Empowerment world-wide

Report on the WRI conference on Nonviolence and Social Empowerment in India

In February 2001, a little later than originally planned, 70 people from 20 countries and five continents met for one week at the Gandhi Labour Foundation in Puri at the Gulf of Bengal, in order to exchange experiences with empowerment, to raise questions and to search for new answers [1]. The place was chosen well. The Gandhi Labour Foundation, an educational center of the Gandhian union movement, lies at the edge of the place of pilgrimage Puri and only a few minutes walk from the picturesque beach of the Gulf of Bengal. The climate still was agreeable, even if for European circumstances very summery, and contributed very much to the relaxed conference atmosphere, as did the possibility of a cooling bath in the sea, and the friendly service by the personnel of the Gandhi Labour Foundation and the team of 20 volunteers of our Indian host organisation Swadhina. The Indian team of interpreters did a wonderful job, without which our communication would not have been possible. The organizers from Swadhina proved with their self-built simultaneous interpretation equipment, that much money can be saved through creativity.

The conference program stretched the bow from personal experiences with empowerment and disempowerment, over working in groups and organizations to social movements and to international cooperation (or disempowering tutelage?). To give an extensive overview is not possible in the framework of this article, and so we want to restrict ourselves to a few exciting aspects [2].


The question what social empowerment actually means, what power we actually want, was approached from three different perspectives: José Araya from Chile, Pushpa Bhave from India and Ellen Elster from Norway approached the topic from their own background.

Ellen Elster, member of the WRI Executive, portrayed the successes of the women's movement of the 70's, which are very visible especially in the Scandinavian countries. However, which social changes did this "participation in power" bring about? She also gave serious critical thought to the increasing tendency of "professionalisation" of NGO's, that goes along with a reorientation towards lobbyism and dialogue with the ruling powers. This may lead to more influence on government decisions, however, does it also lead to more empowerment at the grassroots? [3]

What power do we want?

In the first two days several workshops pursued aspects of the power we strive for, or against which we turn. Keith Goddard of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe reported on attacks of the Mugabe government on gay and lesbians in Zimbabwe, that would essentially be justified with the "rights of the majority in opposition to the minority". It lead to a discussion on power, majority, minority and identity, and what relationship between these concepts exists [4].

In the report on her work, Amalia Paillalaf, teacher in an indigena community of the Mapuche-Tehuelche in Patagonia, Argentina, emphasised the necessity of the protection of the own indigenious identity. Amalia emphasizes the importance to also teach the traditional knowledge of their people in the school and to save it in writing. She had to ask the elderly to pass on this knowledge. At first they didn't want to, since they thought it would be of no more use today.

Furthermore the teaching in Amalia's school had to be organized in a way so that it corresponds to the living conditions of the Mapuche in the region, where they live over one hundred apart. So the children go to school for two weeks and then stay at home for one week, while the other siblings, who previously stayed at home to help, go to school.

Case studies

Case studies on different campaigns and movements, which had been commissioned especially for the conference, were an important element of the conference. They covered four topics: empowerment for economic alternatives, for social "decontamination", for the protection of the environment and for demilitarization [5].

Empowerment for economic alternatives

Resource persons on economic alternatives were: Khoboso Nthunya from SEWU (Self Employed Women's Union) from South Africa, an union for women who work in the informal sector; Srichandra Venkataramanan from the Indian organisation Swadhina, which was established in 1986; for both the economic empowerment of women is the main focus of their work; and Edda Isernhagen from Brazil from the organization Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the Brazilian landless workers movement.

While SEWU primarily organises women in small businesses in South Africa, street vendors, Swadhina mainly organises women in rural areas. Both devoted themselves to empowerment of women. While SEWU placed the organising and advanced training of already economically independent working women as goal for itself - through support and education of abilities in the areas leadership, negotiation and Lobbying - Swadhina first aims to develop economic independence of women.

Furthermore SEWU promotes the formation of basic skills like management and conflict resolution and farther particular skills like house construction, carpenters, electricity. This are no traditional activities for women, but an area, in which they can well earn money and open their own small businesses. The women must finance a low part of these advanced trainings themselves, while SEWU contributes 80 percent of the costs [6].

For Swadhina, the economic empowerment of women is the main focus of their work since many problems of women have economic roots. The work comprises three steps: women must become confident that they are capable to be economically independent, their self-confidence must be strengthened and they must understand that they are equivalent to men in order to be able to protest against discriminations, like for example different wages. Finally, they must learn to deal with money.

