Global Policy Forum

Gendering WSF Nairobi 2007


By Onyango Oloo*

July 20, 2006

Despite making some progress towards developing an inclusive process for women within the World Social Forum (WSF) movement, profound problems remain that are likely to manifest themselves in the lead up to the WSF meeting in Nairobi in 2007, says Onyango Oloo, in this paper presented at a public forum on "Gendering the WSF Process". It's not a lost battle, however. Oloo suggests that action can still be taken through which men can show solidarity with their women comrades.

Conceptual Underpinnings

First things first:

In talking about gendering the World Social Forum process, it is crucial for my readers to grasp what I am NOT talking about. I am NOT talking about "women's issues" nor am I trying to "solve" or "resolve" "The Woman Question". Rather, I am trying to explore the problematics thrown up by the age-old power dynamics between men and women and contextualizing this within the history of planning and organizing for successive WSF events.

And I have embarked on this task for reasons that are far from "academic"; I am not driven solely by theoretical and intellectual preoccupations about the subject of gender. I happen to be right in the middle of the logistical, programmatic and other aspects of social mobilization, fund-raising, outreach and publicity for the next edition of the World Social Forum taking place in Nairobi, Kenya from January 20th to January 25th 2007.

As a man, I am keenly aware of the baggage of male privilege that I was born with growing up in a world defined by patriarchy, misogyny and other forms of oppression against and domination over women. As a Kenyan, I am also cognizant of the inescapable fact of the world capitalist economy buttressing these age-old oppressions by punctuating every thing with class and confining historically determined societies within an overall imperialist vortex which in the Kenyan and African context manifests itself as neo-colonialism.

Over the last quarter century or so, neo-liberal policies downloaded to Kenya and other African and Southern countries via multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) etc etc have worsened the already lopsided power dynamics between men and women in the spheres of the economy, political representation, social and cultural relations, not forgetting the ideological imperatives of the day.

As humankind struggles to realize and implement the vision of an alternative, more egalitarian and social justice oriented world, one is quite conscious that we are doing so within the context of class struggles and gender tensions which define our everyday existence. Progressive women and men continue the fight to build a better world even as we explore the stark reminders of persistent sexism, pervasive patriarchy and rampant misogyny that seep into our work despite our subjective commitments and best, sincere and earnest intentions against these manifestations of oppression, marginalization and even outright contempt and hatred towards women.

It should therefore surprise no one that the World Social Forum process, unfolding against the complex tapestry of real and concrete social conditions cannot be hermetically sealed and insulated from all the troubling manifestations of inequality between men and women and other aspects of the lopsided power dynamics between the two genders.

Before proceeding further, let me pause and share some capsules capturing various testimonies, perspectives and experiences from the World Social Forum process itself:

Testimonies and Critiques Regarding Gender and the WSF Process

1. …even while trying to build another world based on principles of participatory democracy and social justice, internal contradictions remain in the WSF. One of the most notable are weaknesses in maintaining gender inclusiveness. The majority of participants in the WSF are women, but most of the presenters on panels are men, continuing the stereotype that men are the producers of knowledge. The raises the question of what the WSF will do to assure more participatory democracy in terms of gender balance? - Marc Becker, April 12, 2006 (

2. Other aspects of the forum were more problematic. "One huge issue at the WSF was gender dynamics," Nadja Millner-Larsen, a recent graduate from New York's Bard College, said. "There was an enormous lack of women on the panels at the social forum. I attended this one panel on the anti globalization movement and at the end of it a lot of women stood up and said "how can we create another world when we don't have healthy gender dynamics in these panels?"

"Some of the men said, ‘Okay, we should pay attention to this.' But others on the panel had this age-old response that been going on in the left since the sixties. They said, well, classes aren't equally represented, nor race, therefore you shouldn't be so outraged by the underrepresentation of women."

"This is skirting around the issue," Millner-Larsen continued. "If a black person in a white audience asked why there aren't black people on a panel, the speakers wouldn't say, ‘Relax there aren't any women either.' Here we are thirty years later and we are still arguing class and gender against women…it's shocking. To allow this unequal gender distribution to be sanctioned within the official forum obviously has this kind of trickle down effect in the youth camp."

