Over 500 young leaders—women on the margins of mainstream non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—have built national and regional networks across movements and borders, mobilizing thousands around an agenda of Freedom of Expression. They operate with minimal resources and maximum love and creativity. Their story is one of long-term investment in building power within, then building power with. Now, because they possess a strong foundation in grassroots organizing and popular education processes, they are poised to really shake things up.
Situating the Story
In 2006, financial crises, conservative social and religious agendas and an increasing focus on military security were among the powerful forces affecting women’s basic rights and livelihoods throughout Southeast Asia (SEA). Unchecked corporate-led globalization was transforming traditional communal social systems and replacing them with more individualistic consumer-oriented economies, resulting in economic instability, and further weakening the social fabric and resilience of communities. In response, well-resourced NGOs—mainly Northern-based, with little or no knowledge of or roots in SEA—emphasized technical and policy fixes over transformative change strategies. Policy advocacy and campaigning often occurred at the expense of grassroots organizing and constituency-building strategies, which seek to engage the communities that are ultimately intended to benefit from change. In addition, little effort was made to prepare the younger generation for leadership, thus leaving young people with few of the resources, skills and connections necessary to make an impact.
Young Women’s Organizing – Disconnected & Neglected
In 2007, JASS launched a movement-building initiative in SEA led by Indonesian co-founders and feminist popular educators, Nani Zulminarni (PEKKA) and Dina Lumbantobing (PESADA), both renowned for their path-breaking work linking massive grassroots organizing with advocacy at local and national government levels. Nani and Dina had spent years supporting young women. Through their work they discovered some common trends: youth movements were rare, and the few that did exist did not recognize women, let alone their important role in defending rights. Support for young women was lacking, and a clear generation gap—in terms of experience, knowledge and opportunities—existed between young and seasoned feminists, preventing them from connecting and learning from each other.+ Read More
Many NGOs were supporting “young women’s leadership” activities but their efforts were detached from concrete activism. Young women’s organizing often transpired in isolation, with few links to broader political agendas, or to previous generations of women activists and their experiences and expertise. Most organizations conducted one-time trainings focused on the individual rather than building the kinds of alternative forms of leadership and collective citizen power needed to influence social and political change. Young women were keen on being active social change agents, but they lacked the deep political consciousness, connections and organizing skills required to address common development needs and to advance their rights.
Based on Nani and Dina’s analyses, JASS saw an opportunity to equip young women with the confidence and skills necessary to be more effective organizers. We decided to focus our work in SEA on building young women’s political leadership capacity, while bridging the gap between them and older generations of women activists, by providing spaces for exchange and learning.
Cultivating the Capacity of Young Women Activists
Building on Nani and Dina’s relationships and history with young women grassroots activists from Indonesia and Timor-Leste, JASS decided to convene our first Movement Building Institute (MBI) with 34 young women in 2007. Some of these women had been part of Nani and Dina’s capacity-building workshops, mentorship and accompaniment from 2001-2005. We chose activists from Indonesia and Timor-Leste given their shared language and legacy of painful historical divisions. Doing so simplified the initial gathering given the vast diversity of histories and cultures in SEA.+ Read More
This MBI was part of a global movement-building initiative we launched in 2006 to restore and re-energize women’s collective leadership and shared capacity to define, lead and advance sustainable change. This 5-year plan began with a series of regional MBIs in the regions in which we work in Mesoamerica, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa—all places where JASS leaders were deeply rooted and had long histories.
JASS MBIs are participatory and sustained processes that use popular education to bring different women and organizations together to identify critical injustices and to act collectively to solve them. They are designed to enable women leaders and activists to deepen their political analyses, and to build trust and solidarity while bridging differences across identity, age, issue-focus, location, etc., as a first step towards strategic alliances and joint action. This process requires the creation of safe spaces where women can critically examine their lives and contexts, and identify the structural and ideological causes of the issues that matter most to them. As personal and political relationships emerge, women begin to define a shared change agenda and to develop coordinated strategies.
We knew that in Southeast Asia, strengthening young women activists’ leadership and organizing capacity required a dual strategy. On one side, it was necessary to develop individual capacity and confidence, and, on the other, to build collective strength and organization. We would identify and engage with young women already active in community organizing, whether in women’s rights or within other social justice organizations. We believed that by investing in individual young activist leaders, they could play a larger role within their organizations and widen the scope and understanding of their work. Our ultimate aim was to bring a feminist perspective to the organizing and strategizing that these young women were already doing. In Nani’s words, “If you are an activist, a movement person, it doesn’t matter where you are. JASS wants to invest in leadership of women who can really build a movement to make change, rather than form NGOs. JASS wants to create a space where you – young and energetic, with a vision – can build your character, leadership, and capacity to contribute to change.”
To that end, we had three goals for this SEA Movement Building Institute: 1) offer intensive training to provide young women with the tools to unpack, understand and navigate power in their lives and to address and improve their work on the ground; 2) build solidarity, and a sense of sisterhood and belonging between the young women; 3) prepare a select number to participate more confidently in a future regional MBI which would include diverse young women and seasoned activists from other countries.