Initially, society was not willing to accept strong women. The women organized themselves in grassroots groups and choose a president and a treasurer. Savings funds in the villages were established by the women themselves, from which they can borrow credits [7].

MST differs in multiple sense from SEWU and Swadhina. The movement doesn't refer specifically to the empowerment of women. MST wants to challenge the existing world order. They have organizations in 23 out of 26 Brazilian federal states.

The movement began, when some families from the south didn't want to be resettled. They said, "we have land here". They demanded land, food, drinking water, seeds and dignity, the right to be Brazilians.

They need public support in their work. Therefore they organize marches, often for weeks and over several thousand kilometers, during which they visit people on the way, in order to explain their concern, and to win them for MST. They are dependent on the support of millions so that they are not killed.

A group of landless children wanted to be able to go to the school. They got together with teachers and established the "migrating school", so that as many children as possible can participate in the classes.

Empowerment for demilitarization

In this area two examples were highlighted: the struggle of the population of Vieques on Puerto Rico against the seemingly superior presence of the US military, which uses a huge part of the island of Vieques for military practices [8]; and the conscientious objection movement in the state of Spain, that essentially contributed to the abolition of conscription through their insumision-campaign (total objection) [9].

Development of counter power

Joanne Sheehan from the USA, chairpersons of WRI, explored in her contribution that Seattle 1999 was more than the media event, as which it is perceived. The practical non-violent blocking of the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was only possible through long-term preparation and coalition building work. Joanne Sheehan asked critically, whether the simple repetition of Seattle -- in Washington in April 2000, in Prague, Davos, soon in Geneva, etc. -- is a successful strategy against the World Trade Organization as well as against globalization, or whether this isn't just a dead end road. Seattle was successful in bringing the WTO from darkness into the light of the public - so what strategy can build on this success in order to at least restrict the power of the WTO?

Keith Goddard explained the strategy of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe on the basis of the force field analysis following Mugabe's first anti-gay remarks. He showed how GALZ strengthened its own strengths, and tried to weaken forces working against GALZ. He pointed out that Mugabe -- contrary to the original assessment -- in the end proved to be a factor strengthening the movement.


More than providing new answers this conference raised new questions, and again raised old questions in new circumstances. "Globalization" or its effects ran as a topic through many plenaries and working groups. What are the effects of globalization on the social movements? What possibilities exist to counter the "globalization of multinationals" with a "globalization from below", a globally connected resistance, that is empowered by its variety?

What about the question of fundamental social change, which not only strives to reform capitalism but for a revolutionary change? Do we -- by "we" we mean War Resisters' International -- no more dare to only speak of revolution? Or why does this word not even appear any more in the Statement of Principles of 1997, let alone, to make a revolution? What about our own Empowerment?

Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck


War Resisters' International

5 Caledonian Road

London N1 9DX


Phone: +44-20-7278 4040

Fax: +44-20-7278 0444

Email: nvse@wri-irg.org


[translated by http://itranslator.mendez.com and Andreas Speck]


[1] On the concept of the conference, which was originally scheduled for 29.12.00 to 04.01.01, see: Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck: Nonviolence and Social Empowerment.

[2] War Resisters' International plans to publish a book on the conference. For information please contact WRI (details at the end of the article)

[3] Ellen Elster: Professionalisation and Empowerment. Peace News No 2439, June-August 2000, p. 39

[4] see also: Keith Goddard: Inside Out. Peace News No 2439, June-August 2000, p. 22-23. An interview with Keith Goddard (in German) is published in Rosige Zeiten - Magazin aus Oldenburg für Lesben und Schwule, No 73, April-Mai 2001, p. 21-25 (http://oldenburg.gay-web.de/roz/mag4.html).

[5] the case studies are available on the internet at http://wri-irg.org/archive/nvse2001/nvse/nvsecase-en.htm.

[6] Khoboso Nthunya: Self-Employed Women's Union. In: Case studies submitted to the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Conference, Puri, Orissa, India.

[7] Saswati Roy: Economic empowerment and tribal women in India. Peace News No 2439, June-August 2000, p. 24-25

[8] see: Robert L. Rabin Segal: Military Contamination of the Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the People's Response. In: Case studies submitted to the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Conference, Puri, Orissa, India.

[9] Rafael Ajangiz: Civil disobedience gets rid of conscription (Spain, 1985-2000). In: Case studies submitted to the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Conference, Puri, Orissa, India.

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