We can hear African drums being played from the speakers as we make our way into a room which feels like a giant cinema. Greeting us are over 2,000 women and girls, ranging in age from 7 to 80, from over 140 countries. It is a sea of colourful, traditional dress depicting histories and cultures from all parts of the world, all gathered for the 12th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights in Development.
"So many women, so many dadas [‘sisters’ in Swahili] from Tanzania too," says Anna Oloshuru. Anna, Ester and Mwandiwe, the finalists of the Female Food Hero award in Tanzania, huddle round Salimu (Oxfam’s Tanzania’s campaigner) as they hear the explanations in Swahili of what is being discussed by the speakers. Their three heads nod in agreement as they hear Professor Gita Sen speak.
Power is built on resources
"Power is based on control over access to resources", says Sen. "Power is built on resources. Resources of knowledge, but we women must not leave knowledge in the hands of those who do not have our best interests of heart. Economics is not rocket science. We must challenge the systems of power that do not work for us. We must be fearless. For we are 50% of the world’s inhabitants and we must create the world we want. A world that works for us." Anna, Ester and Mwandiwe clap hard.
The energy of the opening session is transported to the breakout sessions discussing women’s activism and challenges to access and rights to land and food security.
Mwandiwe describes her feelings: "I feel so inspired after hearing how women mobilised in India at the Ekta Parishad unity march. How those who were denied their right to land walked from their homes together with their elderly mothers, their young children, their communities. For 30 days these women walked over 25,000 kilometres, sometimes bare foot, to the parliament to demand they rights."
"We too walk", says Anna. "Often it feels like we spend all our lives walking. Walking to collect water, firewood and food. Here it is so easy, I put my hand under the tap and like magic the water comes. I love it!’’ she laughs.
"We will learn from each other"
Connections are also made with other women activists and women farmers from the Philippines that Oxfam is working in solidarity with. "It is so nice to meet so many women from all over the world", says Ester. "Everyone is so interested in who we are, taking photos of us, with our GROW dresses. Before coming we were slightly nervous – thinking we would feel left out because we are from the village, that we are not as sophisticated, not as educated as everyone else."
"I want to contribute and participate fully, but it is challenging as I do not speak English," Anna comments, speaking through her translator. "AWID must have Swahili translation next time."
Despite the language barriers, there are other languages of connection - the language of solidarity has many avenues of expression. The Tanzania female food heroes warmly greet the female farmers from the Philippines, Zenaida Mansilliohan and Rebecca Miranda. "It is wonderful to see so many other dadas like us, from other countries. We will learn from each other," observes Ester.
At the evening reception, Ester comes face to face with a photograph of herself that is featured in the exhibition. She proudly addresses the audience:
"I never thought I would be standing here – I was just a village farmer with just my hoe. Me, a woman who has never even been to the capital city Dar Saleem! I feel so happy to be here with you. To see your faces, hear your voices.
"But there are challenges to being a woman farmer. I work the land. I plant the seeds, water the seeds, harvest the crop and yet it is the men that go and sell my crops in the market. The men use the money from the crops for themselves. They get rich, they get powerful and they take additional wives. They do all this from my hard work. But I feel stronger being here with all of you, hearing all the stories from other women. It gives me ideas and courage for my own work."
Blog: A woman is a mother — and more -- Rebecca ‘Becca’ Miranda, president of a national federation of rural women in the Philippines, writes from AWID
You can support women like Esther by joining Oxfam's GROW campaign to fix the global food system.