Marianne Mollmann is Advocacy Director for the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
I am now in Los Angeles, on the last leg of my road-trip through the United States and Canada with Verónica Cruz, founder and director of the Mexican grassroots advocacy group, Las Libres (The Free Women). Las Libres works for access to safe and legal abortion in the conservative Mexican state of Guanajuato, so it is not surprising that social change – how to create and sustain it – is high on Verónica's agenda.
What might be surprising is that her reflections are universally applicable. Also to the groups that try to generate this change.
"You can't ever afford to get complacent with your work," Verónica told me Tuesday as we left a meeting with community based women's organizations in East Los Angeles. "We must all evaluate the impact our work has on creating durable social change – that's the key factor for doing things right."
In fact, setting priorities and planning for real change has been our main conversation topic throughout the week, from the panel discussion with Verónica and Dolores Huerta (the legendary founder of United Farm Workers) at the Feminist Majority's offices, over our visit to a model Rape Crisis Center in Santa Monica, to our lunch-time strategy session with latina and chicana women in East Los Angeles.
And we have come to a few conclusions.
First, we agreed, change happens through three main vehicles: conviction, financial incentives, or political pressure.
In the case of ensuring access to safe abortion for all women, an example of each of these three arguments would be something like this:
- Women have a right to decide over their bodies (conviction);
- The criminalization of abortion leads to adverse health complications, in particular for poor women, and this carries financial implications for the public health system (financial incentives); and
- Promoting access to legal abortion translates directly into votes (political pressure).
Secondly, we also had to admit, we, as a movement, often are trying too hard to convince the wrong people with the wrong arguments.
Few decision-makers agree to push for social change because we convinced them of the rightness of our cause – most respond better to financial or political pressure. But to build a durable movement, the logic is inverse: if you try to pressure or buy people to join your cause, your movement will disappear as soon as the incentives subside.
And yet so many groups we know – including political parties – do just the opposite: they use energy trying to convince decision-makers and resources trying to buy or pressure grassroots.
Third, change can be almost instantaneous if you start by really listening.
"We call it listening with all five senses," said Verónica. "That's what we try to do when we talk to women in the marginalized communities we work with. We say to them: let's see what problems you have, and what resources you have to overcome them. And that way, together, we can figure out a solution that is made possible by the women themselves."
No money, no enhanced infrastructure, not even access to any other education than just a basic understanding that women are human beings and that human being have certain inalienable rights.
Finally, durable social change can only come about through a movement.
Law and political changes are important and can create an impetus for deeper social change. But they can never be enough on their own. With regard to the issue of abortion, this – perhaps quite naïve – realization cuts both ways.
In South Dakota, for example, the movement behind the referendum to defeat the proposal to criminalize most abortions made it clear that a large group of convinced people can overcome a smaller group of decision-makers motivated by financial or political incentives. The legal change was not enough to change the mentality of the people of South Dakota, who knew that criminalizing abortion does not eliminate the need for it.
In Nicaragua, the financial and political incentives won out, at least for the moment. Despite a massive movement against the criminalization of abortion; despite countless letters and petitions to the Nicaraguan Congress; despite women already dying in hospitals because they cannot get access to a therapeutic abortion; despite all of this, Nicaraguan politicians virtually fell over each over to demonstrate that they were tougher then the next guy on sending women to prison for abortion. Why? Because in Nicaragua, it seems that it is more important to have the church and the commercial interests on your side in an election, than to do the right thing. (Money and pressure weigh out conviction).
Fortunately, this legal change will not create social change. The people of Nicaragua are likely to continue to protest the unjustness of the law. And through their mobilization and work, they will create the real, the durable, social change that women everywhere deserve.
"As long as people mobilize for social justice, there is hope. Then you know you are doing the right thing," Verónica said to this morning. Indeed.