitian head teacher, the founder of a Norwegian immigrant and refugee centre applauded the president of Britain’s bakers’ union, an Indian campaigner against bonded labour shared samosas with a Greek anti-militarist, anti-rape feminists from Romania swapped ideas with an Irish academic and a pay equity campaigner, and activists for queer rights and sex work decriminalisation in New Zealand, Thailand and the US laughed alongside the secretary general of the Peruvian domestic workers’ union.

This was Caring, Survival and Justice vs the Tyranny of the Market, an international women’s conference called by the Global Women’s Strike (GWS), Women of Colour in GWS and Payday, a network of men working with the GWS.

At a time where feminism, as Professor Alison Wolf explained on the opening panel, is increasingly reduced to “more women at the top,” an event focusing on the majority of the world’s women who remain impoverished and devalued seemed crucial.

In the fight for a world where all life is protected and nourished, from the ground up and for everyone, the “golden skirts” who do the market’s bidding were not discussed as sisters, but as obstacles. As Wolf summarised: “If you’re a female banker, you’re still a banker.”

Something more every day and yet more extraordinary was at the forefront of the conference — care work. Most of us, when prompted, will recognise this labour — our mothers and other women we know do it all the time, largely unnoticed.

We see them take multiple jobs, cook, clean, shop, launder, listen, mend, medicate, organise appointments, protect us from harm, fill out endless forms and navigate services to keep us alive and functioning.

We heard of the rapidly increasing numbers of children forcibly taken into care or adoption from impoverished mothers, particularly women of colour.

Disabled women spoke of the literally lethal nature of cuts and work capability assessments.

Women called on the police and courts to take rape seriously: “The wrong people are inside. Only 4 per cent of reported rape ends in conviction, while thousands of non-violent women and men are locked up.”

Doctors and nursery workers described how privatisation created conditions that prevented them from caring. Their concerns were echoed by whistleblowers who discussed the brutality they had witnessed in detention centres, hospitals and care homes.

Many speakers connected their personal experiences with their campaign work, showing how, even when confronted, institutions repeatedly eclipsed their humanity with a concern for profit.

I was struck to hear the many things caring can encompass. A panel on justice work saw Shandre Delaney whose prison lawyer son is being prosecuted after blowing the whistle on torture in US prisons, and Donna Hill whose daughter is serving life for killing her rapist, speak alongside Kadi Johnson and Marcia Rigg whose brothers died in police custody in Britain, and Mohamed Ahmed whose sister killed herself after the rape she reported was neglected by police, mental health and ambulance services.

These campaigners, through incomprehensible grief, continue to battle to salvage truth and justice for those they love.

In doing so, they defend all of us. As Margaret Prescod, founding member of Women of Colour, summarised to a standing ovation: “If black lives don’t matter, no lives matter.”

Work to save our environment from obscene greed was also framed as care by the Nanas Against Fracking from Lancashire. Though George Osborne intended for multiple fracking sites to be up and running by 2013, Britain remains largely frack-free due to groups like theirs.

Confronting riot police in yellow aprons and mobilising communities to resist drills capable of causing earthquakes is, for them, simply another way to care for the world, its people and its future.

Helen Lowder, co-ordinator of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s office whose constituents are fighting slum housing and zero-hours contracts, reminded us that our time has come.

This was echoed by GWS co-ordinator Selma James who explained to great applause that a living wage for mothers and other carers is an anti-capitalist perspective which prioritises life not the market: “We can win. We must win. We will win!”

The breadth and promise of this collective view is what the weekend brought home for me.