Initial Exposure to Feminism – We need More!
The MBI was an emotional moment of coming together, sharing many similarities and bridging painful historical divisions. The participants’ diversity enriched and sharpened the substance of discussions. This rare women-only space fueled the participants with energy, resulting in advances on various fronts.+ Read More
For instance, participants were very open to differences, even on traditionally taboo issues, such as LGBT, religious and local customary law, especially of Islamic-Malay tradition in Indonesia. For many participants, this MBI was an inspiring first exposure to feminism. It generated demand for JASS to provide further training in community organizing, popular education and feminism. Particularly, demand arose for JASS to convene an intergenerational dialogue to enable young women to communicate and build more effective ties with seasoned feminists.
Bridging the Gap between Younger and Older Activists
Generational gaps were a serious issue for the region. In Indonesia, for example, a gap existed between “celebrity” feminists—older, urban and more established NGO leaders—and the younger generation of organizers and feminists. This divide caused tension and fragmentation in the women’s movement. The voices of “celebrity” feminists were more dominant, leaving less space for young emerging activists to occupy. While older feminists had a wealth of experience and knowledge, the next generation of young feminists brought great potential and fresh perspectives. No one thought to invest time and resources to cultivate the younger generation’s political leadership capacity or to tap into their knowledge.+ Read More
JASS wanted to address this deficit because successfully bridging this divide would prove strategically vital for women’s movements going forward. As part of our regional MBI, we decided to convene an intergenerational dialogue in tandem with a follow-up training workshop for young feminists from the initial MBI. Our goal was to break the idea that only seasoned feminists had knowledge to share, and that only their “knowledge” held legitimacy. Younger feminists did not simply want to take the floor; they were genuinely interested in building on the experiences of those who cleared the paths ahead of them.
Connecting Women Across Many Differences
In June 2008, we convened the first 5-day regional MBI in Parapat, North Sumatra, which brought together 22 activists and organizers from eight Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Vietnam and Malaysia). The participants were identified through conversations with national women’s groups and regional networks, of which Nani and Dina were a part, including Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE). Younger and older participants were encouraged to explore the history of women’s movements in the region, map the current context, and uncover opportunities for connection across borders, ethnicities, religions, cultures and generations. These exercises kicked off a longer-term learning and action process to diversify, strengthen and build connections among women, strategies and organizations to advance a feminist, justice and development agenda over 3-5 years.+ Read More
In August of the same year, we followed up the initial MBI of 2007 with Indonesian and Timor-Leste young women activists with two processes. We held a community organizing workshop to share and reflect on their experiences since the first workshop, and to continue to strengthen women’s analysis and organizing skills as a critical element of movement-building. We also facilitated an Intergenerational Dialogue to address the gap between high-profile national-level feminist leaders and the younger generation of activists and organizers.
Over three days, the community-organizing workshop, which included 26 alumnae from the 2007 process across 18 provinces in Indonesia and Timor-Leste, engaged women in a series of popular education sessions that applied the JASS power framework. The workshop employed stories, songs, arts and media to facilitate the questioning and understanding of power and privilege, and to promote creative thinking.
The intergenerational dialogue gathered 42 young and senior feminists working at higher policy as well as at grassroots levels on a range of issues. This dialogue was important not only because the young women had requested it, but also because young women needed to be equipped with the confidence and skills to put forth their voice, knowledge and value within their organizations, where experienced feminists tended to dominate. As a starting point, the facilitators engaged the group in building a timeline on the wall to review the history and dynamics of each historical era, and the challenges and successes of women activists in each period. Then moving to the present, participants detailed and clustered the big issues women were working on—from domestic violence to migration. Stopping to reflect on the incredible breadth of work undertaken and energy invested by women activists, and their continued efforts to forward a range of rights agendas, pivotal questions were introduced, such as, “if the generational gaps between young and older women remain unresolved, who will take over and sustain women’s organizations as the older generation moves on?”, and “is it true that the women’s movement tends to break into factions without strong links between generations?”. Two senior journalists from Kompas, Indonesia’s leading national newspaper, attended the dialogue and published an article detailing the process and acknowledging the need to bridge divides. They concluded that, “the rainbow strategy of diversity turns out to be a strength.”
The regional MBI resulted in a dynamic combination of new faces and perspectives on burning questions such as poverty, labor, sexuality, and trafficking. We used JASS’ signature power framework as an entry point to allow women to begin to understand how power operates in their lives. This framework offered a different lens for understanding and reading the world. Using an iceberg illustration, participants could see that visible power (e.g. the discriminatory laws that they had previously cited) were just the tip of a wider issue. Beneath visible power other dynamics operate — invisible power (cultural practices and values that dictate how we act) and hidden power (employed by traditional and church leaders, and corporations to influence norms and policies etc.).+ Read More
They also learned about alternative forms of power (power within, power with, power to), which can support them in transforming their perception of themselves as powerless subjects to visionaries and leaders of change. This exercise also uncovered common critical agendas they were facing and wanted to act on: sexuality and sexual rights, migration, violence against women, political education, and women’s rights within broader human rights agendas.
