Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
In 2013, WELDD held workshops in the MENA and Sehal regions to build women’s leadership and political participation. The results were hugely successful; young female activists from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Senegal, Niger and Mali emerged invigorated and with a renewed sense of purpose.
In 2013, shortly after the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (popularly referred to as the Arab Spring), the Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation (WELDD) programme delivered three training workshops in Egypt and Senegal, capitalizing on the upheaval to explore a conceptual and practical understanding of feminist leadership.
The workshops, organised by WELDD partner Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), took place in Cairo (January 2013 and December 2013) and in Dakar (April 2013). Locating the workshops within the context of current political changes, WELDD aimed to seize the opportunity to build women’s leadership in order to increase women’s political participation.
The exciting seven-day retreats aimed specifically to foster a transnational transformative feminist leadership. They aimed to create leaders who were ‘women with a feminist perspective and vision of social justice, individually and collectively transforming themselves to use their power, resources and skills in non-oppressive, inclusive structures and processes to mobilise others—especially other women—around a shared agenda of social, cultural, economic and political transformation for equality and the realisation of human rights for all.’
The objectives of the workshops were to increase participants’ awareness of their rights, improve their understanding of feminist leadership and of political participation, help forge alliances with other political forces and larger international networks, boost interpersonal exchange, instil confidence, self-esteem, self-care and empowerment, and explain possible gaps in participants’ activist advocacy work and capacity-building.
The overarching aim of the workshop, essentially, was for it to operate as a regional training opportunity. That is to say, the idea was to bring together women from across the MENA and sub-Saharan Africa regions – in the Cairo and Dakar workshops respectively - to discuss things most pertinent to their causes, and identify areas of similarity across their work. We hoped to make them see that, although their contexts were distinct, they were certainly overlapping and these women would learn a lot through exchange.
The Cairo workshops managed to cull together twenty-six inspiring women who had been previously engaged in gender or women’s rights issues, or had demonstrated experience in political participation. Young female activists, researchers, graffiti artists and even radio presenters came together from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Sudan. The Dakar workshops saw seventeen from Senegal, Niger and Mali. They all gathered in their respective workshops to learn more about the activist agenda, about themselves, about one another’s contexts, and take home new insights that would, in turn, stimulate others.
Because we wanted the workshops to carry out a ripple effect, we required participants to be able to prove that what they learned would be passed on to other women in their community. Ideally, activism would be at grassroots level, but the women we chosen also showed that they were capable of operating at a transnational level.
In terms of participants, a huge success was the presence of two activists from Yemen, a country hitherto unrepresented in WELDD trainings, as well as the increased presence of Tunisian participants.
The workshops took place over a week each. The full seven days gave participants plenty of time to bond with one another and develop meaningful, lasting relationships, and the timetable also allowed for a wide breadth of topics to be delivered (over 23 sessions). These sessions included an introduction to WLUML and WELDD, an ice-breaker at the start, country-specific case studies of women’s movements throughout, and a final wrap-up session.
More specifically, they covered topics such as brainstorming and leadership on feminism, women and constitution building, discussions on human rights laws affecting the community level, defining the women’s movement and strategizing for the future, achieving one’s change agenda through effective advocacy, and group work involving discussions and presentation of campaign plans. The sessions also introduced participants to the international tools for advocating for gender equality, such as the Maputo Protocol and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
A particularly noteworthy session was that on self-care and sustainable activism. These fiercely driven and hard-working activists were taught how, despite their passionate drive, they should slow down and take care of themselves in order to sustain their agendas. This was a very different topic from the other more information-based sessions, and it gave participants a new angle to consider when implementing their plans—the most obvious and yet most overlooked factor, which was, their own selves. As the workshop space had been fostered as a safe and non-judgemental space, the self-care sessions allowed the participants to open up about the difficulties facing them, about negative past experiences, and about fears for the future.
At the end of the training, participants were invited to give anonymous feedback on their experience, all of which responded with overwhelming positivity. On a general level, the vast majority ranked the training as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ and said they would recommend the WELDD training to others.
The breadth and amount of new information which the trainers imparted over these sessions was highly appreciated and participants welcomed the benefit of having highly knowledgeable trainers.
In particular, the inclusion of a self-care session proved to be a resounding success. One participant claimed that ‘it was very emotional and revealed many of the fears within everyone, and how we can overcome the disappointments’, while another said, ‘This [self-care] is very important aspect is almost always dismissed/ignored’.
Participants also expressed the value of networking with women from across the varying regions, comparing experiences and tactics for activism, and forging relationships of transnational solidarity. This was a big success for us, as our aim was to deliver training that was contextually relevant to all participants and which built a strong network of alliances for the future. These sentiments of solidarity have been manifested in sustained online communication and networking, both through a Facebook group and through WLUML’s email server.
Our workshop also inspired some wonderful creativity. Shortly after the workshop, we received a short story blog from one participant, and a reflection piece by another, about the importance of the workshop as a consciousness-raising experience:
“The more we talked, the more I saw that our situations, although different, have many similarities. The WELDD training was a turning point for me. My feeling of responsibility to make change has to take different forms now; stronger and more organized ones.”
We have complete faith in all our participants and know they are more than capable of achieving all their agendas. At every ripple we feel, we feel grateful to have known them, and await the change they will bring.