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Corporate power and social change

CLAUD UPTON reports on a women’s empowerment symposium exploring activism on digital inclusion, human rights and climate justice

A RECENT symposium at the University of Portsmouth brought together women from around the world to share their insights into campaigning on progressive causes from climate justice to digital inclusion, anti-domestic violence to migrant support. 

The event entitled “Digital Innovation and Female Empowerment” was hosted by the PONToon project, established in 2017 to upskill marginalised young women in modern technologies to boost their employability, critical thinking and social/political awareness. 

Dorothy Guerrero, head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now, spoke about her organisation’s work with NGOs and social movements to combat poverty, racism, ecological devastation and corporate power, especially that of the pharmaceutical industry

Originally from the Philippines, Guerrero had her political awakening in the 1990s when she was protesting against the right-wing Marcos dictatorship’s extra-legal killings of student activists, trade unionists, community leaders and indigenous people’s rights champions. 

From then on, “I wanted to see social change and to analyse how social change happens,” she said.  

Guerrero proposed that the first step to solving problems such as climate injustice is political education about root material causes and international structures of oppression. 

“Many of us who are from developing countries share the perspective that climate change is the result of two factors,” she said. 

“Firstly, the historic and continuing unequal relations within human societies, which have a class, race and gender component. Secondly, an ecological crisis produced by the problematic relationships between humans and nature.”

According to Guerrero, the next step for such activism is to present radical — yet viable — alternatives to the status quo. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed the damage done by “decades of austerity and the push for privatisation” to countries like Britain and US, provides the opportunity for a “global reset” towards public spending, green technology and economic, social, gender and racial equality.  

Portsmouth City Councillor Claire Udy’s presentation addressed similar priorities. Having previously been “upset at Labour’s stance on the Iraq war,” she was inspired to join the party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015. 

She immediately “felt at home,” attending protests and joining the GMB union for whom she is now training as a rep. 

In her role as an independent socialist councillor since 2018, Udy has advocated on behalf of LGBTQ+ care leavers, helped to restore the council’s trade union secondment fund and successfully lobbied for higher spending on domestic violence services, which had been savaged by austerity cuts. 

“None of this would have happened if I was part of a political party,” she said, “and only in opposition for opposition’s sake.” 

Udy’s political independence has made her a better case worker, she claimed, personally visiting and supporting people in her ward, which is one of the poorest in Britain. 

But it has also won her enemies on the right. After making pro-Black Lives Matter statements she received death and rape threats via social media — a disturbingly common fate for women in politics today.

Udy will not be seeking re-election as a councillor because she believes that real politics “belongs in the community.” 

“Activism means direct action, as in going on strike and challenging the system,” she said. 

“I look up to the working-class women in my ward who have been involved in this stuff for years and years.”  

Grassroots activism was a key theme of a talk by Shipa Ahmed Khan, co-ordinator of the Cross Cultural Women’s Group (CCWG) that helps female migrants challenged by poverty, abuse, mental health issues, social alienation and low educational attainment. 

Aware that these problems were compounded by a lack of basic digital skills, Shipa worked with PONToon to train CCWG members to use word processing software, social media platforms and video cameras. 

The results were encouraging. 

“We were able to support the more isolated women and increase their confidence and self-esteem,” said Ahmed Khan. 

“They were motivated to go on to further learning and to search for jobs. Our courses helped them to feel less like they were being left behind in a world which revolves around technology.”

With the same ethos of female personal and political empowerment, the Interreg Europe-funded PONToon project has achieved similar outcomes for almost 1,500 socially deprived young women across southern Britain and northern France.

All the talks discussed above, and more, can be watched via the PONToon website (pontoonproject.eu).

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