Representation on the 'Ground' (Part 2): The Women's March
Written by: Abigail Goh & Simren Sekhon
Following Part One on Representation at the ‘Top’, this piece shifts the focus to what representation and empowering women is like on the ‘Ground’. In the context of the 2020 US elections, WU also wants to take this time to reflect on the global impact The Women’s March (2017) had for feminism and solidarity.
What started as an Anti-Trump protest grew into the ‘largest demonstration in American history’ at the time (single-day protest). Critically, this demonstration was not isolated to the US. It has since evolved into a global protest occurring in around 30 countries, including Costa Rica, Latvia, Kenya and Nigeria, with over 3 million people coming together. During these protests, large groups of women and their allies raised their voice against the new Presidential administration, and in support of women’s rights: be it concerning issues surrounding health, diversity or inclusion.
One of the activists in these marches, Laurie Pohutsky, sums up the sentiment of many who were part of the demonstrations, saying:
“I had just watched a person who had admitted to sexually assaulting women on tape be elected president of the United States” – as a survivor of sexual assault, she was justifiably outraged, angry, sad and convinced that this was her opportunity to take a stand.
Transnational Activism & Minorities
As has also been evident through the US’ Black Lives Matter movement most recently, 21st-century activism quickly takes on a transnational character. On the 8th of March 2020, International Women’s Day, thousands rallied in Asia despite the fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our ASEAN neighbours the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, were among the other Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan which had demonstrations this year. These demonstrations followed the same sentiments of The Women’s March (2017) and other Women’s Suffrage movements of the past, demanding labour equality and anti-violence laws.
This year, in particular, highlighted the unequal suffering of women as care workers as well as gender-based violence during the pandemic:
”The majority of caregivers, at home and in our communities, are also women. Additionally, they are at increased risk of infection and loss of livelihood, and existing trends point to less access to sexual and reproductive health and rise in domestic violence during the crisis.”
The solidarity demonstrated on a transnational scale was (and still is) evident in the calls for women’s equal rights and an end to violence against women. The current pro-choice demonstrations occurring in response to Poland’s abortion ban is an example of this. Although activism has taken many a form across time and continents, The 2017 Women’s March was more than just a landmark event: it has acted as a turning point for feminist activism since. As we approach its anniversary in the new year (January 2021), the fight for truly representative representation – both in our leaders at the ‘top’ and from activists on the ‘ground’ continues.
The call for equality here in Singapore is no doubt demonstrated differently from our SEA neighbours in Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta (2020) or other countries where The Women’s March occurred. Nonetheless, our responsibility as Women Unbounded is to take a position of solidarity. Moreover, activism can take many forms within our circles, on social media, volunteering or by writing to MPs (for reference, see below).
It is essential to recognise that representation on the ‘ground’ is powerful, which can influence the people around us.
Activism on the ‘ground’ is made accessible through creative infographics to help inform the population on their various tools of engagement, such as:
Protest = Change?
Nevertheless, this is also not to say that marching is the only way that our activism for change counts on a global scale. An overarching question emerges: is a single movement sufficient to create lasting change? In the US, for example, evidence suggests that while marches themselves have become less central to the cause, voting has become a greater lever for change. Specifically, it is not just that women seek to come together in demanding for their rights and equality but that they work to rally communities to elect progressive candidates who they believe will put these demands into action. Materially, although the numbers of women attending the marches are reducing in the US, women have not lost their impact. In fact, women make up the majority of voters – they have a lot of political influence and are increasingly “realising that power”. This is a stark reminder that on many fronts, activism doesn’t exist singularly nor in a vacuum. It can take on many forms and must be worked alongside systematic ways to enable meaningful change. Reminders toward such are found globally: Natalee Stack, a Women’s March organiser in Jamaica, said her biggest struggle was not to organise the protests but to push leaders to pass legislation that protects women and girls against sexual violence.
The initial protests had also faced some criticism as to whether a movement driven by White women would be able to take on the needs of minorities in a comprehensive manner. Divisions between communities no doubt exist outside the US too – Thobeka Gikaba, an organiser of a march in Johannesburg, observes that tensions between White and Black South Africans have also emerged, dating back to Apartheid. To make clear, being a part of a global protest is not to say that it’s source, i.e. the US encompasses the interests of all. Rather, it has acted as a catalyst. Divisions that may exist between feminists in any part of the world could be similar or entirely distinct – depending on the context and history. Nonetheless, leaders of the March affirm that being a part of the global movement was not just about solidarity, but about being able to represent their own communities in demanding change on the ground.
Ultimately, The Women’s March has reached its goal of continuing annual marches in solidarity to advocate for policy and legislation change around fundamental human rights. The hashtag #GirlsJustWantFundamentalRights is one of many slogans that women and allies alike believe is expressing a central message: women’s rights are human rights. These slogans are not just catchy but hold truths regarding the need for greater equality in women’s rights and marginalised groups and LGBTQ+ rights.
Solidarity between different advocacy groups will remain a testimony to the power there is in unity, regardless of whether multiple groups have various policy demands. The Women's March was able to bring together diverse movements inclusively and peacefully. When participating in the London Women’s March, Abigail notes that she was initially confused as to why so many voices were speaking up for what seemed like every issue ‘under the sun’. Now in retrospect, this perspective is one she no longer holds. To her, these numerous voices are no longer a crowded noise but a clear representation of the fact that activism requires us all to ally for multiple, intersectional causes. In other words, unity, diversity and inclusion are necessary means to a common end of greater equality for all.
Activism’s central hope and intention is this: that the solidarity displayed by minority and oppressed groups will continuously put pressure on those at the ‘top’ to reform immigration and healthcare policies, laws on reproductive rights, the freedom of religion etc.. The success of this advocacy thus far can be seen in the continued activism on the ‘ground’ that emerged transnationally from Trump’s ‘first day in office’. The Women’s March continues to follow the “nonviolent ideology of the Civil Rights movement”, with US organisers like Tamika Mallory emphasising the power of peaceful protest. Criticism propelling activism must be analysed thoroughly, and we must remain aware that change on the systematic level is a long-drawn process (i.e. changing policy/law). This underlines that “the process of social change is more time-consuming, complicated, and difficult than people might think”, and does not make the Women’s March a wasted effort nor a failure. Peace Women (UN) further notes that it is pivotal to understand this process of change instead of reading our histories in an edited way which only serves to ‘emphasise dramatic events and consequences’.
When we observe women and allies globally, continue to come together “on behalf of social, racial, and gender equality, we must ask, what is the significance of the March and movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, that were born out of it?”. How we engage with activism is critical. We can begin by asking ourselves how we can figuratively continue the Women’s March i.e. how can we as individuals continue to fight for ideas that we expressed so affirmatively for in 2017? How do we best consistently speak up for marginalised and vulnerable groups on the ‘ground’?
The United Nations Secretary-General recently said that “The twenty-first century must be the century of women’s equality” – what sort of activism do we want to put into motion to make this happen?