JASS is my Home
Creating a space of trust for diverse young women, in particular LBTI women, was pivotal. Through a more relaxed evening session, participants were able to open up, share personal stories, and to discuss sex and sexuality. How does a woman have sex with another woman? Is sexual orientation a choice or something we were born with? These were some of the traditionally “awkward” questions women felt comfortable exploring. The openness fostered within this safe space allowed other women to learn about some of the issues faced by LBT women, while likewise affirming that being LBTI is normal. As Maria Mustika, an LBTI activist who participated in the process explained.
Very different histories and cultures across the region
Holding regional processes was a challenge given the distinct nature of SEA countries and contexts, including the different stages that each of the countries’ women’s movements were in as a result of their diverse political histories and realities. For example, the women’s movement in the Philippines was more developed than in Cambodia where the legacy of the oppression during the Khmer Rouge was still fresh. Each country also had its own language, so going deep was difficult without additional resources including expensive simultaneous translation.+ Read More
Seasoned Feminists Dominate Intergenerational Dialogue
While young feminists appreciated what they had learned from the intergenerational dialogue, overall they felt that the voices of senior feminists had dominated discussions, while their voices went unheard. Many of the more experienced women left after giving their presentations, and seemed reticent to engage with the younger generations. As one participant expressed, “Wow, these ‘celebrities’ just come and go. They don’t want to listen to us.” Some of the methodologies we employed also had certain limitations. Developing a timeline of the women’s movement, for example, ensured more contribution from the seasoned activists and did not provide sufficient opportunities for young women to participate equally.
Despite this setback, the dialogue was still considered successful on three fronts:
- Bringing together women from different generations who work at policy, grassroots and other levels on a range of issues;
- Generating a shared understanding of the history and dynamics of each historical era, and of the challenges and successes of women activists in each period; and
- Detailing and clustering issues and challenges, such as domestic violence and migration—some ongoing, others new—and thus moving towards a feminist agenda for Indonesia.
Shift Gears & Forge Ahead
Shifting to country processes
We decided that we would continue to build solidarity at regional levels while going deep at national levels. In order to strengthen leadership and organizing capacity to better influence local and national policies and debates, we chose to expand our activist training and organizing processes beyond Indonesia to the national level in Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. From that point, trainings with women from Indonesia and Timor-Leste were held separately in order to delve deeper into their specific contexts and issues. To stay strategic, we made parallel investments in regional processes to build regional analyses, cross-country alliances and solidarity. Yearly regional workshops were held among the same group of women, which included two activists from each country who took on the role of country representatives responsible for coordinating the work at the country level. They also ensured that the learning they gained—facilitation skills, power frameworks, training tools and methodologies and analyses—was shared with the women involved in national processes.+ Read More
Changes to future intergenerational dialogues
The JASS SEA team took the disappointment from the first dialogue as an entry point, inviting the younger women to define the kind of movement leadership and values they want going forward. We agreed on a set of principles to govern the next intergenerational dialogue. First, we would call it a workshop, and not dialogue. “Workshop” would ensure that all participants commit to the full duration of the process. Also the word “dialogue” implied two generations whereas in fact the women spanned a range of ages from under 20 to over 50, with many graduations between. More importantly, we agreed that the new iteration would be facilitated by the younger feminists themselves, enabling us to challenge the established style (presentations by “celebrity” feminists), and instead invite a true inclusive exchange. We also decided to invite more seasoned grassroots organizers (not urban-based) who were more embedded in the grassroots levels we were trying to reach and impact. These activists were also less likely to dominate spaces as much as “celebrity” feminists would.
Invest in Young Women
It was important to ensure that the process and methodology of the intergenerational dialogues was designed to ensure more meaningful participation of young women. And it was equally imperative that parallel investments be made in supporting young women to discover and use their own voice and leadership, and to strengthen their capacity to challenge established styles of leadership, and attitudes about young women within their movements, organizations, homes or communities.
Young Indonesian and Timorese leaders’ Voices Amplified
Over time, more than 25 women signed up for the online writing community and training course, and the group thrived. They used a listserv and blogs to share and publish personal and political essays. The writers began writing on topics such as ‘being a girlfriend or wife,’ and moved on to sexuality in local culture, domestic violence, the Anti-Pornography Act, climate change and IT for rural women. For most of the young women, lifting the lid on taboo topics of sexuality was revolutionary. Key to this transformation was the use of writing as a powerful tool for voice and visibility.+ Read More
Other communication actions included press releases, which called for democracy without violence. They also made strategic use of Mothers’ and Valentine’s Days to promote women’s political participation.
Young Women Become Rebels!
