Billed as ‘the largest international gathering of women to ever take place in Canada’, last week’s Women’s Worlds 2011 featured strong representation from a range of women academics, activists and community organizers from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Women’s Worlds is an international gathering of feminists and women’s equality activists, as well as academics studying different dimensions of gender and women’s lives. It’s held every few years; the previous Women’s Worlds event took place in Spain in 2008. Last week’s 5-day meeting in Ottawa was the 11th such gathering since the first one was held in Israel in 1981.

And it truly is international. With keynote speakers from Australia, Belgium, Haiti, Ecuador and elsewhere, this year’s event featured almost 2000 speakers and attendees from 92 different countries.

Among this prestigious international gathering, Newfoundland and Labrador’s feminists held their own.

Bonnie Rotchford is a project manager with the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network. Together with three other women from NAWN they held a session about the organization’s ‘Aboriginal Women on the Verge of Rising’ project. This was a 14-month program which trained 56 Mi’kmaq women in strategies around sexual and domestic assault, date violence, emotional violence and bullying. After the 14 months those women went back to their home communities around the island to provide the workshops to other women. Rotchford said women from around the world were thrilled to learn about these local initiatives.

“…it was very humbling to know that in an hour and a half you’d made such an impact.”

“The response to our session was absolutely phenomenal. All the workshops that we do are culturally based, so we started off with a traditional aboriginal smudge, which is basically a prayer ceremony. Then we drummed and sang and had a prayer by our elder. Then we went into our PowerPoint presentation which included video from women talking about our experiences with the training. The response was phenomenal, and it was very humbling to know that in an hour and a half you’d made such an impact.”

“We’re working in our communities to make an impact and stop violence against women, and women from around the world are doing the same thing, and it was very empowering and very humbling. “

Women organizing on a global scale

Rotchford said the scale of the Women’s Worlds event was unlike anything she’d experienced before.

“It was a real eye-opener. There were 92 countries represented, almost 2000 women from all corners of the world, it was quite an experience. When you’re talking about being sent from a small community in Newfoundland, to be sent to this…it was very empowering.”

She said it was both encouraging and inspiring to be able to make contacts with women and organizations from around the world, and to exchange knowledge and ideas around the issues that concern them.

“The common thread for me was that in all the sessions and things that we took in, it’s women that are the driving force behind change.”

Debbie Adams is another Newfoundlander who was present at the event. Originally from Upper Island Cove, she currently works as a diversity consultant, with a special focus on women in the trades.

“It was an awesome event – a real eye opener that gave me a new perspective on not only the broad range of challenges faced by women but the number of people who are doing amazing work to advance the causes,” she said.

Bridging academia and activism

Unlike academic conferences, Women’s Worlds sought to bring together the voices and experiences of women in communities around the world who are working for change. The combination of academics and activists was, according to Adams, one of the strengths of the event. One of the challenges she often faces in her own work is dealing with academics who think they know all the answers, and try to impose their views on communities that know better.

“The audience loved my perspective because it was the lived reality…But I can analyze, and I spoke on how underrepresented people need supports when they move into new spaces or break new ground. Sometimes those who advocate for their advancement don’t have a clue what it is they need. I spoke about my own encounter with the knowledge world at age 40 and how the academics had the answers but probably didn’t have the questions…There’s a real disconnect between theory and practice.”

“We heard from the ladies in Labrador who are working with marginalized women whose lives are impacted by prosperity in negative ways. As a family of tradespeople, we always see the benefit of construction but never the other side. It was an eye opener to see the impact of limited housing on those who can least afford it for example. It’s not rosy for everyone.”

“There’s a real disconnect between theory and practice.”

The over a dozen other Newfoundland and Labrador delegates presented on topics as varied as labour mobility, organizing against psychiatric violence, natural resource management, gender and the fisheries, doctor-patient relationships in pregnancy and childbirth, and more. There was also a session by a group of Inuit women on ‘The Importance of the Seal for Inuit Women’, where those attending got a literally hands-on introduction to the various ways seal is used in their communities. The women explained to the audience the various ways in which the loss of the sealing industry has devastated their families and communities.

Adams said one of the lessons delegates came away with was the need to raise awareness about the challenges women around the world face, particularly in the face of governments that often act as though such challenges have been resolved.

“I think we need to do a better job of convincing the younger folk that we still have a ways to go…Governments will be challenged by people who have found a new route to political leveraging. It’s an exciting time.”