Generations of change

18 September 2016

"I thought then: no matter how deep the dung, no matter how long the task, if you just go at it one shovel at a time the day will come when you can see clean earth at the bottom of the pile.
...I know better now. The unit of time that must be taken into account here is not decades but centuries, and tens of centuries. It has meaning only in the context of eternal time... I was a human being; I was ill-prepared to set my mind to plans that must be based upon thousands and thousands of years. Nothing about me was large enough to stretch itself to such a scale. And so, because there was quite literally nothing else to do, I set Time aside. I pretended that there was no such entity as Time; I abandoned it utterly. And then I set my shovel to the pile. I began to do whatever I humanly could. Outside the context of Time.
It would have frightened me, I think, if I had allowed myself to think about it."

Taken from [The Judas Rose: Native Tongue II](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_Tongue_(Suzette_Haden_Elgin_novel), by Suzette Haden Elgin.

I spent last week with feminist activists and women human rights defenders at the AWID Forum in Brazil. The Forum meets every 3-4 years, and one of its core functions is to bring people together from different parts of the world, to discuss their strategies and build solidarity across movements.

It gave me a reality check - participants were from all around the world and all kinds of incredibly diverse backgrounds. For lots of them, technology and data were far from being a priority. (More on that over on The Engine Room blog soon)

In the closing plenary, we were asked to share one key insight with the person sitting next to us. Mine came from a session I attended on the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh. We heard from a former factory worker, and from people helping to support union rights in Bangladesh and across the region, and there were no big surprises. The working conditions are beyond terrible. Labour in Bangladesh is among the cheapest in the entire world, and there seems to be somewhat of a race to the bottom in terms of providing cheap labour.

For women (because the vast majority of workers are women), not working doesn’t solve anything. Garment factories provide a way to earn money, and they don’t have many other options. Lobbying companies sometimes results in a tiny change, but nothing comprehensive. Policy change doesn’t seem to be a viable option, and boycotting the companies means that the women could lose their jobs.

In short, there’s no easy solution. But at the end of the session, one of the speakers asked:

“So, what suggestions do you (audience) have, to improve the lives of these women?”

She was looking for quick fixes, and something that could be done soon to help the women she knows who are working in these dire conditions right now.

The room was silent.

My insight, obvious though it may sound, is that there are no short term fixes for these problems. The problems we were talking about at AWID are gargantuan - the problems of capitalism, of patriarchal societies, of exploitation and colonialism. There really are no short term solutions - these systems have been created over the course of centuries.

What this means is that even if we do the very best we can in fighting those exploitative structures, we probably won’t know it, or see the effects. Our children might, or more likely, our grandchildren or their children.

And what that means is that some of the people at AWID are willing to give up their lives for a fight that takes centuries, where they are just one link in the chain. They’re trusting that others will continue that fight, and they’re willing to give everything up for it. More than that even - if the rest of us don’t join in that fight, there’s no way they can win. Our solidarity is everything.

I find that inspiring, but also - as Nazareth, writing in the quote above mentions- frightening. The task ahead is so huge I can’t even begin to imagine what the end looks like.

It takes incredible strength to have that kind of faith. I was, and am, completely in awe of many of the people I met at AWID - and I hope one day I might be able to do them justice and play my part, too.


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