September-October 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 7

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International Diversity at the Women’s Worlds Conference

Ann Denis, University of Ottawa

Women’s Worlds is an international interdisciplinary conference on women, held every three years. This year it was held in the Ottawa-Gatineau (Canada) metropolitan area, co-hosted by two universities—Carleton University and the University of Ottawa/Université d’Ottawa, with the support of two others, Université du Québec en Outaouais and St. Paul University. Held July 3-7, with participation from 92 countries, the international breadth of the conference was clear, with 2,000 attendees and some 800 presenters including scholars and community members from widely diverse disciplinary and interest backgrounds.

The theme this year of trilingual (English, French and Spanish) conference was “Connect, Converse. Inclusions, Exclusions, Seclusions: Living in a Globalized World.” Thus diversity and the international were in the fore-ground. There was one theme each day: breaking cycles, breaking ceilings, breaking barriers, and breaking ground. The theme challenged constraints on women and encouraged innovations for a more inclusive and equitable future. By having the four “breaking” themes, the organizers had envisioned an innovative and dynamic approach to the conference. But, there were two (perhaps unanticipated) challenges to this goal: for some it was difficult to decide how to structure their proposal, so that, as required, they could associate it with one of the breaking themes, especially if they felt (as many did) that their work cut across themes. The other challenge was that sessions that might interest the same participants tended to be clumped during the same day. With a choice of more than two dozen concurrent sessions at any time, some frustration was inevitable, but the program format probably exacerbated it.

This was, however, a rich opportunity to dialogue and learn from each other, both in the formal sessions and more informally.

Within each of the broad themes, sessions focused on such substantive areas as socioeconomic development, women and power, HIV-AIDS, women and the arts, and many more. The plenaries offered all a directed conversational reflection by scholars and activists on selected aspects of that theme and how it could be applied within their personal context (scholarly and/or personal). This was complemented by a plethora of concurrent sessions, in which the community and the academy were often in dialogue. In some sessions, traditional conference papers were presented; in others, there were conversations among presenters on a structured series of themes; and in others the organizer led a focused discussion/reflection with those in attendance. Some sessions reported initiatives aimed at greater autonomy or participation by women. Participants had diverse understandings about feminism and the inclusion of women (or its absence), which provoked lively debate amongst attendees.

Themes within Sessions

Let me give a bit of a flavor of the conference by touching on themes in a few of the sessions. In one session two presenters discussed analyses of intersectionality and their application to violence against women, while the third speaker shared her grassroots experience about how this intersectionality was played out in her work within a shelter for women and their children who had experienced partner abuse. Another session, with simultaneous interpretation (in the conference’s three official languages), explored how silence can be a form of agency and empowerment for women, especially in situations that are dangerous for them. While the speakers concentrated on the economic South, the reflections did not need to have been limited to that part of the world. In another session, there was an analysis of how feminism is addressed by immigrant and racialized women, now residing in Québec, within a globalizing world. Women who are leaders in the international disability community were featured in another session, which included reflections about the extent to which Women’s Worlds 2011 might serve as a model of conference accessibility and inclusion.

In fact, this conference afforded particular attention to groups that are often marginalized, both in its organization and in the selection of themes and participants. The inclusiveness and richness facilitated by consultation with advisory groups from the communities of disabled women, young women, and aboriginal women were evident throughout. There was the entertainment by aboriginal performers on the opening night, a session by aboriginals about the work and impact of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sessions about the organizations and activities of young feminist women, sessions about women and disability—as well as the integrated participation of women who shared one or more of these often marginalizing social locations in sessions on other topics. Furthermore, this was a conference considered disability/accessibility (i.e., sign language in sessions and wheelchair accessibility). Finally, this was a very international conference of participation by, and dialogue between, the academy and the community.

In addition to the conference sessions, Women’s Worlds 2011 participants joined with the Canadian aboriginal community to participate in a Solidarity March from the conference venue to the Canadian Houses of Parliament in Support of Missing & Murdered Aboriginal Women. They were also invited to the 35th anniversary celebration of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW-ICREF), a bilingual national feminist research institute without walls. Popular theatre, music, and art presentations were all integral to communicating the messages of the conference. Following the conference, participants also had the opportunity to see Ottawa through women’s eyes during open house visits to selected local groups and programs that serve women and support women’s equality.

For more information about Women’s Worlds, including video clips and a discussion forum, and the full program, which give a more comprehensive taste of the range of speakers and topics, visit . The next Women’s Worlds conference will be in 2014. Like the four I have attended, it is sure to be thought-provoking and energizing. 

Ann Denis is the President of RC05, Research Committee on Racism at the International Sociological Association (ISA), Nationalism and Ethnicity (2010-14), Vice-President Research, ISA (2002-6), and was a Member of the Executive Committee, ISA (2006-10).

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