In addition to hundreds of robberies and numerous fights in the Youth Camp, rapes were reported there as well. "There was a high level of violence in the Youth Camp, Millner-Larsen explained. I felt more scared there than I really have traveling anywhere else. I got the sense that being alone in the camp was a really dangerous thing." - Benjamin Dangl, commenting on the WSF in Porto Allegre. (

3. However, it was felt that the women's movement still rests on the margins of the WSF. In his testimony, Candido Grzybowski, Sociologist, Director of IBASE, and member of the WSF organizing committee, states that "women were just 43 percent of WSF delegates, although they make up over 50 percent of the world's population! It is sad to acknowledge, but WSF was still limited in terms of its social female face". He continues: "In the WSF, I'm learning something fundamental, that will certainly change my role in the Forum and at IBASE. Women are a 'minority' created by ourselves within civil society. With respect to that, there is no point in blaming capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization, exclusionary states, etc. This is a major problem that is engendered, developed, and maintained in the culture of civil society itself." -(

4. Trains are a good example. Seldom have I been so scared as when I took the train to the forum one morning and did not go on the women's wagon. There was no space there, I thought – before discovering that the space given to me in a wagon full of men was a form of hell. In this appalling, everyday situation women struggle to find space for themselves, and somehow they succeed. The WSF is the same; neither women nor the gender issue in general was better represented in the official programme this year as compared to previous years. The same men dominated the ‘star' panels; some, who clearly think too highly of themselves, participated in several seminars at the same time. Who (to name just one) did not see Walden Bello deliver a speech and then say: "excuse me, I have to go", and run off to the next seminar?

Many panels consisted entirely of men. Some trendy activists, who think that they are super-feminists because they know a bit of gender theory, agreed to sit on panels without a single woman. Everywhere you could see "homosocial" relations: men preferring to talk to men, men favouring men when organising a seminar or editing a book. Women being forgotten and given the same proportion in a space as Indian women will get in the train. All of this has been there since the forum process started and was still there in Mumbai – but somehow it was challenged and overtaken by women who decided to occupy more space than they had been given.

I've heard so many people say: "something must happen to this WSF process. It can't go on like this." But, this year, something did happen. A "new" issue – women's rights – has moved into the centre. Many "old" problems remain. The approach to solving them may be through proposals that some will find uncomfortable. It's like the women's wagons. I'm sure that many would oppose the idea of separating men and women travelers. Well, before judging you should be a woman traveling in a train in India. The wagons "for everybody" consist only of men, who will harass and molest any woman who ventures aboard. It was women themselves who fought to have the women's wagons.

If the WSF panels "for everybody" consist only of men, who talk about and analyse everything, and the women-only panels speak solely of women's issues – and that continues regardless of how many think it's wrong – then maybe we have to make rules. One rule we could make for the WSF is that all-male panels are allowed only to talk about men's issues. If people refuse to understand the obvious, perhaps we need to make rules until they do? I'm not suggesting that that would be a positive thing, but the success of the women this year will have an impact that will mark the forum process for more than just a few days in Mumbai.

But this World Social Forum (Mumbai 2004) should not primarily be remembered as an event where we started to make rules, but as a beautiful political festival dominated by women. According to gender research, women are perceived as "many" or "in majority" when we occupy 30% of a space. At this forum, women were approximately represented in accordance with our proportion of the world's population: around 51%. I think that is why many observers perceived women to be everywhere at this forum. - America Vera Savala (§ionID=1)

Prevailing Gender Dynamics Within the Eastern African Context

Eastern African Women have played and are playing a crucial role in planning and organizing for the upcoming WSF 2007 event. In the host country of Kenya for example, the only member from Kenya of the International Council is a woman; two of the four Kenyan representatives to the African Social Forum Council are Kenyan women. The main representative of the Ethiopian Social Forum to the ASF/WSF gatherings is a woman; in Tanzania at least five of the leading WSF organizers in that country are women; in Uganda almost half of the representatives to the WSF Nairobi 2007 Organizing Committee are women.

