The significance of the Women’s March: One year on

12 April 2018

The following article is an extended version of an interview with Caitlin Figueiredo and Amy Blain, which first appeared in the March 2018 edition of Y Action. In this interview, Caitlin and Amy discuss their involvement in the 2018 Canberra Women’s March, and its continued significance.

The global Women’s Marches are the most recent protests to stem from the Women’s Movement. The Women’s March is a global show of solidarity against oppression, and aims to redistribute privilege to create an equal society for all.

The most recent protests, sparked in 2017 by international outrage over global leadership and policy changes which aim to erode hard won rights, drew a range of social justice movements together. It has provided a platform for young women and activists who are new to feminism to contribute to a revitalised movement.

YWCA Canberra spoke to Caitlin Figueiredo and Amy Blain who organised the 2018 Canberra Women’s March, to discover why they believe the March is important, why Canberra needs one, and what we can all do to be the change we wish to see.

Caitlin Figueiredo is a proud multicultural woman, award-winning entrepreneur, and gender equality activist. She is the CEO of Jasiri Australia and Lake Nite Learning, and the Chair of Women’s March Canberra. Caitlin is a Queens Young Leader, Obama White House Changemaker, and Board Director of AYAC.

Amy Blain is a gender equality advocate with extensive experience in both government and not-for-profit sectors. Amy is actively involved in community-led initiatives, including as co-lead for ACT-based Community Engagement Advocacy program, Young Women Speak Out, and as the ACT representative for Girls Uniform Agenda.

What is the Women’s March all about?

The Women’s March is a worldwide protest movement largely reacting against Donald Trump becoming President of the United States last year. It was a peaceful single-day protest, on 21 January 2017, that saw people across the world unite in response to anti-women and other offensive statements made by Trump.  People around the world were clearly showing that Trump’s position on women’s rights, immigration, healthcare, reproductive rights, the environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion and workers’ rights – did not reflect their views.  It was the largest single day protest in US history that started an ongoing movement. There were 637 marches across every continent, including here in Canberra (organised by Codie Bell), involving over 6 million people.  The Women’s March roots were in “answering a call to show up and be counted as those who believe in a world that is equitable, tolerant, just and safe for all, one in which the human rights and dignity of each person is protected and out planet is safe from destruction.”

On the anniversary of the first Women’s March, Look Back, March Forward events worldwide were an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the global network and renew pledges to continue the movement in 2018.  #MeToo at the end of 2017 and #TimesUp at the start of 2018, remind us of the ongoing need to stand up and speak out against, injustice, inequality, harassment and violence against women.

For more information on the Women’s March:

How does the Canberra March fit into the global women’s movement?

Women’s March Canberra is part of the Women’s March movement, we’re working locally to advance those same global aims for equality, justice, freedom and inclusion.  Women living in the ACT experience disadvantage, often multiple and intersecting; those disadvantages are amplified if those women are Indigenous, women of colour, women of faith, women living with disabilities, young women, older women, trans women or non-binary people.

We know that there are many women living in the ACT that will have their own #MeToo story. We know that Indigenous women and children in the ACT have a complex experience of family violence and that local specialised services, like Beryl Women’s Inc., are under-resourced and cannot meet increasing demand for services. We know that there are women struggling to earn a living wage – like our Early Childhood Educators. We know women with disabilities face barriers to securing employment  We know that trans women and non-binary people face huge discrimination.  We know the voices of women of colour often go unheard. We know that there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that our homes, our schools,  our workplaces, our community, are inclusive, accessible and safe places for everyone.

What motivated you to organise the 2018 March?

In October 15th,  2017 #MeToo went viral. Within 24 hours, the movement founded by social activist and community organiser Tanya Burke, was tweeted more than 500,000 times from the original post by actress Alyssa Milano. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. Suddenly the floodgates opened with women all around the world finding the courage to share their personal stories of abuse and sexual harassment.

After a few hours, our Facebook feeds had been inundated by Canberra women sharing their own posts to their friends and local group pages. It was a painful reminder that behind the statistics of 1 in 3 women will experience physical violence in her lifetime, sexual harassment and gender based violence is alive and well.

This is why, after finding out that Canberra was not going to host a Women’s March in 2018, a group of local activists and supporters gathered together to create a unity event for allies to mobilise.