Young leaders were gaining the confidence to confront the injustices they were seeing, and even speaking up within their own organizations and movements. Young women began to hold older, more powerful women accountable. For example, in Indonesia, some of the seasoned activists would call us to say, “What have you done? These young women have become rebels!” We received calls from many directors, complaining about our process but we kept dialogue open, trying to redefine what “leader” means.
As a result, more organizations began to recognize that they actually had young women in their ranks. Women’s movements that had for a long time been dominated by women over 40 were now aware of and working with younger women. This recognition was also a step forward for JASS SEA; we now knew where to find—and network with—young women in the different countries in which we worked. We no longer relied solely on the older generation because we had a base to count on. Some of the young women moved up to become leaders of networks or directors of their organizations, while their former directors became part of JASS, serving as multigenerational resources.
Which young women?
The intergenerational dialogue affirmed the urgent need to prioritize and invest in young women. We needed to create a space for young women to express their voice and build their capacity to claim their rights, respect and full participation in decision-making at all levels. We had decided that young women were a priority, but we had yet to clarify our precise focal issue, or to determine which strata of young women we wanted to target.+ Read More
Young women working in urban-based NGOs were already granted some opportunities, while young rural and indigenous, poor, lesbian, transgender, and/or HIV+ women were overlooked by NGOs. It was precisely these women who had the most potential to disclose what matters most to those most affected by injustice, and to influence the policy agenda. These young women were organizing in fresh and creative ways but with few of the resources, skills, and connections needed to make an impact.
Focusing on young grassroots women
We decided to invest primarily in building young women’s confidence and leadership through participatory training processes, accompaniment, and the creation of safe spaces for dialogue to build trust and solidarity. Our goal was to expand our regional and national training and organizing processes to encourage young women’s active political participation by augmenting their voices and their contributions to solutions targeting inequality and violence. In addition, we wanted to address the divide between urban-based, professional women’s rights advocates, who often focus on legislative change or academic research, and grassroots organizers, who mobilize women to address basic needs.+ Read More
So in the third year (2009), JASS SEA selected an additional group of 24 young activist leaders from 19 Indonesian provinces including women who were active as farmers and fisher women, indigenous women, workers and unionists, researchers, literacy trainers, or worked in HIV/AIDS support and legal aid, or fought against trafficking. The safe spaces and workshops focused on engaging the ‘invisible power’ (values and beliefs) that shapes women’s status, roles, and sense of individual agency, while surfacing possibilities for working together. Three of the trainers were drawn from the initial Indonesia group, deepening their own skills as they worked along experienced facilitators and mentors to introduce power analysis, to engage in community organization and communications, and to learn from scholars about feminism. The idea behind this process was to develop and mentor a cadre of young activist leaders who could sustain and multiply the organizing. A second intergenerational dialogue was also held.
Because many placed ‘writing skills’ high on lists of requested support, we created an online writing community and training course in Bahasa-Indonesia, with one of the participants—a seasoned writer—leading the process.
National programs launched in Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia
As the work of JASS was gaining momentum in Indonesia and Timor-Leste, three national-level leadership workshops were held in November 2009, employing JASS tools and drawing on the local “alumni” from previous JASS processes. For each workshop, JASS SEA wove together the elements most relevant to the needs of the particular group and context. Underlying these apparently seamless gatherings were many months of preparation, as JASS teams consulted widely to ensure diversity of class, focus, location and ethnicity, and to successfully negotiate long-standing tensions in certain countries.+ Read More
Malaysia: In Kuala Lumpur, JASS partner and popular communications center— KOMAS—hosted 42 participants from many different sectors and communities throughout the country, including prominent indigenous movements, under the theme “Empowering Grassroots Women Leadership.”
Philippines: JASS brought together women across a spectrum of ages, movements and political affiliations, some with deep and historic tensions. The theme for this convening in Manila was “Liberating Filipina Women through the Years” and the local host—the Center for Women’s Resources—served as the key anchor for the initiative.
Cambodia: Twenty-eight participants between 25 and 30 years old from 17 Cambodian NGOs attended JASS’ Phnom Penh workshop, hosted by local training partner SILAKA—an organization that strengthens women’s political participation.
Combining regional networking opportunities with training experience
In our efforts to maintain cross-solidarity, we kept the longer-term strategic goal of regional action and impact in mind. As such, we identified moments that combine regional networking opportunities with training experience for the regional ‘alumnae’ – the young women we had been accompanying since 2008. One such pivotal moment was the Asia-Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing +15 (AP-NGO), held in Manila in October of 2009. A regional JASS SEA team attended the Forum to expand relationships with organizations working on women’s rights, and to build common regional agendas. “Alumnae”, including Mikas Matsuzawa, a Filipina activist and writer, blogged from the event. Mikas wrote on what she was learning at specific events, and reflected on the significance of the Beijing meeting 15 years previously (before Mikas herself started school).