At the inaugural WSF Nairobi 2007 Organizing Committee held in Nairobi from April 22nd to April 23rd 2006 half of the chairs of the plenary session were women. At the same meeting, 27.5% (22 out of 80) of the participants were women. Women are also very well-represented in the overall Organizing Committee itself. Prior to and following that pivotal meeting, FEMNET, one of the leading African women's civil society organizations (and represented in 3 Commissions for WSF 2007) initiated a series of meetings to bring together women involved in the WSF process.

At the same time, out of the 7 Commissions of the WSF Organizing Committee, only 1 is convened by a woman despite the fact that women constitute nearly half of the membership in those commissions. In one of the key decision bodies - the Nairobi Local Committee - 2 of the 5 members are women. The WSF Nairobi 2007 Secretariat is still very much male-dominated. At the inaugural WSF Nairobi 2007 Organizing Committee women called for the setting up of a Women's Commission - although this issue was never resolved or decided upon.

From the above it is clear that Eastern African women are right in the thick of things when it comes to planning, organizing and mobilizing for WSF Nairobi 2007. Simultaneously the process to the 2007 Nairobi event remains male driven and centred. One can safely assume that the testimonies and perspectives shared in the preceding section will find their equivalents within our regional context. Most of the population in the Eastern African region remains rural-based. Over half of that population is female. Yet the organizing and planning for Nairobi 2007 is centred in the major urban centres like Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar town, Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. This has direct implications when it comes to ensuring effective participation of ordinary Eastern African working class and peasant women in the planning and execution for WSF Nairobi 2007. Young adult women (not just in Eastern Africa) have been complaining that there is an assumption that "Youth" = "Young Male" thus marginalizing female youth who in our local context outnumber their male counterparts. One could cite other examples, but suffice to say that the issue of women remaining at the margins of the WSF process is a reality within Eastern Africa as well.

At the end of the day, this reality of women's marginalization should not be an earth-shattering shock to anyone. The WSF process is a microcosm of concrete conditions in the world today. The gender dynamics within the World Social Forum are a reflection of the actually existing power relations between women and men all over the world. Just confining ourselves to the Kenyan situation for a few minutes, it is not contested that the prevailing grinding poverty in this country has a greater impact on Kenyan women - even though women are the primary producers of food, the main engines in the unpaid household economy, the chief child care providers, the ones who bear the brunt of taking care of the elderly, the HIV infected and AIDS orphans. There are only a handful of female cabinet ministers and their assistants in the bloated Kenya government.

Every single day there are literally dozens of stories in the local print and electronic media of women being killed, raped, defiled, battered, brutalized and otherwise assaulted by their spouses, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons and other men in their immediate lives as well as total strangers who see females (from babies under a year old to grandmothers pushing a century in existence) as vulnerable, "weaker" targets for their violence prone male power trips.

Recently there was a huge national furor when a Kenyan woman MP introduced a bill to legislate against a huge array of sexual offences including marital rape. Male Kenyan MPs led the charge in ridiculing and rubbishing the Bill with one notorious MP quipping that African women mean "Yes" when they say "No" to uninvited sexual advances. The newspaper columns were full of commentaries and letters to editors from battalions and garrisons of Kenyan men feeling threatened in their bastions of male privilege and therefore unwilling and/or unable to appreciate the terror of rising rape incidents and manifestations of violence against Kenyan women; radio stations were bombarded with phone- calls and mobile text messages from across the country as the male backlash against the Njoki Ndung'u Sexual Offences Bill intensified with gusto.

Notwithstanding the fact that sections of the bill were poorly drafted (as in the startling shifting of the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused) Kenyan male MPs managed to weed out many of the path-breaking recommendations of the bill. For instance, these male MPs and their non-parliamentary brothers in arms across the country considered it a huge "triumph" when the clause criminalizing marital rape was excised from the final, hugely diluted Act of Parliament.

A couple months ago this writer was horrified at the way the crowd at a certain Mombasa night club approvingly cheered when a stand up comic gleefully made fun of a Kenyan woman who had been viciously gang-raped just the previous week. Listening to the sports commentaries on the radio or browsing through certain weekly columns by male writers, it is evident that sexism and misogyny in Kenya cuts across age, class, tribe, race, religion, creed, urban/rural divides and other cleavages in society.

