July 7 was the last day of the 11th International Women’s Worlds Conference, held this week in Ottawa with the attendance of thousands of feminists from around the world. The conference hosted a variety of workshops, presentations, conversations, art installations, actions and more.
Featuring daily at Women’s Worlds was the multi-lingual, multi-media exhibit Global Fleshmapping/ Les Draps Parlent/ La Resistencia de Las Mujeres: Prostitution in a Globalized World. Presented by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and Montreal’s Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle, the exhibit incorporated interactive videos, games and 70 used bedsheets as canvasses on which women from across the country have expressed their resistance to prostitution and sex trafficking. On each day of the conference, 16 women from around the world came together in spontaneous, public consciousness-raising discussions about the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women in their own areas. This group included women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, academics, community organizers and others.
The organizers began the last session of the international conversation at Global Fleshmapping by introducing a declaration written and signed by some of the indigenous women at Women’s Worlds. The declaration condemns prostitution as a form of colonially imposed patriarchal violence against Aboriginal women. Responding to an open invitation to all indigenous women to read and consider signing this declaration, women from the Sami region in the North of Norway, the island of Okinawa that has been annexed by Japan, as well as women from the nations of this land came to the table to sign their names. Jeanette Lavell took a moment to explain that she was signing to oppose the legalization of prostitution on behalf of all of the organizations that form the Native Women’s Association of Canada, because “as Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit and Metis women, we know through our traditions and teachings that this is not who we are.”
For the last conversation of Global Fleshmapping, the organizers opened a discussion of how to maintain and build the international solidarity that had been constructed over the course of organizing the multi-layered exhibit. Many women spoke about strategies like writing and publicizing declarations such as the indigenous women’s declaration; in particular, Young Sook Cho from South Korea told the group about a large meeting of survivors of prostitution in the Asia Pacific region who produced such a declaration together.
Others stressed the need to understand prostitution and other forms of violence against women in different parts of the world in their own cultural context. For example, Esohe Agathise explained the “desperate condition” in sub-Saharan Africa, where she is harassed for speaking out about the trafficking of women because feminism is considered by some to be a Western imposition, or because some consider the cause of trafficking to be that “women are not giving their daughters sufficient moral training.” Among other topics of concern, many women drew attention to the connection between militarism and prostitution.
Suzuyo Takazato from Okinawa described the growth of prostitution as a result of the U.S military base that has remained on her island since the Vietnam War, suggesting that “militarism is the core element in maintaining prostitution.” Clorinde Zéphir from Haiti confirmed Takazato’s sentiment in telling the attendees about the destruction wrought on Haiti by the militia and weapons trade: “We know how rape and prostitution are linked to militarism. Everywhere where there has been troops, brothels are born. And then when the army leaves, the prostitution becomes naturalized.” Both women proposed that the abolitionist movement develop solidarity with anti-militarism groups, and should “be particularly dynamic in mobilizing countries where militarization is a problem in poor countries” as Zéphir said. Sigma Huda from Bangladesh nuanced this analysis by referring to the example of the indigenous women of Bangladesh that suffer “rapes at random with impunity by the army” in the area to remind the participants that “militarization is not just limited to external forces, but internal as well.” Trisha Baptie from Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating corroborated the international voices with her experience on the West Coast of British Columbia, where the military personnel “were a huge part of the economy and abuse that happened when they would come into port.” It was clear from this global conversation this past week that, as organizer Lee Lakeman said, the abolition of prostitution “cannot be a single issue campaign” because prostitution is deeply connected to systems of militarism, capitalism and colonialism.
As another example, Alice Lee from Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution asked participants to pay attention to immigration policies in their own countries. She was concerned about the divisive effect of Canada’s current immigration policy that legitimizes legal immigrants and jails illegal migrants; “it sets a divide between them and is hard to bridge that gap.” This was a particularly salient issue in the context of the fact that the Canadian government did not process the visas of several women from African countries who were to deliver presentations at the Women’s Worlds conference. Participants suggested that Canadian women could have lobbied their government more on this issue, which underlined the connecting theme of the last Global Fleshmapping conversation: feminists with more privilege by way of geography, race, or class are obliged to use that privilege to advantage their sisters. In order to build international solidarity, abolitionists must support each other in global campaigns to end prostitution by whatever means they have.
Unanimously, the participants stressed the need to continue the conversations that had been started this week. However, all agreed when facilitators Diane Matte and Lee Lakeman suggested that the situation for women will not change without an autonomous feminist movement that is not indebted to government, corporations, or any other institutions, economically or ideologically. To achieve a woman’s world, the kind that this conference invokes with its name, feminists must build a global, independent women’s movement in which the central objective is to call upon women around the world to participate in the liberation of all women.
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