6 March 2008/Palavoy, Arrokonam, India-The first ever Asian Rural Women's Conference got off to a colourful joyous start, as marchers roused residents at the local market at Arrokonam to join in, accompanied by young women drummers clad in bright blue saris.
"This is the first time such a Conference is taking place, with women from 20 countries in Asia gathering in Arrakonam, Tamil Nadu. Over 150 women from across Asia, 200 women from other states within India, and 350 women from within Tamil Nadu state will come together to share our struggles and forge solidarity", stressed Burnad Fatima Natesan, during the Conference inauguration. Representing the host organisations, Tamil Nadu Women's Forum and Society for Rural Education and Development, she also noted the significance of the Conference taking place in the vast stony field in Palavoy. The land is being taken away from the people to make way for an airport extension and special economic zone (SEZ) projects, as part of the state governments' response to the development agenda of globalisation and corporatisation.
Rural women's struggles came truly to the fore when proceedings kicked off with lively welcome remarks by 83 year old Krishmamal Jeganathan of the Land for the Tiller Movement. The veteran social activist inspired Conference delegates with her life long struggles against poverty, injustice, and for women's right to land. She called on women to support the dalit and landless women's struggle for land, and to resist the power elites, landlords and politicians whose actions have led to deepening poverty, hunger and even death of rural women. She got cheers of joy as she recounted her successes in securing over 11,000 acres of land which were distributed to 11,000 landless women. Citing the Gandhi's slogan "Do or Die!', she challenged younger delegates, stating that, "women need this attitude to do or die to assert their rights to land".
The daily terror and oppression facing rural peasants was brought sharply to view by the testimony of Imelda Lacandazo, National Vice-chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) or Peasant Movement of the Philippines. She recounting her early involvement in the peasant's movement, "As a regional peasant women leader, I took a great responsibility in organising peasant women. Most of the time I am in the peasant community doing my work that is away from my children. We were forced to vacate our house because the military was harassing my children and threatening them. This is the result of the government's Oplan Bantay Laya I (OBL I) or 'Operation Freedom Watch' that started in 2002". She vehemently criticized such 'operations' and stressed how, "Peasant leaders and organisers who have led struggles against land-grabbing, high rent, low wages, usury, high production costs, agrochemical use, and destructive mining and dam projects, have been the victims of assassinations, massacres, torture, arbitrary arrest and illegal detention, and other forms of harassment by military-death squad perpetrators. The harassment and 'death threats' I am experiencing is a result of the OBL I and II and nothing else. Being a peasant leader, I am being targeted by the military as they did so to other leaders or members of progressive organisations, especially peasant organisations that are fighting for genuine agrarian reform, democracy and social justice."
The issue of state violence was also raised by Ester Nem, who works for indigenous Kooki women, of the "Women's League of Burma". She recounted how armed conflict of over 50 years has also witnessed massive exploitation of ecological resources which are the live blood for indigenous people; rampant corruption, and women being targeted by the military. "Rape is being used as a systematic strategy against the ethnic groups to take control of their resources", she asserted.
P. Logeswary, who is part of the largest delegation of 32 minority and plantation women from Sri Lanka stressed that for many years, "the issues of ethnic Tamil women and plantation workers in Sri Lanka have been systematically ignored". After more then 20 years of conflict, women are not given any support: education levels are low, health facilities are non existent; and daily wages amount to less than $2.50 USD per day. Tamil women and workers are also facing various forms of violence and harassment. The only support these women have received has been from the regional networks who have joined together to organise the Conference.
The tragic impacts of globalisation and intensifying corporate interventions in various countries were also highlighted. Vernie Yocogan-Diano, of the alliance of indigenous women's organisations in the Cordillera, Philippines shared how the government has become ever more aggressive in inviting mining companies through a national mining law and policies on revitalizing the mining industry. "Currently, 66% of our land area is covered by new mining applications and by existing operations. Large corporate mining displaces whole villages, causes massive destruction to our livelihood, the water system and the whole of the eco-system". But the women are joining hands to resist, "because this land is our life. This land is nurtured by the blood of our ancestors who resisted colonial, state and corporate exploitation and control of our resources and people. This land is what kept generations of our people alive. More and more women are now rising in the villages to resist their extinction".
A similar experience was shared by Kartinee Aminee, of the fisherfolk movement in Thailand, who shared how the economic policies and big projects promoted by the government to attract foreign investment is devastating the livelihood and survival of rural fishing communities, "We cannot allow others to violate our rights", she concluded.
The harrowing experiences of former migrant workers served as poignant reality checks of how in Asia alone, up to 80 million people-a majority of them women-have migrated in search of work due to collapsed economies, severe poverty, debt servicing, and destruction of local agriculture and community livelihoods. Nining Ivana of Indonesia, who had moved to Malaysia to work, and contracted HIV, noted that, "I realise now that women migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. We were unaware of issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many of us were in relationships with Indonesians or Malaysians. We embarked in relationships to help reduce the cost of living in Malaysia. Many of us became mistresses". Her message to the conference was, "Protect the rights of women workers. All women migrant workers must gain access and education related to HIV. Our sexual and reproductive health and rights must be protected. Women workers must strengthen their network and they should not be forced to sacrifice their rights and health for the sake of money".
Forced to migrate to Saudi Arabia because her family, "couldn't profit from agriculture anymore because we had to buy seeds, fertilizer, insecticides at a higher cost from companies", and the fact that as a woman it would cost less for her to go abroad, Shamima Akter of Bangladesh faced nothing but mental and physical abuse, and upon trying to escape ended up in the sex trade. Surviving these experiences, she now campaigns for other women in her position: "I am here to share solidarity! To work with Rural Women from Asia; to build greater unity and say no to forced migration of rural women and to reclaim the rural economy to ensure livelihood in our communities!"
The movement for solidarity and call for Rights, Empowerment and Liberation came from as far as Palestine! Unable to attend due to an accident, Razan Zuayter of the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature, noted the significance of such a conference this year. In a statement she sent, she noted that, "This year is of special importance. It is the year where Palestine marks 50 years of Nakba, and where ironically enough, the world marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." She stressed that "farmers and rural people, many of them women, are among the worst effected populations. They are not allowed to practise their age old professions. They are denied the right to cultivate their land, or harvest and market their produce. Yet they stand their ground and persevere, just as they have done over the ages, aware, consciously on unconsciously, that they are part of the universal human chain of solidarity that lends them, as they do it, determination and purpose".
As part of the Conference inauguration, the 21 country representatives carrying flags, gathered on stage in a show of unity.
The conference aims to build perspectives, engender unity and solidarity among women and with other movements. It seeks to forge new visions and thinking on feminism, liberation, emancipation and the rural women's perspective on socio-economic liberation and food sovereignty. An organic food festival, films and other cultural presentations from various countries would be part of the programme.
On the International Women's Day, a caravan will weave through the streets from Arakkonam to Sriperumbudur and culminate in a public assembly of ten thousand rural women rallying to reclaim their right to speak out, be heard and be seen.
"The Conference has been organized by a collective of national and regional networks who have been working on women's issues on various fronts, and are coming together collectively for this event" explained Fatima Burnad, "the highlight will be the Women's Caravan and Rally on March 8, International Women's, where we are expecting 10,000 women to join us in our call for 'RIGHTS, EMPOWERMENT AND LIBERATION!"
Contacts for co-organiser
Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP):
Jennifer Mourin, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Tel. in India: +91 978 78 12095
Marjo Busto Quinto, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / or email@example.com
Tel. in India: +91 9791866484 (Arakkonam) calls only.