Refugees, actors and activists at the Women of the World Festival 2020

By Mary Nagle
March 9 2020, 21.25

The Duchess of Cornwall, MP Jess Phillips and Olivia Colman featured at the Southbank’s 10th Women of the World Festival this weekend.

Three days of events brought together leaders from activism, academia, media and politics to ‘celebrate women and girls and looking at the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential’.

Pop up concerts ranged from jazz to Indian dance and charities and ethical fashion makers had stalls in the buzzing marketplace.

The Duchess of Cornwall’s opening speech as festival president focused on domestic abuse. Two women per week were killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales last year.

That issue resonated through the festival, as did the gender pay gap.

The BBC’s Samira Ahmed, who presented refugee activists at the festival, won a case against her employer for being paid less than one sixth what a male colleague was paid for a similar program last month.

Asked what it would take to tackle gender pay inequality, MP Jess Phillips said that ‘a massive stick’ may be more effective than the carrot approach and proposed only allowing companies without a significant gender pay gap to tender for government contracts.

She said that the present government is unlikely to take action because investment in childcare does not win conservative votes.

The OECD has ranked UK childcare as the most expensive in the world.

Festival attendance was 90% female but festival founder and ex-Southbank Centre director Jude Kelly appealed to its men in the audience to be women’s allies and supporters.

She said that white women should do the same for women of colour.

The festival platformed a wide range of cultures and ethnicities including Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of ‘Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race’.

The first Roma Girl Band ‘Pretty Loud’ sang songs about freedom and danced the length of Royal Festival Hall waving multilingual placards.

WOW’s brand of feminism is determinedly intersectional and trans-inclusive.

Although there is an under 10’s feminists corner, Kelly, who doesn’t want “to get caught up in words,” said you don’t have to call yourself a feminist.

As well as being strikingly multi-racial, many national perspectives are represented.

The festival has sprouted events in Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia, China, the US and Egypt.

Kelly said she strongly believes that women’s movements around the world are “not on different planets”.

The festival featured many speakers from places where, as Pakistani Politician Sherry Rehman put it, there are “not just glass ceilings to break down but old brick walls.”

49% of women in Pakistan are still not able to read and her generation of woman’s rights activists had to “face down bullets”.

She talked about the ‘My Body My Rights’ campaign (“who else’s rights?” she wondered) gaining traction across South Asia. 

It is still portrayed as an “invitation to lewdness” by detractors.

Social activist Nimco Ali talked about “holding 5-year-old girls down for FGM in order to sell them for more cattle.”  

With an event for winners of the Women on the Move award WOW platformed migrants as activists, not victims.

This year’s festival saw a ‘top of the pops’ of its winners including the 2019 winner Rossana Leal who set up a buddy scheme for Syrian refugees in Hastings inspired by her own experience.

Migrating with her family from Chile to Scotland, a whole band of pipers came out to welcome them and they found their new house’s shed fully stocked with coal.

She now has more buddy-families than refugees.

The immaginative empathy that WOW enables across genders, cultures and skin-colours might be best expressed in Kelly’s words, that “in extreme circumstances we might find ourselves in a row boat trying to cross the Mediterranean.” 

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