One should therefore not be surprised to see manifestations of these unequal power dynamics between men and women in the actual WSF process itself. If anything, the situation as far as the planning and organizing for Nairobi 2007 seems to reflect a reality that stands a cut above the day to day interactions between men and women in Kenya and the rest of the Eastern African region.

Towards WSF Nairobi 2007: Learning from Past WSF Gender Pitfalls

When one looks at the gender dynamics informing the WSF 2007 process, one is filled with optimism and left brimming with hope. This despite the parlous panorama painted in the preceding section; this despite the unflattering global audit of power relations between women and men around the world. Why then the optimism? From which spring gushes the hope?

The optimism comes after taking stock of how women around the globe involved in the WSF process have been successfully challenging the bastions and assumptions of male privilege; the optimism is inspired by the fact that an increasing number of men in the WSF family are self-critically re-examining their own roles and seeing how these roles keep women marginalized. The hope emanates from Dennis Brutus' (a WSF veteran in his own right) poetically dubbed "stubborn hope": the stubborn hope of the oppressed and marginalized to reclaim centre stage through determined collective struggles. On the Eastern African plane, the optimism and hope comes from the presence of many strong feminists who have helped to build the Social Forums in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and a core of progressive men who realized early in the process that the active participation of women and interrogating assumptions of male domination and female marginalization are key indicators of the growth and maturity of the Social Forums in this part of Africa.

Despite these plaudits, the path ahead is rocky; it is hilly and it is thorny. Speaking as a man anxious to contribute towards a reconfiguration of this lopsided gender equation, I strongly feel that it is about time Eastern African men started a deeper process of questioning ourselves. One of the places to begin this reflection and rectification has to do with the question of taking up space. One of the mantras of the World Social Forum is for people to claim their space. But in doing so, as men, suck up all the oxygen? Do we stifle others? Do we silence others? Do we literally take up TOO MUCH space? How often do we speak? How long do we speak? In speaking often and loudly, do we perhaps silence others - especially our sister comrades in struggle for a better, more alternative world?

When women speak, do we men listen? How often do we fidget, start side conversations with "our brothers" or interrupt our sisters when they are speaking? When women are through with their presentations do we as men acknowledge what they are saying or were we waiting for OUR chance to speak without bothering to switch on our active listening ears? Do we question the socially determined gender roles at such meetings (as in who takes the minutes, prepares the tea and cleans up)?

It is not once when I have heard concerns raised by women in the WSF process dismissed by otherwise very progressive men as yet one more instance of the often derided "Western bourgeois feminist" contagion - a charge that often silences even the most articulate of African women. By making that anti-feminist charge, even some of the most overtly "progressive, radical, anti-imperialist " Eastern African men are often guilty of consciously or unconsciously participating in a covertly sexist attempt to belittle the concerns and demands of women.

The F-word – FEMINISM - is surprisingly dreaded even by dyed in the wool "socialists" "Pan Africanists" and self-declared "revolutionaries" - which is a pity because in my opinion one CANNOT be a socialist, a Pan Africanist or a self-declared revolutionary and hold as anathema the straightforward credo of feminism: equality between women and men. Sadly, sometimes the most implacable foes of the feminist idea in the Eastern African region are some African WOMEN who in a weird sense of bonding with their African BROTHERS rush to take up cudgels against their OWN SISTERS IN STRUGGLE who insist on pointing out gaps and flaws in the gender dynamics of a given process like the WSF.

Being part of the WSF 2007 Secretariat I am confronted with the practical task of practicing what I preach. In other words, what concretely can Eastern African men involved in the WSF process do in re-gendering the planning process in order to engender more equal and equitable relations between women and men?

One take off point I believe, is in more and more Eastern African MEN supporting the calls of sisters like Roselynn Musa of FEMNET who have called for the establishment of a Women's Commission as one of the sub-structures of the WSF Nairobi 2007 Organizing Committee. The arguments I have heard AGAINST the notion of a Women's Commission with regards that women are represented in ALL of the Commissions and that gender is a cross-cutting concern in the whole planning process is an argument that can NOT be sustained upon further reflection. Youth too, are represented across the board and youth issues are cross-cutting as well. Yet, there is in fact not just a Youth Commission but a whole process of setting up and running a Youth Camp.

