Organising from below in a time of crisis

By Samantha Hargreaves and Zo Randriamaro (WoMin African Alliance)

Centring an African ecofeminist perspective on COVID 19 and alternatives to development

The novel Coronavirus has triggered a significant global crisis, with the harshest impacts being felt by the poor and working classes across the world. On the African continent, this ‘new’ pandemic encounters numerous other crises of climate heating, environmental degradation, unemployment and rising poverty, land grabs and widespread hunger, increased violence, specifically violence against women, and civil conflicts in many countries. Crisis layered upon crisis leaves the majority of Africa’s people, and vulnerable people in particular, under or malnourished, with immune systems already weakened by diseases linked to poverty and rising temperatures, and living without proper housing, water and sanitation services necessary to safeguard against disease and ill health. While most of Africa’s people are at grave risk in this moment, working class and peasant women in Africa carry the burden of all the crises listed above and this is because of their designation as the primary household food producers, caregivers and harvesters of water, energy and other basic goods needed for the reproduction of life and the well-being of people. But these roles also place them at the frontlines of the defence of nature and its right to exist, without which the survival of all beings would not be possible.

African women are at the frontline of the long-time resistance against the capitalist and patriarchal extractivist development model which is grounded in the domination over nature and women’s subordination. WoMin started building in 2011, and formally launched in October 2013 at a first Africa-wide meeting of women on extractivism, women’s resistance and emerging alternatives. The Alliance is rooted in 13 countries across the African continent working to advance women’s resistance alongside more than 50 partners and allies working at the local, national, regional and international levels. In WoMin’s years of work to support women’s resistances to the violent encroachments of mining, oil and gas extraction and large-scale infrastructure, including mega-energy projects, WoMin can testify to the bravery and resoluteness with which women and their communities have defended their land, water, homes and their very right to exist.

In this defence, women are protecting their seeds, their autonomy, their forms of production, their community relations, and very importantly their interdependent relationship with nature without which they would not survive. In their defence lies women’s proposition for just development. They are saying NO to the deeply destructive extractivist model of development, and YES to the REAL and living alternatives in the ways they produce food, conserve and steward natural resources, and take care of their families and communities. This outline of a just development agenda which women both defend and propose offer us a roadmap to a radically transformed way of living together in relations of care and harmony with nature. This living alternative to the dominant development paradigm offers us the roadmap the world needs if we are to avert climate catastrophe, wars, and pandemics like COVID-19 which lie in the not too distant future.

Harnessing women’s strategies and alternative practices from below in times of crisis

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, WoMin has engaged in intensive outreach to and solidarity with partners, allies and friends across Africa. This COVID-19 political positioning of the alliance is based on the recognition that it is essential that COVID-19, and the numerous other crises which it encounters in Africa, are read from and responded to from the perspective of women, ecology and political economy. The response must also be rooted very concretely in African experiences and perspectives as COVID-19 unfolds across our continent. There is much to learn from the way African women and their communities have already been strategizing and organising to sustain themselves and survive the disempowering and crippling impacts of the extractivist development system. The COVID pandemic offers an important opportunity to amplify and strengthen the strategies developed by African women to respond to the pandemic. This is especially since those strategies are meant to enact solidarity by addressing the key issues facing their entire communities as well as those confronting women in other communities.

By way of illustration, in an informal settlement, called Iraq, in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, residents do not have access to water. Women walk about 2 kilometres every day to collect water. When the lockdown came into effect, this restricted women’s movements and they were frequently turned away by the police when they tried to collect water. Women in more than 24 communities across South Africa came together through the C19 Solidarity Forum to make visible the water crisis in their communities and apply public pressure on the President, Command Centre and Ministries to take the needed action. This is one example of how women have responded to crisis in the context of Covid. In addition, in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda women in communities have started to more actively use tools, such as whatsapp, to gain access to information, support each other, and gather stories to share with allies and the media. And community radio in Uganda, Nigeria, Cote d-Ivoire and South Africa, to name a few, has been widely taken up to share information, mobilise and advocate to the local state.

Based on and inspired by such examples, WoMin has constructed a new project called ‘Organising in a Time of Crisis’ which aims to build resources and supports for allies and partners that will enable new ways of working, organizing, and acting in and through the perpetual crises confronting our continent. At the end of March, WoMin convened a continental dialogue on the theme of organising in crisis, which brought together partners and allies in conversation about how they were navigating the pandemic, its impacts on women and communities, and how they were supporting access to information, organizing and ongoing advocacy in the context of COVID-19.

Under this project, WoMin has entered into a partnership with Social Movement Technologies in the United States to build a cohort of 50 African activists, mainly women, able to use digital tools in support of organising and campaigning.

Furthermore, the inspiration and learning from the exchanges with other members and endorsers of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives network have informed the development of WoMin’s new research project on women’s coping strategies and alternative practices in times of crisis. This will feed into a continental movement building effort to support peasant and working-class women dream of a different future for their families, communities, country and continent. This will shape thinking about an African ecofeminist just transition and radical systemic alternative to the dominant development order.

The research is being conducted in African countries where WoMin’s partners are supporting women’s groups and organisations affected by the COVID-19 and/or other concomitant crises, and emphasising alternative perspectives on women’s autonomous organising in terms of both individual and grassroots collective action. Such alternative initiatives are based on the mobilisation of social networks, indigenous and traditional knowledge and resources in different contexts, independent from States and non-governmental institutions.

The research builds on the assumption that these grassroots examples of alternative practices based on social networks(/capital) and collective action stand in opposition to the prevailing capitalist development model based on private capital accumulation and patriarchal exploitation of women’s labour. They can inform the pathways to a paradigmatic shift from the relentless exploitation of nature and people, to a just and resilient future that builds on ecofeminist values of equality, solidarity, and caretaking in which everyone is valued, and social and ecological reproduction are prioritised.