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We Do The Satya Interview with June Zeitlin
Sixteen years ago, former U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug and long-time
activist and writer Mim Kelber had what then seemed like a radical idea:
bring 1,500 women from more than 80 countries together to hammer out a
plan for the planet’s future the world’s political leaders
would pay attention to. The manifesto they created in Miami in 1991, the
Women’s Action Agenda, laid the groundwork for women’s advocacy
at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. There, the connections between gender
equality, women’s rights and prospects for sustainable development
were recognized in the outcome document (Agenda 21), breaking new ground
in global policy debates and, ever since, in actions on the ground.
The gravel-voiced Abzug, who was never seen without her trademark hat, and her
college friend Kelber, anticipated the need for an organization that would put
pressure on the world’s governments (often through the United Nations),
as well as support women in struggles for environmental, political, economic
and social equality around the world. Together, they established the Women’s
Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), among whose founding board members
was Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. WEDO is now headed by former Ford Foundation
program officer June Zeitlin who, as a younger lawyer, was on Abzug’s Congressional
staff. Today, from an office in midtown Manhattan, WEDO continues the work Abzug
and Kelber began nearly two decades ago. The UN Environment Programme recently
named WEDO one of its “Champions of the Earth.” Mia MacDonald spoke
with June Zeitlin about WEDO’s current work, its feminist history, the
barriers to realizing its vision, and what gives her hope.
How would you define what the Women’s Environment and Development
WEDO works to make sure that gender equality and women’s human rights are
at the center of global policy, particularly relating to development, economic,
social justice and human rights questions. It’s also a great acronym. What
we really mean is “we do” and we do a lot!
Tell me about a few of the initiatives WEDO is working on.
One is to bring women [into governments] in sufficient numbers so they can shape
the policy agenda. We have a “50/50—Get the Balance Right” campaign,
because part of getting different policy outcomes has to do with who’s
sitting at the table. The campaign has a lot of resonance because it’s
fair. How can you have a democracy where half the people are not represented?
But it’s not just about numbers. It’s about social change. When women
get into governmental positions, their perspectives and experiences change the
environment and economics—they improve things for the poor. We have been
working with groups in about 18 countries that have adopted this campaign.
We have also been working on trying to integrate gender equality more directly
into environment and sustainable development. Linking these issues together to
bring women’s voices and perspectives to conflict prevention, peace building
and reconciliation really hasn’t been done. We feel this is a gap WEDO
is uniquely positioned to fill.
In addition, we do economic justice work. Most recently we’ve been looking
at transnational corporations and their impacts, particularly on women. A lot
of work has been done around corporate accountability and social responsibility
related to the environment and some labor rights issues, but there’s been
very little attention to women. We recently launched a new website, the Misfortune
500 (www.misfortune500.org), which documents the impacts of corporate practices
on women in many parts of the world—highlighting both bad and good. We
hope this can be a resource and an advocacy tool for women to use in their own
countries and for us to use globally.
How did WEDO gather such an amazing group of women from Africa, Asia,
and the Caribbean as founding board members? Many U.S. women’s organizations
are still pretty parochial and were more so back then.
Bella was looking for people like herself—leaders in their own countries
who could also be effective globally. She recognized, and in this she was ahead
of her time, that as an American, even a very powerful American, if you’re
working at the UN you need to be representative of all regions of the world.
Exactly how she connected with people like Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva
from India, I’m not sure. But unlike other strong, powerful people, Bella
was not afraid of surrounding and connecting herself with strong, powerful figures.
[In fact] she saw this as a way of extending the agenda.
Why do you think more groups don’t address the complexities of
the planet and the people on it are facing?
They are probably smarter than we are. It’s easier to focus on one sector.
You are very clear about what you are doing, you can articulate it succinctly,
and quite frankly, it’s easier to raise money. One of the legacies of Bella
and Mim and the founding WEDO board is this holistic vision of sustainable development
that connects [many movements]. It’s always a challenge to convey what
we do very crisply to an audience, but we do see all the complexities and the
interlinkages, and we think that makes our work much stronger.
Also, if you’re trying to affect women’s lives day to day, they don’t
compartmentalize their lives and say, “well now I’m working on livelihoods
and income generation, then I’m going to go home and do reproductive health
and food security.” They view the world holistically and so do we. It’s
important to have that vision in front of us so we know where we are going, but
you also need to break it down into specific steps so it’s manageable.
More and more people see the shortcomings of a narrower approach. But it’s
hard to get out of that way of working because it makes things so much more complicated.