Another place to begin taking action is in devising strategies, policies, instruments and structures that will help reduce the level of violence against women attending the WSF event in Nairobi next year. I am zeroing in on the incidents of rape at past WSF events and how we can all work together to turn around this situation. We must go beyond treating Rape as a law and order problem that can be ameliorated by deploying more cops to the WSF site. To do so is to betray an insufficient understanding about the complexity of rape and other instances of violence against women because it reduces the issue to a one –dimensional phenomena of women being accosted and ambushed by "strange men" prowling the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and Uhuru Park for foreign and local female victims.

If we were to adopt this blinkered approach for next year's WSF event, we would be letting off the hook other potential and actual assailants of WSF- attending women. I am talking about the scientifically proven and documented reality that more often than not, women are raped and assaulted by men they know, men they work with, men they are familiar with. How do women guard against fellow WSF male participants or even fellow delegates from the same organization and the same country. Rape is the extreme, but how about under-reported cases of sexual harassment, unwarranted touching and groping, offensive sexist jokes and exposure to pornography?

These are not problems that are easily amenable to mechanical legislation or a reductionist resort to more police presence - forgetting that all over the world police forces are often implicated in rapes and other forms of violence and harassment against women. I suggest that in combating rape and other manifestations of violence against women during the next edition of the WSF scheduled for Nairobi in January 2007, men and women can work together, in first sensitizing ALL delegates about rape and violence against women as a manifestation of sexism, misogyny and patriarchy - concepts that are totally alien to the WSF Charter.

Beyond the sensitization should be put in place enforceable sanctions for people who are caught in perpetrating these outrages. In addition to this, the Program, Methodology and Content Commission can send out a specific call for workshops, panels, seminars and teach-ins that address questions of rape, sexual harassment and violence against women. The Logistics Commission could set up banners, stickers, brochures, leaflets and banners campaigning against rape and sexual harassment within and among the WSF delegates.

The Youth Commission could organize an orientation session with the same themes heavily represented. The Culture Commission can organize screenings or performances that highlight the experiences of rape survivors and women who have been through wife battery and similar forms of violence. The Social Mobilization Commission can carry out a campaign to identify and recruit women and men who have worked in rape crisis centres and counseled victims of violence so as to set up such centres within the sites of WSF Nairobi 2007. The Media and Publicity Commission can come up with special pamphlets or produce short video documentaries campaigning against rape and violence against women.

The Resource Mobilization Commission can try and mobilize funds to recruit and train in house security organized to deal with incidents of rape and violence against women. Perhaps there should be special provisions for women who are survivors of rape and sexual violence to get housing and accommodation that lowers their fears of a repeat occurrence - by opting for billeting (solidarity accommodation) with other women, living in secure female only hostels etc. And yes, deploying more police and other regular security personnel can help reduce the number of rapes and incidents of violence against women during the WSF event next year.

In doing all this, the WSF Nairobi 2007 Organizing Committee should and must work with organizations like the Coalition on Violence Against Women, FEMNET, FIDA, Equality Now, AWEPON, Sahiba Sisters Foundation, TAMWA, Five Centuries Theatre Group, WIPPET, ENDA-Ethiopia, Kenya Human Rights Commission, OXFAM, Action Aid, MS Kenya, Heinrich Boll Foundation and other civil society bodies that have a proven track record in these areas.

What else can Eastern African men do in terms of changing the gender dynamics of the WSF process for the better? Perhaps I will pause here. I fervently urge everyone reading this to get hold of Roselynn Musa's presentation on the same subject during the recently convened Heinrich Boll Foundation supported forum on "Gendering the WSF Process" held at the Ufungumano House on Thursday, May 25, 2006.

About the Author: Onyango Oloo is the National Coordinator, Kenya Social Forum. This paper was first presented at a public forum on "Gendering the WSF Process" held at Ufungamano House in Nairobi on Thursday, May 25, 2006 and financially supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

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