Feminist leadership in action

Tamsin Smith interviews Damaris Ruiz, Yohanka Valdes, and Maritza Gallardo Lopez, from Oxfam’s Latin America & Caribbean (LAC) Regional Women’s Rights and Gender Justice group. They share five ways they are bringing feminist learning into the centre of our organization.

In the Dominican Republic, the Coalition for the Rights and Life of Women demonstrate to demand a presidential veto of a law criminalising abortion even in cases of rape or harm to the mother or baby. Credit: Lorena Espinosa, Oxfam in Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic, the Coalition for the Rights and Life of Women demonstrate to demand a presidential veto of a law criminalising abortion even in cases of rape or harm to the mother or baby. Credit: Lorena Espinosa, Oxfam in Dominican Republic.

Formed five years ago, the LAC Regional Women’s Rights and Gender Justice group comprises Oxfam staff and members of feminist and women’s rights organisations. They work externally to influence for women’s rights in the region, and internally to mainstream gender within Oxfam.

Those within LAC who have a deep commitment to women’s rights, have always found ways to talk and to support one another.
The group insists on maintaining their autonomy, and are unafraid to be a critical voice when needed. They are committed to working through consensus. As Damaris explains, ‘Those within LAC who have a deep commitment to women’s rights, have always found ways to talk and to support one another.’

Through their approach, the group have enjoyed some high-profile successes:

  • Their Breaking the Mould report has provided a solid evidence base, and sparked debate on social norms and belief systems around violence against women and girls (VAWG). It has been used to influence regional agendas, and has inspired others to use their methodology.
  • By promoting and strengthening strategic alliances they have helped to build new narratives on inequality and VAWG, and influence public debate. Specifically, they have worked to bring feminist journalists and women’s rights organisations together around the Enough Campaign.

The group’s work has also focused on influencing within Oxfam and they have been pivotal in strengthening feminist learning in our organization.

Their five-year regional agenda is now an integral part of the LAC regional influencing strategy. Pursuing this agenda will be the responsibility of LAC as a whole. They have agreed programme and campaign priorities, reviewed their ways of working, and reflected on how to promote the adoption of feminist principles in LAC.

So, what key learning do Damaris, Yohanka and Martiza have to share?

1. Create safe spaces for dialogue and learning  

Safe spaces – where staff can talk openly and without judgment – allow innovation. Yohanka says, it ‘enables us to have challenging visions about Oxfam’s work’ at all levels. It helps to build capacity and ‘provide mutual support between colleagues’.

Damaris echoes the feelings of many members, ‘it is a space where I feel supported, where I can share all my thoughts, where I can be Damaris in my entirety’. And beyond this, creates a network which ‘facilitates the coordination of the feminist movement in all its diversity.’

2. Speak with one voice to influence internally

Yohanka is convinced that ‘a shared regional vision of women’s rights is key to raising awareness and involvement within the confederation’. This includes structure, programme priorities, and themes. She stresses that a shared vision must be built through open participation.

3. Listen to, and learn from, women’s rights and feminist organisations

Maritza emphasises that a powerful lesson for Oxfam, is to ‘learn from the struggles and strategies of the feminist movement’. If Oxfam is serious about placing gender justice at the centre of our work, ‘it is very important, now more than ever, to consolidate our relationship with the women’s and feminist movements.’

4. Build alliances and strategic partnerships

Maritza reminds Oxfam to be humble, as ‘there are social and feminist movements that have fought far longer for women’s rights’. Damaris agrees, ‘it is vital to work with others – even when it requires more effort, more time – it must be done’.

5. Embrace our role as a convenor

We can add real value to the movement by facilitating and strengthening alliances. This helps the group to influence within regional and international spaces. As Maritza illustrates, ‘In Honduras we united rural and campesino women’s groups with the feminist movement, to work on a joint political agenda’. Their demands include a law guaranteeing access to credit for campesinos.

Moving beyond the rhetoric

The group play a powerful role in holding Oxfam to account. They invite us all ‘to reflect honestly on what it means to adopt feminist principles in your personal and work life’, and challenge us on how to become ‘an organization whose ways of working and priorities are based on feminist principles.’

In Damaris’ words, ‘now the challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric to transform our leadership model, our personal positions and commitments, and our commitments as an organization.’

Now more than ever, isn’t it time we all took up the challenge?

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Martin Walsh

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