Tensions and Dynamics
Going deeper in each country brought success in terms of responding to the need for a feminist and movement-building approach. However, over time, each country process uncovered its own challenges.+ Read More
Timor-Leste: Even though initial training and mentorship began in Indonesia and Timor-Leste, the work in Timor-Leste stalled due to multiple conflicts among activists on personal and organizational levels. Issues included class differences, generational gaps, lack of accountability among the leadership team, and accusations of using money for personal use. In part, this breakdown arose due to the lack of trained women capable of filling leadership positions in women’s and development organizations. Consequently, young women were often put into director roles without the necessary support and mentorship to help them thrive.
Philippines: In this country, deep political divides were causing conflict among activists. In the mid-1990s, the women’s movement split into several factions aligned with new political parties. Since then, women had organized primarily in sectoral groups and issue silos. In particular, differences existed in the understanding of how to solve the issues plaguing women’s lives. One faction focused solely on women’s rights and women-only spaces as the solution, while the other faction (mainly grassroots-based) believed that women’s issues were not separate from the broader issues, and that the solution was to engage everyone, including men.
Malaysia: Moving forward in Malaysia after the initial workshop was difficult because we were not able to develop a firm grounding and base of women who could sustain the work. Malaysian participants utilized some of the tools and skills they gained from national and regional JASS trainings to strengthen their work and leadership within their own organizations and movements. However, they viewed women’s rights and building feminist power as side issues, for which they did not have time, because of the urgency of their work in broader social justice efforts, such as organizing for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Playing Multiple Roles to Address Emerging Dynamics
Given these dynamics, we adapted our approaches to play different roles in each country to continue to build momentum while sustaining the alliances we had built.+ Read More
Philippines: As participating activists began to use the neutral umbrella of, “JASS Philippines Network”, we played the role of bridge-builder to help build relationships across women with different political views because the women’s movement was already very strong. Utilizing strategic relationships with key activists, such as Jojo Guan of the Center for Women’s Resources, JASS was able to gather activists who would otherwise never meet – a success, in and of itself. Over the course of 2010, the JASS Philippines Network held quarterly ‘feminist conversations’ to explore and discuss women’s rights issues, such as militarization, globalization, and sexuality. The conversations were designed, through political education and analysis, to build trust and bridge gaps between generations, between rural and urban areas, between activists from grassroots groups and NGOs, and between broader social movements.
Their initial meetings were cautious, starting with baby steps. At the first movement-building institute, the facilitators were careful to ensure that different voices and perspectives could participate on an equal basis. Many participants came to the meeting skeptical, given the history of sectarianism. They nonetheless joined the partnership. The importance of nurturing relationships was key. It is through this process that members of JASS Philippines were able to build trust and respect. The style of work was equally important—e.g., being consultative, having regular meetings, and putting contested issues on the table in order to sort them out. The network emphasized a multigenerational approach with attention focused on young women, a relatively new discourse in the country.
A certain amount of structure was likewise important as the members were not only building personal, but also organizational relationships. The organizations that make up JASS Philippines represent an impressive depth and breadth in terms of the networks, communities, and issues embodied. The added value of JASS in the Philippines was providing the space for analysis and finding common ground.
Timor-Leste: While the young women were very passionate and motivated, the dominance of seasoned activists continued to be a barrier. Due to increasing conflict and lack of trust, we decided not to work deeply for a short period and instead Nani and Dina opted to work behind the scenes to provide mentorship and support for women in their own organizations, and to help diffuse and address tensions. In the meantime, we would still provide opportunities for regional cross-solidarity networking and building with activists from other countries.
Malaysia, Indonesia & Cambodia: In Indonesia and Cambodia, we were seeing the kind of trust and solidarity emerging that is essential for effective organizing. Consequently, we sustained the investments in building critical consciousness and shared analysis around power while also designing the processes to surface strategic opportunities where women could mobilize influence together. In Malaysia, we decided to support and accompany the activists’ own processes by providing our methodologies and expertise as requested and needed.
JASS as an Alternative Space to find Common Ground
Philippines: Filipina activists welcomed JASS as an honest broker—a regional Southeast Asian body that could operate as both insider and outsider, beyond national tensions. JASS, as the international organization, also served as a key resource to help them amplify their cause, and as a source of local to global collective power. Despite some ideological differences, the groups have found a lot of commonalities.+ Read More
For example, they all “despise” neoliberalism, support grassroots women, and are committed to nurturing young women’s activism. Out of these conversations came a joint letter to the new President of the Philippines—signed by prominent women’s rights activists and 22 partner organizations—articulating key economic, social, and political demands on behalf of Filipina women. They also leveraged their respective organizations’ roles and strengths at the strategic moment presented by a national reproductive health bill to mobilize an aggressive letter campaign aimed at congressional representatives in the face of fierce opposition and power displayed by the Catholic Church. Filipina activists defined and embraced JASS Philippines as an alternative platform that enabled them to deal with, and then put aside, past organizational and political differences in order to move forward.