As the event organisers, we believe it’s important to bring people together, to show unity, to show solidarity, to acknowledge that our work is not yet done.  Events like this are symbolically significant.  Giving platforms to minority women to be heard, matters; them being seen and their voices being heard by the community they live in, matters.  People need to understand their lived realities to realise that we can and must do better.

We know that global movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp resonate with the Canberra community, that people want change. We are clear that the Women’s March is not a moment, but a movement.

In organising this grass roots protest, what were your biggest challenges?

We wanted this event to be inclusive and accessible to everyone and to make sure that it was a safe space from the language we used, to the positions we took. We wanted to offer platforms to speakers that represented the voices of those that face multiple and intersecting disadvantage, with authenticity.  It’s a fine balancing act to provide platforms to speakers – some known, some unknown – and for those choices to always be supported.  And there’s only so many speeches you can have at any one event.  We were incredibly lucky with our speakers and entertainers that generously donated their time, skill and words.

On a very practical level, the logistics of organising a large event, in two weeks on a $0 budget is incredibly challenging!  There are costs that have to be covered – Welcome to Country, St John’s Ambulance, permits for Public Land Access. We were incredibly lucky that UnionsACT partnered with us and hosted the event under their Public Liability Insurance. Getting the paperwork in and the necessary approval and permit in time, meant the event almost didn’t happen!

Finding a trusted team of volunteers that can all provide input when it’s needed, that can be flexible and adaptable and cover all the roles and responsibilities for the event is not easy. You need a sound system so your speakers can be heard and people that know how to set up for entertainers and speakers! There was a high level of planning and expertise from one of our volunteers to provide a safer place tent. We were lucky to have volunteers that were able to manage disruptors. We were incredibly lucky that we had two AUSLAN interpreters donate their time, some very generous donations from the volunteer team to cover event costs and some very skilled professional photographers that captured the event perfectly.  There were a lot of long hours and late nights to make the event happen and for it to run smoothly.  There are definitely lessons to be learnt and we can always improve, but we’re really pleased with the community response.

This year’s March featured a Unity Circle instead of a procession. Can you explain what led to this decision?

From the beginning, we knew that we did not want to hold a march. We wanted to design an event that differentiated from last year’s event and was also unique enough to be a draw card for people to attend. Our view was supported by the national Women’s March organising committees in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide who decided to hold Unity Circles instead of marches on the basis of inclusivity, making the movement more accessible for everyone – particularly for people with disabilities, elderly people, pregnant women and children.  We were also conscious of the heat and protecting people against sun or heat stroke. We feel that there’s real power in the coming together in one space and people connecting to the movement.

Two days before the March, we worked with one of the Sydney organisers to plan out the Unity Circle. Our original goal was to create a human chain from Garema Place to the Canberra Times Fountain in an attempt to stretch our presence towards Parliament House. We worked out we needed 400 Canberrans to join us on the day. Unfortunately, we fell just shy of that – but that’s the great thing about activists, we work best on our feet. Half way into the speeches, we instructed our volunteers to form a Unity Spiral. As soon as the speeches were finished, our volunteers began lining up, followed by 300 plus Canberrans. The sight was glorious. Signs were lifted into the air, we danced to the music of Sparrow Folk and sang in unison to Miley Cyrus’ The Climb performed by Sophie Edwards and Lucy Sugerman.

This moment was a real highlight for our organising committee. And while there was a few things that went wrong, from the incorrect chants being used instead of the chants we had worked on to ensure they were as inclusive as possible, to the sun being a little to blinding – for those ten minutes Garema Place pulsated with hope, Canberra came together and showed that we are united.

Why do you think we still need a women’s movement in 2018?

Next month we will celebrate the 105th anniversary of International Women’s Day and in that time, while women’s rights have progresses – we’re not there yet. We’re still looking at 170 years to reach pay equity, we don’t have equal representation in the institutions of power, women are still unsafe in public and in their own homes. We’re seeing a resurgence of far right thinking worldwide that is walking back the progress that’s been made in addressing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. We need to keep on moving in the the right direction and to make sure the next steps take us forward, not further back.

We see with every strong movement like #MeToo that there is a strong counter-movement, the one that is resisting and holding back change. That tries to deny and silence the lived experience of those that identify as women.

