The thank you panel, Women's Worlds 2011. Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

“I know why it is called grassroots… since I began to garden, I know that when you pull up the roots, if a small piece remains, more grass will grow.”

– b!wilder, spoken word artist

Nearly 2,000 international delegates, grassroots activists, academics, and policymakers congregated for the 30th anniversary of the Women’s World Congress in Ottawa from July 4 to 7. With plenaries translated simultaneously into English, French, Spanish and American Sign Language, each day’s sessions were based upon the themes Breaking Cycles, Breaking Ceilings, Breaking Barriers and Breaking Ground, under the broader theme: “Inclusions, exclusions and seclusions: Living in a globalized world.”

With delegates from 92 countries, this is the largest conference with the broadest range of issues, and the most complex event-management logistics, I have ever attended. I send heartfelt kudos to the co-chairs of WW 2011 co-chairs Caroline Andrew, of the University of Ottawa, and Rianne Mahon, of Carleton University. Six years ago, when they began to organize this conference, they were determined to focus on the rights of Aboriginal and disAbled women, and to ask the international community of feminist educators for help against systemic discrimination in the North. It was a very clever concept of the organizers to include delegates working across the feminist spectrum, from academics to those working on the frontline, to discuss international commonalities, and strategically plan for transnational to translocal initiatives through interweaving concepts from academia, grassroots activism, NGOs, ICTs and policymaking.

As I ran from the Ottawa Conference Center to the University of Ottawa campus, I asked delegates along my route to tell me about other sessions through sound bites. Often there were four or five sessions in a single time slot that interested to me; my personal preoccupation was with the undermining of civil society through funding the military and the manufactured crisis of “austerity measures” constructed to explain these expenditures for media dissemination.

With billions earmarked for the military in Canada, and cuts coming for health, education and the environment, our civil society is going to become much, much poorer in the coming years, robbed of its cultural and social resiliency for research and innovation. Women’s groups have been the first to be affected. When Rona Ambrose, federal Status of Women Minister, introduced the conference, some delegates turned their back on her, frustrated by her blatant misrepresentation of the Conservative government’s support in funding women’s programs — witness the red “not” amended to CIDA funding for $7 million earmarked for church-backed group, Kairos, by International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, and PM Harper’s cut in funding to 11 women’s groups just before the 2010 G-8 Summit, which focused on maternal health.

It was a miracle of organizational tenacity that this conference was able to be held in Ottawa at this time; three Nigerian participants were unable to present their papers because the Canadian government held up the processing of their visas and they did not arrive at the conference until Wednesday, the day before it ended.

I knew I was home when Raewyn Connell, an Australian transsexual academic and activist, author of the sociology primer ‘Masculinities’, asked her plenary how many women participating were teachers, and 80 per cent raised their hands. Many at the conference were attempting to build leadership within their own communities to enable a matriarchal economy, in which the rights of children, community-building through microfinancing of womens’ enterprise, and sustainability of resources for future generations are prioritized over the international trend toward militarization.

According to Professor Connell, schools have both emancipatory and repressive capabilities. When we talk about education, we talk about the will of the people to change the system. The vast majority in the audience who raised their hands represent a “workforce of reform,” she said. As the neoliberal agenda, guided by transnational corporations, turns to attacking unions and teachers, it is clear that their objective is to quell the alternative, potentially sustainable, thinking of a maternal economy. “Studying up,” understanding the flow of economic and political interests from the masculine perspective as part of large-scale social dynamics, will enable grassroots activists to work with policymakers to put pressure on the government through co-opting techniques of transnational corporations as jujitsu moves for resistance. I had not known of Professor Connell’s writings, and “know thy opposition” startled me; it was so obvious in its simple brilliance.

During Thursday morning’s plenary, Queen’s University law professor, and LGBTTQ activist, Kathleen Lahey, spoke of her research on tax reform, and how taxation affects the personal on every level. Never has so much been taken from so many, with so little return through government tax policy, she said, and no longer is the right to support a family and have children prioritized in Canadian economic policy. Professor Lahey urges her law students to take a course in business management to understand corporate tactics. Focusing her research on how taxation policy is currently being re-written in favour of the corporate-state, she is concerned about the speed at which the Conservative government is enacting these tax policies behind closed doors.

Wednesday evening, Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt, showed her documentary ‘Pray the Devil back to Hell’. The story of Liberian mothers who worked to end a bloody civil war by wearing white T-shirts and protesting at their local fish market through song and dance, the title is based on one of the activist’s quote about the persuasive power of Liberian president, Charles Taylor. Due to the mothers’ insistence, when the warlords and leaders finally meet for six weeks in a hotel to negotiate a truce, the warlords ‘wearing Ghanaian cotton and sleeping on clean sheets’ outside of the bush, the men extended the negotiations for six weeks, enjoying the high life.

The film shows mothers organizing a hundred protesters to block the hotel’s hall, and a warlord attempts to throw himself out the conference room’s window in shame. Upon one of the protest leader’s threat of taking off her clothes — considered the last shred of dignity for a mother in Liberia — and bringing back a thousand protesters next time, the politicians and warlords get serious, and reach a resolution within two weeks.

Disney had to search for home footage of this mother’s threat; media coverage of the Liberian civil war was of bloodshed; there was little of non-violent resistance. Disney said 875 million guns are in circulation post Cold War, and the guns are passed from conflict to conflict, and from country to country. This compares with 1.5 million guns in use during the First World War. She urged the audience to consider the gun trade and redistribution of weapons, and that war should also be considered from a woman’s perspective. The five part series called ‘Women, War and Peace‘ will be broadcast on PBS in the fall. As for us, Canadian arms exports have tripled over the past seven years; our country has added significantly to this gun trade.

As’s executive director, Samhita Mukhopadhyay noted during the final plenary, that she could only speak from her unique, personal perspective, constructed from the multiplicity of her selves as a south Asian, hip-hop loving, fashionista and blogger. Once she understood that was OK, she was able to move forward as a feminist, speaking about transnationalism, and how “feminist movements have a different meaning to women throughout the world” beyond the Western liberal movement.

With blisters on my heels, and my head reeling from the commonality of our shared conference experience, I have tried to do justice to the historical importance of this gathering of women. It felt almost impossible to fully cover it in terms of doing justice to its scope and vision, so these are just the intellectual snapshots of an environmental activist, pacifist, and sustainable systems analyst who is preoccupied with war, peace and civil society.

Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx and is a professor of new media.