JASS and the groups that make up the Philippines Network struggled to find resources to continue the twice annual feminist conversations that are so crucial to the work but so difficult to convince donors to give money for. Still, in 2015, we raised money for the compilation and publication of the analysis that came out of these conversations in, “A Journey of Meeting Challenges, Drawing Lessons and Strengthening Resolve to Advance Women’s Emancipation and Empowerment”. This work captures the rich experiences and challenges gleaned from our movement building workshops and various feminist conversations from 2009-2013.
Young Women’s Alliances Formed
Meanwhile, in Indonesia and Cambodia, our ongoing leadership training, accompaniment and mentoring spawned the formation of three young women’s alliances in Cambodia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Cambodian Young women’s empowerment network (CYWEN)
In 2010, following the national and regional leadership training processes, four of the young Cambodian women activists involved formed CYWEN to address the under-representation of women’s voices and issues in media and public debate. CYWEN is a network of over thirty diverse young women, including rural and urban women, factory workers, and women in formal jobs.
Forum Aktivis Perempuan Muda (FAMM) Indonesia or Young Indonesian Women Activists’ Forum
2012 marked the formation of FAMM-Indonesia. Composed of JASS-Indonesia activists, FAMM became a network of 162 young grassroots women who were active in JASS Southeast Asia training processes since 2007. In the country’s increasingly repressive cultural climate, JASS’ capacity-building activities for young women leaders—skills trainings, dialogues, write-shops, and tech exchanges—sparked and shaped a surge of young women’s activism and organizing. Today the network consists of 360 organized and mobilized women and is a true testament to the value of investing years and resources into base- and trust-building, which allows the network to multiply impact in powerful and sustained ways. Even if JASS were to pull out its support, the work would continue.
Movementu feto foin Sae (MOFE-TL) or Young Women’s Movement Timor-Leste
Despite the issues in Timor-Leste, young women formed a group in 2012 dedicated to fighting all forms of discrimination in all areas of women’s lives to achieve gender equality and justice. While we did not work deeply with this network, we still continued to offer support through accompaniment. This network is still alive today and continues to engage in our regional campaign—One Day, One Voice.
Fundamentalists’ Strong Grip and Substantial Power
In Indonesia, because conservative Muslim leaders and agendas wield considerable influence on social norms and public policy, traditional ideas of ‘family values’, and what it means to be a “good Muslim woman”, dominate, which reinforces taboos on sex and sexuality. Those advocating for women’s and LGBTI rights met pushback from all sides: families, communities, governments, and powerful Muslim clerics.+ Read More
Where is the Young Women’s Movement?
In Cambodia, there was a painful history of systematic violence against women and cultural pressures on young women to remain silent. Since the political changes that began in 2001, equality efforts had gained momentum and official endorsement, although the gap between rhetoric and reality remained wide. For example, freedom of expression, a critical ingredient for democracy and rights to flourish, was still limited. Criticism of the government often led to backlash, including arrest and even death.
Safe Spaces To Challenge Fundamentalisms
Safe spaces are a critical tool used by JASS SEA to strengthen young women’s leadership. In Indonesia, we decided to create safe spaces to talk about sex and sexuality, including evening sessions. These evening sessions, held with only lit candles, create an environment that allows women to feel free to talk about issues they would not normally voice.+ Read More
Forum Aktivis Perempuan Muda (FAMM) began to bring together LBTI, Muslim, rural and indigenous women for the first time. They developed underground strategies for challenging taboos about sex and sexuality and discrimination against young people. At the same time, they found effective ways to engage powerful leaders. For example, FAMM combined face-to-face learning and training activities with social media to rapidly construct a movement across a range of boundaries—location, issue focus, partisan politics and religion. The embrace of LBTI issues in this growing circle of predominantly Muslim women showed promise for the ways that religious fundamentalism can be challenged more effectively in the future. Through participatory learning processes and activist trainings, FAMM helped women shift their mindsets and gain the confidence, knowledge, and skills to challenge prejudices and conservative narratives on subjects like sex and sexuality by educating and engaging their local communities.
Creating and Protecting Young Women-Only Spaces
In Cambodia, where more than 70% of the population is aged 18 to 34, young women activists clearly held the key not only to the future, but also to the present. We decided to play a critical role in supporting CYWEN to create and protect spaces specifically for young women in a country where young people—especially women—had less status.
CWYEN’s goal was to strengthen the activist skills and leadership capacity of young women to make young women’s issues more visible and central to the agendas of women’s and other social movements. They also planned to increase women’s representation in government and political institutions.
Breaking the Silence and Bringing LBTI Rights to the Center
The FAMM network grew quickly in response to the momentum it generated. At the end of 2012, the network comprised 162 members, and has now grown to 360 diverse women activists (e.g. LBTI, Muslim, farm and factory workers, indigenous, and women defending land and resources) across 16 provinces. Eighty percent of the members are under 35 years old. They are mobilizing thousands of people at strategic moments, such as when new policies are introduced to limit women’s dress and freedoms. Initially focused on providing women with much-needed safe spaces for learning, exchange, and dialogue, the network has since emerged as a powerful force, making waves by leading demonstrations and generating significant visibility and momentum around women’s demands at local and national levels. FAMM’s vision is to develop the next generation of women’s rights leadership.+ Read More
FAMM’s diverse network is uniquely skilled at mobilizing the power of women’s numbers by building bridges across agendas and working with other social justice movements, including male-dominated indigenous movements, to ensure women’s voices and concerns are front and center in public debate and political advocacy. FAMM uses creative media strategies to empower young women and make their voices more visible by bringing issues that affect them to the forefront of public dialogue. Through these activities, they are able to create the necessary NOISE to reach the public agenda.
