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Interview: Campagne Rosa in Belgium

Updated: Feb 27

Nowhere in the world can you find capitalism without sexism – let fight it together

Interview with Mai Vermeulen, spokeswomen of the socialist feminist Campagne Rosa in Belgium

Campagne Rosa is one of the initiators of the launch of the International Socialist Feminist Network. Why do you think that is important?

The women's movement is an international phenomenon. When we set up Rosa in 2017, it was in a context of the Trump election and huge mobilizations against violence against women in Latin America. It was an important backdrop for the growing will to take action against sexism that also developed in Belgium.

We saw a whole generation of young women who were angry about sexism, who were hungry for action, but had no organization and no idea how to take action. By setting up Campagne Rosa, we wanted to offer them a tool for this and put a combattive feminism, focused on action, on the agenda. On International Women's Day (8 March), just before the founding conference of Rosa (12 March), we organized the first Mars against Sexism in Ghent.

But we also wanted to contribute to the discussion within the movement. With Campaign Rosa, we see sexism as a structural social problem inherent to capitalism rather than a problem of or with individual men. The view of men and women on the role of women is conditioned by the current weak position of women in society.

We think it is necessary to create links with other movements fighting oppression, such as the LGBTQI movement and the movement against racism, but certainly also with the general movement of workers. Our programme therefore has a series of general demands concerning housing, investment in public services, higher wages, refinancing of education, etc. In this way, we want to demonstrate the importance of this link and build the bridge between the women's movement and the workers' movement and show that our interests are the same.

Only the fight for better general social conditions can create a perspective for an effective fight against sexism and for a society that meets women's needs.

We also want to promote these ideas, a combattive feminism that defends a socialist programme, on an international scale and thus contribute to the debate that is raging within the international movement. With the network, we also want to establish contacts with activists in other countries who agree with our vision and are willing to set up action groups with a socialist feminist approach and programme.

MeToo was one of those international phenomena that stirred up resistance. Can you explain the slogan of Campagne Rosa "from MeToo to Fightback"?

MeToo created a shock wave all over the world. It exposed how sexism is linked to power relations in society, how it is the weak position of women that makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence in their working relationships or workplace. It is not surprising that in the millions of responses that followed, working women from a whole range of sectors with low wages and precarious contracts were dominant. We explained in our material how it was difficult to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace when you have an insecure contract and low wages (and therefore no reserves), how the low wages combined with the high cost of living makes it difficult for women to escape from an undesirable relationship.

One of our first concrete campaigns was against the publicity campaign at the Brussels University "Rich meets beautiful", where students were encouraged to take a "sugar daddy". Here, prostitution was normalised and banalised and offered as a solution to the high costs for a student room, for the studies themselves,... which many students struggle with.

The publicity campaign immediately received a lot of media attention. Established female politicians reacted immediately with the demand to remove those publicity boards. Campaign Rosa pointed out that such an action was far from sufficient, that the causes had to be tackled, that education had to be free, that student homes had to be affordable, that we needed a student wage,... Removing the boards is limited to pure symptom control. With Rosa we want to turn the anger into a concrete fight.

Why an international network?

Of course, no country is exactly the same as another. Sexism exists in different forms in different countries, there are cultural differences, differences in traditions, etc. But the basis for sexism is the same everywhere: it is the inequality in a system that exploits people worldwide and plays them off against each other. Here, Islam is often attacked, but in every world religion and also in secularised societies women's oppression is a central issue.

In Oxfam's latest report, they report that the richest 1% of the world's population has more than twice the wealth of the poorest 6.9 billion people; the fortunes of the 22 richest billionaires in the world are as great as those of all women in Africa! In such a context, where the vast majority of the world's population has to fight for the crumbs, it is impossible for everyone to be offered a decent life.

Capitalism is a world system and only if we organize ourselves on an international scale can we force real change. Movements must be able to learn from each other, to inspire each other. For example, the victory in the Irish Republic for the right to abortion, in which Rosa Ireland played such an important role, led to a renewed struggle in Argentina. In South Korea and Northern Ireland the right was also obtained. In Belgium, by the way, Rosa-Ireland was our direct inspiration to set up Campagne Rosa.

That necessary learning from each other is not only important in the women's movement, the climate movement is also an international movement around a problem that can only be solved on an international scale. Also in this struggle we see that young women are in the first ranks.

We see everywhere that young people and especially young women are at the forefront of the large mass movements that we have seen in recent years in different parts of the world - and that influence each other mutually. Women are at the forefront because they are harder hit by neoliberal austerity policies: they are over-represented in public service and health care personnel where huge cuts have been made in recent decades, with their average low wages, the drop in real wages and purchasing power is hard to come by,... Moreover, the cuts in health care are pushing many tasks back to the family, especially to women within the family. Financial dependency is again a problem of growing layers of women.

The decades-long policy of cuts, accelerated since the financial crisis of 2007-'08, has created a generation of young people that only knows crisis. They grew up believing that "now they had to tighten their belts", but that "in the long run, they would be fine". More than ten years after the crisis, it is clear: this is not going to work out. The anger stems from the fact that there is no positive future prospect for them. As an article in The Guardian put it: about 41% of the world's population is under 24 years of age and they are angry. The mass movement in Chile against the neoliberal system itself was started by school students protesting against the more expensive subway prices, with again girls being at the forefront.

Campaign Rosa pays a lot of attention to the fight against the new rise of the populist and extreme right, another international phenomenon...

Absolutely! Rosa activists were present at the protest action in Brussels against Trump's inauguration - at the same time that millions of women in the US were demonstrating - where we distributed pamphlets for our founding conference. Trump's election had a global echo and set the tone for the normalization of sexism.

Since then, the extreme right has increasingly used the weapon of sexism everywhere. Rosa's first action on this subject - in the autumn of 2018 - was a student walk out in Ghent against the right-wing extremist organisation Schild en Vrienden. It was a reaction to a documentary on S&V, in which not only a brutal racism was evident, but also an aggressive sexism, in which rape was normalised, banalised, and a subject for "humour". Immediately it became clear why the fight against the extreme right was of great importance to women. School students in particular took part in the action under the slogan "this never again". We then decided to react systematically and make it clear that no room should be left for such organisations and their propaganda.

In December last year the extreme right-wing student group KVHV organised a meeting to which one of the most horrible sexist public figures, the plastic surgeon Jef Hoeyberg, was invited. He made statements like "the whole problem with MeToo is that women want the privileges and money of men, but don't want to open their legs anymore" and "you can't treat a woman as your equal without becoming her slave".

The election results of the extreme right-wing Vlaams Belang gave those forces a lot of confidence to come out with their despicable ideas. That's why we decided with Campagne Rosa that that meeting couldn't just go by and we organised a picket at the entrance of their meeting. With the video about the meeting with Jef Hoeyberg that we distributed after the action, we created a national discussion about the subject, which was also covered in almost all national media.

It showed how important it is for feminists to join the fight against the extreme right. And that's not only the case in Belgium. Women are a target of populist and extreme right everywhere, whether they're in power or not. In that struggle too, we can learn from each other and give eacht other support.

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