Generations of Feminism – a reflection on AWID 2012


Alison Carney

Two weeks ago I attended the international Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) forum in Istanbul, Turkey. AWID hosted more than 2,500 feminists, development professionals, activists and students at a four day forum to share ideas, experiences and plans for mobilization for women’s rights. I met some amazing, inspiring people from many different countries, working on different issues. The ideas that they planted in my mind, the things I had forgotten have made me all the more excited about the work I do on gender issues, and the work I plan to do. In spite of the wonderful experiences I had, there were a few things about this forum that just didn’t sit right, and that seem to me to be indicative of bigger problems within the movement for gender equality, among self-proclaimed feminists.

One would assume that at a forum that is intended to be a sharing of knowledge, an opportunity to inspire one another, there would be no hierarchy among attendees – especially in a feminist space where we are talking about gender issues. I realized over the course of the four days that this was not the case. As was echoed in conversations with my nine classmates who attended as well, there was a very clear generational division. We kept hearing phrases like “We are so proud of the young feminists here today”, or “it was so nice to talk to so many young feminists”. The feeling of being patronized was not helped by the young feminist corner that was set up, and felt more like a play corner. Where was the “old” feminist corner? It became very clear in the speeches during the opening plenaries, as well as in the daily sessions, that the older, more experienced feminists felt that they could not wait to pass the baton on to us young people, contingent on our adequate indoctrination with their version of feminism, of course. I had the feeling that my own form of feminism was not recognized, or was seen as naive simply because of my age. My more radical beliefs about sex workers rights, integration of LGBTQI issues into the global feminist movement and my desire that women with disabilities be recognized within the movement were brushed aside with an attitude that we young feminists just “didn’t yet understand”.

It seems to me so contrary to the feminist movement to silence voices based on the age of the activist. In a setting where the organizers of AWID clearly made a massive effort for multi-national, racial, religious and linguistic representation, why are the voices of young people not given equal importance? As students, it was assumed that any work or activism that we had participated in before starting out Masters degrees just didn’t really count. One of us was even told, “oh you are just a student, you will get it eventually.” In fact, it was the young people who I met at AWID who I found to be the most exciting in their activism and openness to new ideas and collaborations. For example, a woman in her early twenties from Palestine who is fighting for the rights of women with disabilities, a group that continues to be forgotten by the greater women’s movement. Another was a young lesbian from Uganda who works for a very minimal wage on the fight for LGBTQ rights in a country where her very identity puts her in constant danger. Is this not what feminism, and development for that matter, should be about? The people who truly embody their beliefs and work on issues that they themselves feel everyday. It is hard for me to understand why these young women are less legitimate in the eyes of the global feminist movement than some of the “experienced” speakers talking about women’s economic equality and then jumping into their privately hired car on their way back to the nearest 5 star hotel.

Now, this is not to say that the voices of experienced and well-paid feminists are not important. It is every woman’s right to live her life the way that she chooses. But, what needs to be recognized is that we can all learn from each other. Creating space for young voices by providing a ‘young feminists corner’ is not only condescending, but only reinforces the attitude that we as young people can only be heard by each other because we just don’t know enough yet. An older feminist economist, for example, may have something to learn about economic empowerment from a young sex worker activist. AWID should have made an effort to put young voices in the plenary speeches, as well as have sessions run by young people about our ideas and work. The attendees of the conference should not only engage with the issues that they know well and have been working on for years, but should also attend sessions on some of the new issues that are being taken on by young feminists and that are essential in all gender and development work, for example working with men, climate change, and sexuality. Feminism, and the work we do in development on gender issues, should be thought of as evolving, constantly growing to react to the multitude of oppressions that we all agree face women in the world.

Alison Carney is an MA Gender and Development student at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts from IDS students:
The real story after ‘Kong 2012’
Developmental hackspaces: fostering a meta-participatory ethos for Information and Communication Technologies for Development
Spring uprisings calling spring academcs: #bring books out to the streets!

Sanitation and Hygiene: Undernutrition’s Blind Spot


Robert Chambers

The undernutrition of babies, infants and children is horrible and a disgraceful blot on our human record. It is not just the immediate suffering, anguish and death. It is also the lasting impact: when growth is stunted at age 2 the damage is largely irreversible. Stunted children are disadvantaged for life – their cognition and immune systems impaired, and their education and earning prospects reduced. Stunting leads to a 10 per cent decrease in lifetime earning. Stunted children start school 7 months later and attend 0.7 years less than children who aren’t stunted.