The Beginnings of a Young Women’s Feminist Movement
Within one year, CYWEN had doubled their membership, recruiting young women activists from local NGOs and women’s organizations. They created their own website and newsletter; their activities have been featured in local media.
CYWEN members have been invited to government–NGO dialogues as resource persons on violence against women, human rights, youth for gender equality, and information and communications technology (ICT). They have also represented the country in regional civil-society gatherings to influence the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as at the November 2012 ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) and at the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly (AGPA) held in Phnom Penh.
Today, CYWEN is a network of 30 currently active (primarily young) women focused on cross-sector engagement to bring different activists and organizations together to demand government accountability on key issues. They continue to hold key cross-sectoral dialogues with diverse groups on various issues plaguing Cambodian women. One example of these community forums was a 2015 initiative—“Ending rape against women in Cambodian society”—which brought together 195 men and women from diverse backgrounds, including community leaders, high school teachers and students, the police, local government officials, NGO workers, and women activists, to explore solutions that could address rape in Cambodia. As Kunthea Chan, a key founding member of CWYEN exclaimed, “The Cambodian young women’s movement? It is starting now, with CYWEN.”
Creating Sustained Cross-solidarity
After 5 years of deep country organizing, we had not completed extensive regional networking due to the absence of common history, language and culture. Even though we had continued to hold regional trainings, we wanted to create alliances beyond our community of activists.+ Read More
We wondered how we could best mobilize many women—across countries, issues, ages, identities and constituencies—around shared goals and demands. While Southeast Asian countries differ culturally, economically and politically, most face common challenges regarding women’s rights. We wanted to find a way to spotlight and sustain these similarities.
Creating a Regional Campaign with a Collective Voice & Identity
We needed to find a strategy that would connect us as a regional movement, with a collective identity and voice. After various discussions, we decided to take the annual campaign—16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence—as an opportunity to accomplish this objective. We agreed to unite together at this time to spotlight and amplify our issues using our own strategy and tools based on our own analyses and contexts.+ Read More
In 2011, we launched One Day, One Voice—a regional solidarity and action campaign in commemoration of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. One Day, One Voice (ODOV) was a space with multiple purposes—a space for collective voice, power and visibility. The purpose of the campaign was to organize synchronized activities as part of a regional initiative led by JASS SEA allies in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor-Leste and Thailand in order to more effectively spotlight marginalized women’s issues and agendas across the region. Further, our vision was to make it an annual campaign. We agreed that every year, one of the participating countries would lead in developing the theme, concept note, design (including logo, t-shirts and promotional materials) and overall planning and coordination.
A Regional, Grassroots-Driven Campaign Is Born
The first coordinated, multi-country organizing action undertaken by JASS Southeast Asia, ODOV drew from more than four years of leadership training and organizing support for hundreds of young, grassroots, LBTI, poor and indigenous women in six countries. Across the region, young activists organized hundreds of other women to carry out dialogues, demonstrations and marches - a huge testament to the potential of sustained grassroots and local-to-regional organizing.+ Read More
The 33 women and their organizations involved in JASS-Philippines put on a photo exhibit, called “The Seven Deadly Sins”, to draw attention to the various types of violence faced by women. The exhibit, which was displayed in the lobby of National Congress and circulated to universities and other city halls in Manila, reached thousands of people. In Cambodia, a day of dialogue and dramatizations drew 300 young men and women and one monk. It generated radio and television coverage featuring young women voices, while Thailand’s production of short stories about violence against women aired on 25 radio stations. JASS-trained women in Malaysia worked with the Malaysia AIDS Council and the Women’s Equality Association to bring together 60 indigenous and rural women for a dialogue and workshop. At the same time, 380 young grassroots women from JASS’ processes in Indonesia carried out marches and dialogues across the country. These collective activities served to strengthen relationships while providing valuable insights for leveraging the collective strength of JASS focal points and activists in six countries.
To date, One Day, One Voice has engaged 12, 896 people, including 5,158 men. Not only does ODOV mobilize thousands, it connects other groups of activists with which we do not directly work. Holding ODOV during 16 Days of Activism—a widely recognized annual campaign—was a strategic choice that yielded great results. It provided visibility for JASS and the women and organizations with which it works. The campaign took advantage of social media to more effectively propel the campaign. From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, young women spotlighted their activities, messages and work, garnering more visibility as well as solidarity from people around world who likewise fight the same battles for justice.