What are some obstacles to what WEDO is trying to achieve with respect to the
The general public, in part because of the media, in part because of the way
the issues are presented, has trouble seeing the connections and links. In the
U.S., the environment is seen as “let’s protect our national parks.” It’s
not really about people. It’s also something that’s taken for granted.
[Many people say] “climate change is a long way off; it’s not a problem
that affects our lives,” so it hasn’t been much of a motivational
issue. A lot of the environmental groups feed into that perception instead of
highlighting the linkages between environmental justice and economic justice,
which are so inextricable. This allows people working on economic issues to ignore
the environment, and allows the mainstream to say, “well, those who are
talking about economics, the environment and human rights is some small fringe.” We
need a different way of looking at issues linking environment, economic justice,
human rights and women’s rights.
What is the legacy of Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber? Many young people—feminists
even—don’t know about Bella, let alone Mim.
Mim and Bella were students together at Hunter College—Bella the student
[body] president and Mim the editor of the school newspaper. They had a partnership
all their lives of mutual commitment to radical transformational social change
and to activism, and they respected the contribution that each brought to it.
Mim was the writer. She was behind the scenes. Bella was the public person, the
one who could connect to the audience. But needless to say, they were both very
strong women with very strong ideas. If you got in the middle of one of their
arguments, watch out. After Bella died [in 1998], Mim played a very important
role in ensuring that WEDO stayed the course and continued to pursue the ideas,
approaches and the activism it had under both of their leadership.
I always think that’s sad when people, especially young women, don’t
know who Bella is, because she was an amazing woman. She not only helped lead
the women’s movement in the U.S. and globally, but was a leader of the
peace movement, the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. She
helped the women’s movement to see environmental issues as important. There
aren’t too many other figures who were leaders of national and global movements,
and who, as Americans, saw the connection between U.S. and international advocacy.
The other thing I would have to say, especially given the political situation
in the U.S. today, is that Bella was unafraid to speak truth to power. She knew
when to do it, how to do it, and to do it so she was heard. And she was heard,
by U.S. presidents and world leaders. But she also knew how to connect at the
community level, so she could be a strong voice expressing their aspirations
in the halls of power. We at WEDO try to live up to that legacy but it’s
a very large legacy!
What gives you hope, given the world we’re living in?
The good thing about working globally is that something good is always happening
somewhere in the world. Sometimes these days it gets a bit harder to find. But
the past year or so have been an amazing time for women’s leadership at
the highest levels in a number of countries. We’ve seen the election of
the first woman head of state in Africa, in Liberia [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf],
and in Chile, the election of Michelle Batchelet, who comes out of Chile’s
feminist movement. She’s already formed a cabinet that’s 50/50 [women/men]
and she’s insisting on this throughout the government. I suspect Chile
and Liberia are not the first countries people would think of having a woman
head of state. We are increasing the numbers and also the kinds of women who
are elected and their platforms, which really are about progressive change for
all women but particularly for poor women. That gives me hope.
Women are playing an increasing role at the local and national level in trying
to build peace and reconciliation. This is mostly under the radar: Israeli and
Palestinian women are setting up a new women’s peace commission. Of course,
it’s not supported by the government in either location, but it’s
an effort to cross borders. We have been in contact with women in Iraq, as other
women’s groups have, trying to build connections, and we’re looking
at the possibility of trying to reach out to women in Iran. This is something
women’s groups have been doing at a community level without a lot of fanfare.
But translating these ties into formal peacemaking processes within new governments
and reconstruction [efforts] is a challenge.
Issues of reproductive and sexual rights are a flashpoint. But while we are seeing
a lot of backlash, in response to that backlash, many governments are taking
much stronger positions to defend and advance the rights of women. To me the
biggest challenge is still on the economic front. Despite an acknowledgment that
something has to be done to address growing inequality, there is still a failure
to fundamentally alter or challenge the dominant economic ideology that is having
such a negative impact on the poor, poor women and poor countries. I’m
not sure how we’re going to get there.
Mia MacDonald, a Satya consulting editor, is a
policy analyst and writer on gender, environment, development and rights. Recently,
she collaborated with
a set of proposals for the UN Environment Programme. One of her indelible memories
is Bella Abzug, using a wheelchair but unbowed, debating sexual and reproductive
rights with the Vatican’s chief negotiator (a male priest) in the media
center of the 1995 UN women’s conference in Beijing. For information on
WEDO see www.wedo.org.