Synergies, solidarity and feminism

Lee Webster | Nov 05, 2016
Czarny Protest WIDE conference
Our Head of Policy, Lee Webster, reports back from the recent “Movements, Borders, Rights” conference, run by the European Women’s Lobby and Women in Development Europe.

It is 2016 and women’s rights are at precarious juncture. The international conference 'Movements, Borders, Rights: Feminist Perspectives on Global Issues in Europe' brought over 200 women together to examine the current global situation, and created opportunities to mobilise and campaign for change.

Backlash and anti-feminist rhetoric

The conference opened with an examination of the current situation, recognising that women’s rights are facing an unprecedented backlash. The rise of authoritarian and nationalistic governments, as well as far-right political parties espousing racist, xenophobic and anti-feminist rhetoric pose a real threat to human rights.

In the UK, the impacts of Brexit are only just beginning to be understood. We already know that austerity policies hit women first and hardest. Globally, conflict is driving the largest movement of people in recent history, and governments are failing to protect refugees, or to address the root causes of their upheaval. As Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay said in her opening of the first session, “there is a new internationalism based not on solidarity and social contract, but on sustaining the global economic system”.

New connections and collaborations

If the context is worrying and bleak, the conference certainly wasn’t. New connections flourished, big issues and ideas were debated, and energy for collaboration was high. For Womankind, it was an important space to discuss the new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we participated in a session questioning whether the SDGs are a “tool for systemic change on feminist principles”.

Human rights and climate activist Tessa Khan said that although we can celebrate the stand alone goal on gender equality within the new framework, the goals are not sufficiently transformative, and governments are not committing the necessary funding to reach the commitments just a year ago at the United Nations.

Abigail Hunt of the Overseas Development Institute said that, whilst the SDGs are flawed, they are the “only show in town” and pointed out that practical steps can be taken to hold governments to account on their commitments. Central to this is the role of women’s rights organisations in ensuring that governments implement the SDGs in a way that advances the rights of women and girls. She used our Advocacy Toolkit as an example of a practical way of supporting women’s rights organisations in this quest.

Women and girls in conflict

The current devastating crisis facing refugees arriving in Europe was never far from the minds of those at the conference, and so it was important to hear about the campaigning done by the European Women’s Lobby and the Women’s Refugee Commission in their From Conflict to Peace project.

European and national policies are too often gender blind to the reality faced by women and girls who have fled conflict, especially when it comes to the different forms of violence they face at all stages of their journey towards peace. The campaign aims to shine a light on these issues and call for gender sensitive asylum and immigration processes, comprehensive policies on violence against refugee women, including access to services, and gender sensitive humanitarian response.


As feminists gathered in one place, talk of course also turned to the current struggle of Polish women for their right to sexual and reproductive health rights, including their right to safe and legal abortion. Some placards, camera phones and hash tags later, we sent out solidarity to Polish feminists, adding our voices to the call of #CzarnyProtest.

Renewed determination

Overall, the conference wasn’t comforting – these are difficult times for feminist activists and women’s rights organisations. We face an uphill struggle like never before, and there are no easy answers.

Yet acknowledging that together, and looking at creative ways to work across movements and issues, to learn from each other, and to build solidarity across Europe and beyond, sent us back to the office with new contacts, new ideas and renewed determination.

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