As long as there are millions of girls around the world who are denied an education because of their gender, sanitary items labeled as ‘luxury items’, women of colour unable to ‘lean in’, trans people excluded from the debate, one woman a week dies because of gender based violence or the hundreds of other problems that still need to be tackled – we still need a women’s movement.

How do you envision gender equality progressing, that also takes an intersectional approach?

“There is no revolution without intersectional feminism” was one of the best signs at the Women’s March. It’s exactly right. We have to address gender and all other social inequalities or we won’t get to where we want to be. We have to bring all women with us.

We also have to recognise that feminism without intersectionality is self-serving. But we’re lucky that everyday the movement is progressing thanks to the voices of brave women and allies, social media and the desire to ensure that no one is left behind.

The internet has provided a fantastic platform for people from minority backgrounds to share their lived realities and highlight the ongoing discrimination and inequality they are faced with everyday. It’s no longer socially acceptable for individuals, governments or organisations to focus on issues that just affect ‘one type’ of woman. Instead, this new wave of feminism is being led by activists like the Canberra Women’s March organising committee who recognises the need for a multifaceted and intersectional approach to issues.

Without an intersectional lense, the gender equality movement cannot be anti-oppressive because it is not possible to tease apart the oppressions that people are experiencing. For example, we chose two of our speakers, Nip and Gayana Wijewickrema not only because they are our good friends or because they run a social-enterprise which supports people with disabilities earn competitive wages, but because their lives are truly intersectional. Their young ages, racism they experience as women of colour and Gayana’s disability cannot be separated from their gendered oppression. Similar to a queer person with an invisible disability cannot choose which part of their identity is mode in need of liberation.

If we want to live in a world which achieves the social, political and economic equality of all genders then we, as individuals, first need to take time to reflect on our privilege and account for the fact that there are those around us, who require additional support. We must take upon ourselves the desire to learn about issues and identities that do not impact us personally. Secondly, we must be mindful that feminism is more than ending sexism, it’s also about ending the interconnected systems of oppression that affect women and and the LGBTQIA* community in different ways. If you’re organising an event or you’re apart of a group, make sure you avoid centering your feminism around around yourself or people of privilege. At all times, you should consider involving women of colour and women from minority backgrounds in the debate and at the table. When you look around the room and the general populous looks like yourself, then opinions and ideas will be excluded. If you need help finding diverse communities to join your cause, reach out for help – you don’t have to have all the answers or get it right, as long as you make an effort. Which leads to our final point – Be willing to make mistakes. As women, we need to embrace imperfectionism. We will never get it right the first time and that’s okay! Building an inclusive society will take a lot of trials and errors, as long as we try and be open to learning and hearing others opinions, then the movement will continue to progress.

As organisers of the Canberra March, we understand that adopting an intersectional framework is difficult. And certainly we could not do it alone, without the support of other volunteers who felt safe to point out our faults. But once we recognized our mistakes, we moved forward with empathy and compassion, and we believe that by including multiple aspects of identity our event was enriched.

As Uieta Kaufusi, President of the Tongan Association said in her speech: “Let’s share and celebrate our diversity in every single form. Until we can accept one another’s diversity, we will never ever achieve equality…What I need for people to do is to listen, to hear my voice and then project it…We are proud, we are loud and we are women.”

Can you detail some small and practical steps each of us can take every day to improve gender equality?

We can make sure that we support other women – that we see strength in our collective power. That we mentor young women and seek mentorship from older women.  As our speaker Diana Abdel-Rahman said: “You cannot champion the cause of women by further alienating other women and building yourself up by tearing down the choices of other women…we are not interested in a feminism which disregards the voices and experiences and struggles of the underrepresented minority.”

We can make sure that our feminism and our work is intersectional and intergenerational – that we focus on our commonalities and respect and find ways across our differences.

We can call out sexism and discrimination wherever and whenever we see, feel or hear it.  That we won’t allow ourselves, or those around us, to be diminished by gender stereotypes and expectations.

That our allies do the same: to call out sexist and discriminatory behaviour; to require women working alongside them to be paid equally; to demand parental leave and shared parental responsibility; to share and co-manage household chores; to support, stand beside or stand down so women can take on leadership positions.

We can all join the Women’s March movement, stand in unity and solidarity and speak out against injustice and inequality.  We are a collective power for change.



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