So undernutrition cries out for action and there is plenty of action. The normal, commonsense, humane response is direct and visible – to get more nutrients and food into babies, infants and children. To get it into their mouths. Who could be against that? Not me. It is so obvious, so necessary, so important, so urgent, with such immediate results.

But, and it is a monumental but, has this distracted attention from a major cause, and outside famines and acute seasonal crises, I will dare to venture even the main cause: faecally-related infections(FRIs)? Have I lost my senses? Well….

I recently watched  a video of a presentation made by Dr Jean Humphrey in India, and met her, and heard her speak  at the UK Department of International Development (DFID). She works in Zimbabwe and in the Lancet (19 September 2009) famously argued with convincing evidence that environmental enteropathy (EE) is a more significant cause of undernutrition than diarrhoea. EE is a persistent subclinical condition in which infections damage and reduce the absorptive capacity of the gut and at the same time make it permeable so that nutrient energy has to be continuously diverted to make antibodies to fight the infection. EE is a multisystem disorder, a ‘profound immune system disorder’ which moreover weakens the immune system later in life. That Lancet article stirred things up, and she is now engaged on long-term rigorous field research into EE. She and others are now saying that diarrhoea is just the tip of the iceberg. I agree. But what an iceberg, not just EE!

Here are some bullet points. Are they right?

How significant are the diarrhoeas as causes of undernutrition?

  • Because among faecally-related infections, they are so dramatic, awful, visible and episodic, and so easily measurable, the diarrhoeas have received and continue to receive the major professional attention. Many other conditions are subclinical, continuous, invisible and hard or impossible to measure. The multiple dimensions of EE are a very significant part of this.
  • With oral rehydration therapy, diarrhoeas are less damaging than they were
  • There is rapid recovery between bouts of diarrhoea
  • Studies of the effect of diarrhoeas on linear growth show effects in the range of only 5-20 per cent, and some show none at all
  • In the Gambia where the Dunn Nutrition Laboratory has been doing research for many decades there has been a big drop on the incidence of diarrhoea 1979 – 1993 but no change in stunting. They have found stunting is not explained by inadequate diet or days of diarrhoea!

The misleading conclusion could be drawn that since diarrhoeas are not so much implicated in undernutrition, sanitation and hygiene are not so important either, and that FRIs in general are not so signficiant

Feeding programmes
What is the evidence of the impact of feeding programmes?

  • A review of 42 studies of feeding programmes found that the very best solved only one third of the problem and some had no effect at all
  • No nutrition intervention has ever normalised linear growth

Faecally-related infections (FRIs)
FRIs are much more than the diarrhoeas and EE.

  • The variety and scale of these infections is quite mind-blowing. There are intestinal parasites – bacterial like gardia (extremely widespread), amoebiasis, and worms like ascaris (1.5 billion infected) that steal food and hookworm (over 700 million infected, 200 million in India) which voraciously consumes blood from the host, and tapeworms which come through intermediate hosts. There are hepatitis A, B and E, typhoid fever, polio and other enteroviruses, schistosomiasis (over 200 million, more than half in Africa), liverfluke, trachoma, and various zoonoses from animals (in addition to tapeworms)…..

So there is much, much more to the iceberg of which the diarrhoeas are the tip, than EE. No one so far has been able to point me to a study of how many of these infections are found in any one undernourished infant or child, nor how they interact. So my question to those who work in nutrition and those who work on faecally-related infections, is this: does professional specialisation prevent us seeing the enormity of the whole picture? And is the implication of the whole picture that sanitation and hygiene are not only a huge priority in eliminating undernutrition but even, bar famines and seasonal crises, possibly the main means?

Consider India. The latest data indicate that India has 59.4 per cent, almost three fifths, of the open defecation in the world, a proportion which has risen in the past decade. It also has a third of the undernourished children, a figure which has largely resisted herculean attempts to tackle it directly through the mouth with school meals, ration cards and the like. Imagine if suddenly all FRIs were caught and confined safely just below the anus. How much undernutrition would remain?

Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team.

Read other recent blog posts from Robert Chambers:
Ensuring those who are ‘last’ come first: using Reality Checks to inform post-MDGs
Discrimination, duties and low hanging fruit: reflections on equity in CLTS
A passionate family: reflections on the WSSCC Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene