“We Won’t Give Up” How the Fight Against Fundamentalism Unites Activists from Europe and Latin America in the On the Right Track Initiative
Disinformation, sabotage of events, failed legislative initiatives that benefit vulnerable groups, threats on social networks, and physical attacks. This is the context in which human rights organizations from around the world have been working in recent years.
The fundamentalist attacks and assaults by far-right groups that these organizations in Europe and Latin America face threaten not just their safety and work but democratic principles in general.
Between May 31 and June 2, 2023, the challenges of fundamentalism and how to deal with them brought together feminist activists and women’s funds from more than 20 countries in a joint meeting in Sofia. The purpose of the first-of-its-kind event on European territory was to provide a space where donors, funds, and representatives of human rights organizations can communicate and exchange experiences to prevent attacks by fundamentalist movements in their countries – Bulgaria, Armenia, Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Chile, Colombia, and many others.
The event was part of the On the Right Track (ORT) initiative, which unites 20 feminist funds from Europe and Latin America – including the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW). The idea of ORT is to promote cooperation between these funds in defence of freedom and democracy. To achieve this, the initiative works in three main directions – financial support for organizations that face attacks by fundamentalism and the far right head-on, conducting research on the environment and good practices, and changing the narrative to achieve social justice.
What is On the Right Track
“The idea of On the Right Track came from several different countries at the same time,” says Jelena Rey Maceira Palmer from the Colombian Women’s Fund Lunaria. Together with her colleagues from the “Calala” Foundation in Spain, and the “Alquimia” Fund in Chile, as well as the Bulgarian Fund for Women, Jelena is at the heart of the initiative and its coordination team.
For her, the problem with the rise of fundamentalism and the far-right movement came to the fore front during the peace referendum in Columbia in 2016. Where the citizens of the Latin American country rejected the peace agreement between the government and the rebel organization FARC, which aimed to end a decade-long military conflict. Just over 50% of the voters voted “no” to peace.
“This “no” hit us hard and showed us that we had the weaker role in the campaign for peace,” says Jelena, and recalls some of the main arguments of the opponents of the agreement: “if we get peace now, women will immediately start having abortions and we will all become gays and lesbians.”
“Really stupid things – we though no one would believe them. But people believed,” says Jelena. “This made us start thinking about how fundamentalism is developing, who the basic actors are, and how we can fight back.”
Fundamentalism is the general term for extremely conservative social and philosophical movements that strictly follow the norms of a particular doctrine. Fundamentalisms often insist on a “return” to values left in the past. We usually talk about religious fundamentalism, where criticism of established religious norms is not allowed. However, such movements can also be non-religious. Nowadays, fundamentalist movements actively oppose women’s rights movements and the LGBTIQ+ community.
As a result, Woman Fund Lunaria embarked on a study of the topic in 2017, that was being conducted by the women’s funds in Spain, Chile, and other countries at the same time. The findings clearly indicate that in Europe and Latin America, fundamentalist groups develop in a similar fashion – often sharing the same approaches and sources of funding.
“That’s how we realized, that if we wanted to fight them, we also had to think collectively,” adds Jelena. This marks the beginning of a series of international meeting to build common mechanisms for financial support, research, and communications to help the fund involved in the initiative be “on the right track.”
Why is the initiative needed?
Two years after the failed peace referendum in Colombia, a large-scale campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention was held in Bulgaria. The arguments of the main actors against the Convention strongly resembled the propaganda arguments of the opponents of the Colombian peace.
Although the Convention deals with combating domestic violence and violence against women, in Bulgaria it became known as a document that tries to introduce the ‘third gender’ and ‘gender ideology.’ Despite efforts by women’s rights organizations to explain the benefits of ratification, the conversation about the Convention was hijacked by its opponents, leading to it being declared unconstitutional.
“Just like Jelena from Colombia, we also thought that no one would believe the nonsense about ‘gender,’” said the executive director of the BFW, Nadezhda Dermendzhieva, during the ORT meeting. “But at some point, we realized we were fighting with something very powerful and big – a well-organized and well-funded political agenda.”
The examples from Bulgaria and Colombia are not isolated. Similar anti-gender and anti-feminist, (as well as anti-LGBTQI+, anti-migrant, etc.), movements are growing all over the world. Their attacks are essentially attacks on democracy. The main actors in them often overlap – populist and far-right parties and politicians, the Church, various Christian denominations, especially evangelicals, as well as other religious organizations, conservative academics, journalists, magistrates, doctors, etc.
In Spain, for example, there are popular men’s associations against domestic violence legislation claiming to protect “children’s rights.” Similar organizations are active in Bulgaria as well and are preventing the adoption of changes to the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence (LPDV), which would protect victims more effectively. In Italy, it’s active Catholic organizations against the right to abortion, often receiving funding from conservative politicians from the United States. Activists from other countries in the meeting agree that the anti-gender movements are well organized and have large financial and media resources.
Their approaches are also similar – instigating referendums, disinformation and manipulation of public opinion, political hate speech, pseudo-scientific narratives, and advocacy of ‘traditional Christian values.’ Through media attacks and fake news in the context of hybrid warfare, the movements against abortion, migration, LGBTQI+ rights, and human rights organizations are gaining influence and public support.
In individual countries, fundamentalists often undermine progressive legislative initiatives, (such as the proposed amendments to the LPDV in Bulgaria), sabotage events of feminist organizations, and inflict psychological, legal, and cyber violence on them. The cases of physical attacks are increasing. And threats and accusations against activists are even more personalized in countries like Armenia and Georgia.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine are also having a significant impact on both the work of the organizations and the On the Right Track initiative. In many countries, (especially in Eastern Europe), Russian propaganda is a key factor, which is intensifying along with these events. This is why anti-gender movements are easily combined with narratives against vaccines and the European Union, as well as in support of Russian aggression.
This allows fundamentalists to attack not only feminist organizations but the meaning of human rights and democracy itself. In recent years, proof of this is the deteriorating levels of democracy, rights, and freedoms in countries such as Hungary and Poland, where conservative populist parties are in power.
These are the conclusions the participants of the ORT meeting in Sofia reach just on day one of the gathering. Then, there was a panel on fundamentalisms, which included researchers in the fields of feminism and religion. It featured Catholic nun Rebeka, and Muslim feminist Zilka, who work in the field of gender studies in Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The two insisted that in order to weaken anti-feminist movements in religious circles, women of faith must also be brought into the conversation on the subject.
Sociologist Lea Vajsova from the LevFem collective also joined the panel, shared more on the saga with the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria. The investigative journalist Tatev Hovhannisyan from Armenia talked about the sources of funding for anti-gender movements in various European countries. The results of her investigations were published in the report Tip of the Iceberg.
After the panel, representatives of funds and organizations had group discussion about their individual work contexts.
“We see these fundamentalist movements gaining more and more strength in Europe and Latin America,” Jelena from Colombia said, summarizing the discussions. “But we keep working, which is the most important thing. And we won’t give up.”
Not just gender equality but democracy
The rise of fundamentalism in Europe and Latin America is having a negative impact on feminist organizations and activists. Their efforts in the fight for human rights are discredited, their visibility and resources are reduced, there are dividing lines being created, that make them targets of attacks. “We have to fight further for what we have already achieved,” said one of the participants in the meeting.
Many of the organizations are spending a lot of time wondering how to respond to their adversaries instead of putting that energy into pursuing their own goals. It is common for activists and researchers to isolate themselves, suffer from depression and burnout, and fear for their safety. On the other hand, fundamentalist movements strengthen their resilience and make them more creative and committed to the cause.
The On the Right Track initiative is based on the belief that the feminist movement works not only for women’s rights, but for the advancement of democracy and human rights in general. Therefore, in addition to harming activists and the marginalized groups they protect, fundamentalist attacks are also a problem for democracy as a political system.
“I hope I’m wrong, but a not-so-nice world is coming,” Jelena says. “Fundamentalism is here to stay, so we must build our strategies against it together.”
You can read about the strategies for dealing with fundamentalism that were outlined by the meeting participants in the next article dedicated to the On the Right Track initiative.
Text: Katerina Vasileva
Photos: Milena Partsuneva Photography&PR
Video: Tanuki Films