The voice of labour, the voice of women

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The opening of Women's Worlds 2011.

"Who has the power? We have the power! #ww2011 #women #femmes" from twitter @lorene1voice

The roar of nearly 2,000 women chanting at the Ottawa Convention Centre is enough to drown out the pounding rain. The women have gathered for a morning plenary on "Breaking Barriers" before heading to workshops at the University of Ottawa.

This morning plenary is one of four that took place at the Women's Worlds 2011 Congress held in Ottawa and Gatineau from July 3rd to 7th. This 11th Women's World not only celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first congress, but it's also the first time for the congress to be held in Canada.

"An educated woman is a free woman," advised Malika Hamidi, an internationally respected voice on women and Islam, and one of the panellists at the Breaking Barriers plenary.

Educating ourselves and others was a common theme throughout the congress. This convergence of academia and grassroots activism brought together participants from 92 countries to probe the issues of "inclusions, exclusions, and seclusions: Living in a globalized world" with a feminist perspective. The mostly female participants represented a variety of perspectives and included a labour contingent from Canada.

Nine Canadian unions financially contributed to the congress including one of Canada's national unions, the National Union of Public and General Employees Union, which had over 70 women participating in the congress. BCGEU, British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union, a component of NUPGE, sponsored 34 women to the congress.

An impromptu labour gathering at the congress saw a packed room full of women representing a variety of regional unions as well as national unions such as NUPGE, PSAC (Public Services Alliance of Canada), CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers), CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), UFCW (United Food & Commercial Workers), and staff from the Canadian Labour Congress.

The attack on workers and human rights has been felt around the world and Canada is no stranger to the fight. This was very evident when one of the women, who was trying to express her disgust at the Harper Conservative attacks on civil society, apologized saying she couldn't say it in French. In reply, one of the French speaking women told her, "don't worry, we get it."

BCGEU is one of the most diverse unions in British Columbia and represents about 65,000 members with about half who work in direct provincial government service, and the other half who work in sectors such as community health, community social services, child care, post-secondary institutions, casinos, hotels and highways. Women make up about two-thirds (67 per cent) of the membership and the union is active in fights for women's rights at the workplace, in society and in international solidarity campaigns.

Besides taking in information at the congress, the labour participants such as BCGEU activist Judy Fox-McGuire were able to contribute their professional and activist knowledge. Fox-McGuire said, "We represented the voice of labour and were able to talk about the important role that unions play in improving the lives of women."

Over the four days, women participated in over 330 sessions covering issues concerning child care, health, food security, Indigenous women, Immigrant women, racism, discrimination, abuse, rape, sexuality, women's participation in politics, gender roles, human trafficking, sex work, globalization, media, education, humour, technology, disabilities, and labour rights.

On violence against women, BCGEU activist LaVerne Bernier said, "You think it's in your own backyard and really it's worldwide. It's worse in other countries. In other countries, the abuse of women is far greater than I can imagine. We need to focus on education and stopping poverty worldwide..."

NUPGE staff Brenda Hildahl agrees. "The congress provides you with a broader perspective of women and what they're dealing with around the world. And it also reminds you about extending sisterhood around the world."

"Imagine trying to leave home to get water & firewood & possibly getting raped by soldiers. Human security issues in Darfur. #ww2011" from twitter @lorene1voice

Several workshops had facilitators who shared their or other women's experiences of brutality and violence in their countries. Women in Darfur worry about sending their daughters to school because soldiers beat and rape women "to change the colours of the babies." Women in Somalia must not talk to or shake the hand of a man other than their husband. Women wearing pants receive 40 lashes and a 13-year-old girl is stoned to death for adultery when her "crime" was being raped.

While Canadian labour activists are fighting for the rights for women in other countries, they are also mindful of the need to fight for rights at home for Indigenous women and also to stop the erosion. The congress participants took part in a march to parliament to call for justice for missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. 

Hildahl finds the "slow slide back" of rights is deceiving. She says she has seen some women who don't see the erosion and some who "don't know that women in Canada don't have pay equity." "We have made a lot of gains, but the real danger is if we don't push back. We'll be in the same place as the sisters in other countries."

"When you go home what will you create, give back as powerful as the medicine bundle? #ww2011" from twitter @lorene1voice quoting an Aboriginal elder

Tools such as social media have allowed easier access to information across the world, but ultimately it's the personal contacts and real stories that engage people. At the congress there were people engaging in conversations in the formal settings as well as the informal such as the late night chats at the university residences.

Faith Johnston, a BCGEU activist, commented on what she'd be taking back back. "I really appreciated the opportunity to hear about the research that has been done and the scientific information to support women." She says there was a lot of good information about women and body images and she is getting more information from the researchers so that she can share it with other BCGEU members.

The Women's Worlds 2011 activists came from around the world to share their stories and were inspired to be with other activists who are just as passionate about making the world a better place. They left with a deeper understanding of the issues facing women and a hope that even if we can't always agree, we will keep working together to win the fight for our collective rights.

Who has the power? We have the power.

Lorene Oikawa is a provincial vice president with the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU) and a human rights activist who frequently live tweets from events.

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