Criminalizing Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs)
Since 2011, ODOV has tackled a variety of themes. In 2014, the network wanted to use the campaign to spotlight the growing criminalization of and violence against WHRDs, and the closing space for civil society. Across the world, including the regions in which we work, women activists were being harassed, raped, jailed and even killed for speaking out, and their organizations and networks were restricted by laws+ Read More
(e.g. LANGO in Indonesia and Ormas Bill in Indonesia). This problem was particularly evident where indigenous and rural women leaders were fighting to defend their land, rights and territories from multinational companies, a growing and worsening trend across the world. In Southeast Asia, many activists were imprisoned, including Eva Bande (of FAMM in Indonesia) and Kong Chantha (of CYWEN in Cambodia).
Spotlighting Backlash against WHRDs
The increasing number of cases of violence against and wrongful arrest of women activists prompted JASS Southeast Asia to focus its annual One Day, One Voice regional campaign on these women during 16 Days of Activism. The 2014 theme—“Justice for All Women Human Rights Defenders”—honored all the courageous women activists in prison through a series of art performances, media events, peace marches, dialogues, bazaars, film screenings, and lantern lightings in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor-Leste and the Philippines.
Organizing Efforts Pay Off
FAMM and dozens of women’s rights organizations across Indonesia and Southeast Asia mobilized global support by leading social media campaigns, online petitions and solidarity marches to pressure the government to release Eva, who had been imprisoned on and off since 2011 for peacefully organizing against national palm oil corporations' extractive projects, which were exploiting resources and displacing her community.+ Read More
Because Eva had been a member of FAMM, the group made sure to contribute the personal support she needed that other organizations could not provide, including self care (packages and visits) and emotional and economic support for her family. On the eve of International Human Rights Day (Dec.10), newly elected Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo pardoned Eva Bande. After the success, Niken Lestari, a former coordinator of FAMM and one of the many activists trained and supported by JASS Southeast Asia exclaimed, “This is a source of strength for us. Our struggles, our months and years of campaigning for Eva Bande’s release finally paid off.”
CYWEN and its allies also used this space to call for the release of Kong Chantha and other land rights activists who were imprisoned for protesting forced eviction from a poor village community surrounding what used to be the Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. JASS SEA also joined by releasing petitions and statements of support, and even appeared at court hearings to show solidarity. In early 2015, Kong and six other fellow land rights activists were released.
Seeds Sown, Poised to Grow
After nine years of forming deep connections with over 500 organized women, and creating links with national and regional networks, there are common reflections we keep hearing about JASS Southeast Asia’s unique added value and contributions:+ Read More
- we are grounded and working with women on the margins and outside of mainstream NGOs;
- we play the role of a “bridger”, bringing women from very different backgrounds together across their movements and agendas;
- our power framework and analysis tools and spaces for reflection across movements are a critical contribution in a time when civil society groups are struggling to understand changing global contexts in comprehensive ways to effectively improve and reconfigure strategies;
- our approach equips women with the analysis, skills and tools they need to be effective organizers, while also providing for practical needs and support through safe spaces for self-care, and nurturing personal relationships of support and trust.
Today, JASS Southeast Asia is poised for bigger agendas and greater impact on a range of emerging threats. The next stage of our work in Southeast Asia is to:
- consolidate what we have achieved so far—our alliances, networks, capacity and expanding knowledge;
- refresh our shared understanding of the context in which we operate, given the scramble for and rampant extraction of resources, and the escalating clampdown on activists and activism; and
- determine the amplified role and contribution that JASS SEA, with its local partners and networks, can play to expand visibility and impact.
Khmer tradition dictates that women should just stay at home. Studying in school and joining social actions and political activities are often discouraged. Historically, women have been discriminated against so much so that women themselves think that the only thing they should really be good at is cooking rice. My passion is to make women themselves realize that they should get involved in politics, excel in what they do, be confident and brave, and claim their rightful place in society... even if it takes being behind these prison bars to prove this point. ~ Kong Chantha, Cambodia
I am a young advocate for women's rights. Yes, I may seem a novice to some, though I know in myself that I am no less capable in fighting for gender equality. I know that I am not alone, that there are others like me, young women, who replenish and continue this struggle... 'There has never been nor will there ever be real freedom as long as there is no freedom for women.' ~ Mikas Matsuzawa, the Philippines
If you are an activist, a movement person, it doesn’t matter where you are. JASS wants to invest in leadership of women who can really build a movement to make change, rather than form NGOs or a network. JASS wants to create a space where you – young and energetic,with a vision – can build your character, leadership,capacity to contribute to change. ~ Nani Zulminarni, PEKKA, Indonesia
Feminism and movement building is new for Cambodia. In Cambodian culture, they draw the line for the woman that you can’t do anything for what you want or want to do. So that’s the reason that I want to see those young women really understand and get out of the box and be who they want to be. But also to be the people that really are a resource to society, who could lead the change for Cambodia to be a better country and society, so that the men and women could be equal and they are both part of the political change as well. ~ Kunthea Chan, JASS SEA, Cambodia