Women Making Change Happen! Interview with Alejandra Scampini

'While in the past we have often been very defensive and less keen to negotiate our ideas, nowadays the situation is so drastic that we need to dialogue with other movements'. In this interview, Alejandra Scampini (AWID) explains how the feminist agenda on women and development issues has changed over the years by creating new connections with other development movements and synergies among local, regional and global dimensions of activism.

Interview with Alejandra Scampini, Strategic Initiative Manager, AWID. 

Q. What does it mean to be a feminist working in development today?

A. I have been a feminist activist for almost 15 years and my last four years have been very special in this journey since I have moved from the global to the local dimension. This has enabled me to see the faces and hear the voices of those women who are affected in the reality by the issues that we discuss when we go to UN conferences. In the last four years I have really seen what lack of accountability or lack of advancement in women's rights may represent in practice.

Working as a feminist in development has become more and more complex over the years. The more women's rights have advanced in the agenda, the more we as women's rights advocates - have engaged with new issues like environment, food security, governance, aid, trade. This indicates the complexities of the scenarios in which we move. Ten years ago the relevance for development of issues like religious fundamentalisms, conflict and war was not as obvious as today. In recent years these new issues have been incorporated in the feminist agenda, also as a result of the multiple crisis. These complexities make more challenging first to understand and assess the situation, and then to think about solutions. The more I work with other development actors, the more I see that having a women's rights lens helps me to grasp these complexities in a way that other colleagues - who focus on single issues like food sovereignty or environment - cannot do. Feminists bring the possibility of looking at the contexts and at the inter-linkages, in a way that other movements have not been able to do. Every single aspect that has to do with a person's life is interrelated. For instance, we cannot just look at the sustainability of a person through an economic lens: securing economic empowerment to a woman may not be enough if that woman cannot have control over that economic empowerment.

I have seen women in local communities achieving access to land, and being entitled by constitution to buying it; however, this may not always be helpful if women cannot take decisions about what to grow or how to use their incomes. This is to say that from a feminist perspective the achievement of women empowerment is a much more complex challenge. Beyond the public sphere, we need to look at the private sphere of women's life - too often neglected by non feminist activists. This is why in development it can be sometimes difficult to negotiate with our partners from other movements. This is what I mean by complexity, but at the same time it is compulsory to bring these complexities and inter-linkages into the development world.

Q. The creation of UN Women has been celebrated as a major step towards a commitment to gender equity and the rights of women. What are your expectations on the impact that the new body will have on the struggle of women's globally?

A. First of all, we have to be grateful and congratulate to the women's movements that have campaigned for the creation of this UN entity for women. It is a sign that things can be achieved when a movement is able to create, organize and cross-link global-local synergies. It would have been impossible to have the eloquence, the strategy and the capacity to campaign for this, without the knowledge, the experiences and the assessment of what is happening at national and local level. Through the many processes of strategizing and getting together - like the World Social Forum and other spaces where the movement has met - we have learnt that local, regional and global dimensions cannot be kept divided. We need more and more of that articulation with the local and the national, especially because today the situation at the global level is very difficult. We are often very pessimistic about the advances that can be achieved at the global level, and sometimes it can be more feasible to interact with our governments and with stakeholders at local and national levels. This does not mean we should neglect the global level, but rather that when concrete solutions cannot be achieved globally, there are bilateral and/or regional negotiations which - even though they are difficult too - can be more easily achieved.

Q. You manage the 'AWID Influencing Development Actors initiative'. How do you do bridge the local and the global in that respect?

A. We keep focusing on the context of the crisis in which our work takes place, and what means to be impacted by a systemic crisis where everything - environment, food, climate, finance - is interrelated. In our practice we try to provide spaces for women's groups who are working on alternative solutions at local level. For instance right now we are finalizing the systematization of proposals that have been pushed for many years by urban and indigenous movements around food sovereignty. We provide not only spaces for these groups to come together and learn how to challenge the crisis; we also bring in economists and activists - who usually do not have the time or the space to engage with local women groups - to discuss the potential of alternatives and what the lessons from this crisis are.

So, the women active at local level can say: 'Ok given your awareness about the macro context and the situation of financial flows, markets, debt, and trade, can you consider what we are doing at the local level and regional levels, and tell us if there is a possibility that at least in certain contexts and with certain basic elements in place - like democracy and active civil society we can find solutions to our challenges?'

Nowadays synergies among activists from different fields are absolutely necessary. This may be another difference with the past feminist movements: while in the past we have often been very defensive and less keen to negotiate our ideas, nowadays the situation is so drastic that we need to dialogue with other movements.

Q. Youth is one of the focus areas of AWID's work. What are the key strategies, challenges and potential for mobilizing young women? What can an inter-generational exchange between younger and older women bring to feminist activism?

A. Although this is not my area of expertise, I can say that AWID has a double strategy. First we keep our focus on younger women and try to see how different issues impact on them: see for instance the AWID's brief document on the impact of the crisis on young women. Then we give young women the chance to be in every space and understand every issue regardless of their age; we don't ask them to work necessarily on issues related to their age. Sometimes the presence of young women is instrumental: for example when debates have to include 'a young woman', 'a black woman', 'a lesbian woman' - this putting of people in categories does not allow for their real voices to be heard.

In regard to what young women have brought to AWID, well, there are many young women who are active part of the organization and they occupy positions of power: they are everywhere, and everyone listens to each other regardless of age. It's not that AWID thinks 'we have to incorporate young women'. AWID promotes a natural process of inclusion of all engaged women and the inter-generational dialogue is there all the time.

Q. Since you come from an educational background - can you give us any insights on the linkages between education, women's activism and development?

A. I am an educator and I spent eleven years working in on education and focusing on popular education and life-long learning. From my experience of feminist activist promoting education as a fundamental right for all women (including adult women), I have seen how women have been using education to change their lives, and the fundamental value of it. Education can be translated and interpreted in many ways, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that everything we do be it capacity building, dialogues, research action - is related to education. From my point of view, there is no question that education has to be part of our daily work, but with the understanding of the fact that education has to take different forms depending on the context. During my experience, I've realized that women's movements have not been very active on education; they have often focused only on basic education or girls education. There is less interest for life-long learning, training or education for work, and I have sometimes found difficult to involve my sisters from the movement in the education for women movement. It can be more attractive to work on issues such as sexual health and reproductive rights. The perception is that although education is needed, it is more important to look at issues like poverty; however by working with local communities one can see how much 'education' women do all the time: by transferring knowledge from the mother to the daughter or from one community to another, they learn how to use water and to preserve seeds. So you realize that everything is about education. It is unfortunate that women movements haven't been much active about education movement, also the education movement can be gender blind.

We would have needed the support of strong women's activism in so many debates  when we had to defend adult education for women for instance. Instead, at least in my experience, it has been very difficult to interlink education and gender and to attract women's movements to work in solidarity with activists in the education movement.

Interview by Giulia Frova, Intern, SID Secretariat

Alejandra Scampini is strategic initiative manager at AWID. Alejandra is a passionate Uruguayan feminist activist and educator by training. Before joining AWID she worked for ActionAid as the Women's Rights coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. Alejandra also worked with REPEM for more than 10 years where she gained vast experience in women's rights, education and development advocacy (Source: AWID).


Photo: MrGrau_2009/flickr