|Lydia Alpízar Durán|
35 years old
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Lydia is a Costa Rican feminist activist who lives in Mexico City. She participated actively in youth organizing and mobilization around the Earth Summit process in 1991-1992 and worked for several years as coordinator of the Youth Programme of the Earth Council. She facilitated the participation of young women from Latin America in the Beijing '95 process, coordinating an international project called "Our words, our voices: young women for change. Young women voices beyond Beijing '95." Lydia is co-founder and advisor of ELIGE - Youth Network for Reproductive and Sexual Rights (Mexico), and she is also co-founder of the Latin American and Caribbean Youth Network for Reproductive and Sexual Rights. Since 1996, she has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Committee for the Peace Council. She is member of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund for Women and is also member of the Board of Directors of the International Council on Human Rights Policy, based in Geneva. In 2000, Lydia was the Latin American regional representative to the International NGO Committee for Beijing + 5. She participated for several years in the campaign, "Stop Impunity: No more murdered women," a national Mexican initiative to put an end to the killings of women in the United States/Mexico border city of Ciudad Juárez. Lydia is a sociologist and a former participant of the 2003 Human Rights Advocates Training Program of the Center for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University. She has extensive experience in advocacy and training on women's human rights, particularly in sexual and reproductive rights and violence against women.
Jennifer Kidwell, IWHC: Can you share the history of how and why you became involved in women's and youth movements?
Lydia Alpízar Durán: I started doing activism when I was 17 years old. I was living in Costa Rica—my country of origin—and I participated in a development education exchange program for youth from Canada and Costa Rica. The program was really great at giving a critical view of different issues and an understanding and awareness of issues in the community where you lived. It was really a life changing experience for me. I was exposed to a different reality that helped me understand North–South relationships and the role of young people in the community, the importance of learning about other countries as well learning and valuing more my own country—its people, its problems—and my capacity to do things to change the reality in which we live. I learned to do new things, such as working as part of a team, living with a foreign family, adjusting to a different culture, speaking English more fluidly, and organizing and giving workshops and presentations to different people, etc. The program really moved me to become involved in activism and to do something to change the reality I was living in.
When we finished the program, several of us decided to create a small non-governmental organization (NGO) to continue this kind of work. In the beginning we did a lot of work around environmental and sustainable development with young people. It was interesting because it was around the time of the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995 (also known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or UNCED) and we organized with colleagues from Canada at the World Youth Forum to try to have an impact. That meant I had to become really involved in mobilizing youth...I was in charge of organizing youth activists from Mexico and Central America. We didn't have many resources so we traveled around the region backpacking and organizing with youth groups. And it worked—over 400 people from about 114 countries attended the Forum. So from very early on I was involved in both local and international work.
As time went by, gender issues started to come up in the context of the environmental youth movement. We were a whole bunch of women doing a lot of work, and the guys were the ones driving around and making the decisions. So it didn't take long to get to the point where I knew something needed to change. I became more involved with the women's movement in Costa Rica, particularly around organizing young feminists to take action. Back then, it was more difficult for young women to have the space to work on issues that were important to them. Now, there are more spaces for young feminists to participate in meaningful ways and more acknowledgement of the importance of opening spaces for young feminist activists.
The next critical point was the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995. I did quite a bit of organizing around Beijing. I worked to organize young women in Latin America, I was part of organizing the young women's caucus, and coordinated the publication of an advocacy tool with young feminists from 17 countries. We were just starting to learn how to use email to do global networking so if we hadn't had email it would have been very difficult to get that report together. It was a fun project because we had people from Jordan, from the United States, from Venezuela and Panama, the Netherlands, Nepal, the Philippines. All of us were documenting discrimination against young women in order to make a strong case, because every time you raised an issue as a young woman, everybody would say, 'what is so particular and special?' We realized we had to come up with concrete cases that would show specific ways that young women are being discriminated against. We wanted to document these cases and then propose what we wanted to see in the Platform for Action. So we did a lot of work around meetings leading up to Beijing, particularly the fourth preparatory committee meeting (PrepCom IV) in March 1995 in New York City.
LAD: We did a case study on so-called "honor crimes" in Jordan. In their case study, the young women we worked with from Jordan included a personal story as well as a contextual analysis of the issue. They came up with a specific recommendation regarding young women because they are often the victims of so-called honor killings. I remember it really marked me because the story they used was of a young woman who was killed by her own father, as a result of his brother having raped her.
We had a very interesting case about violence against women in the United States and how prevalent it is, cases about political participation, access to education, and issues of sexuality and reproduction as well. We published the report in English, French and Spanish. We used it as a tool for advocacy in general, but we were organized to push certain issues. For example, I was an advisor to the Costa Rican government delegation during PrepCom IV and one part of the Platform for Action has to do with the importance of ensuring that single young women have access to education when they become pregnant because often they were simply kicked out of school. Because I was an advisor to the delegation, I was closely involved in some of those negotiations and at the same time I was part of something called the Editorial NGO Team that pulled together all the feedback on the draft Platform for Action, which was produced within the framework of the famous Linkage Caucus. So I also had to do work on the policy language that eventually came out of the Conference. We worked with a big team of older feminists and it was fantastic. It was an unforgettable time for me.
At that point I moved from Costa Rica to Mexico and became really involved with the women's movement there, so I have done most of my activism from Mexico. I became involved with a group of young leaders that was really close to REDLAC. It was a fantastic experience.
For Beijing Plus Five, I was very involved in coordination among NGOs because I was selected by women's groups from the region as NGO representative to the international coordinating team. I did a lot of networking, informing and mobilizing for Beijing Plus Five. We were flooded with right-wing people and given the way they were organizing in large numbers it was a very difficult time. During all of those years, I also did work around development issues and community based work, training and capacity building, and women's human rights targeted at young feminists with different organizations.
LAD: I don't think that any agenda that is marginalized and that is pushing for human rights of different groups of people would really advance without very strong organizing at different levels on the ground—regionally and internationally. We have to be very well organized and we have to be very strategic. We need to use mechanisms like networks and other different ways of coming together. Then we can figure out how to use effective strategies in order to push or defend the agenda or come up with new ideas and determine what issues need to be pushed as the context changes.
Young people's organizing is key for both the youth and the feminist movements because many of the issues that both movements work on are really important for young people, for feminists, and for women's rights. Within sexual and reproductive rights there are many issues where youth are discriminated against. We are seeing really terrible impacts where people are dying or some very basic rights are not respected. Without strong organizing you can have a beautiful policy but you won't get very far. That's clear when you have, for example, a progressive government with a nice policy and little support at the grassroots level. The result is that the right wing comes to challenge it and then nobody is there to defend it.
LAD: In many different ways. By meeting with young activists from different regions you see the specificities of the context and the different kinds of things that they are facing. But at the same time, you also see the commonalities. For example, discrimination against young women in terms of our sexuality, ownership of our bodies and the right to make decisions about our bodies happens pretty much across the board. Of course, it plays out in different ways...but even in the countries that are perceived to be the most open and progressive, young women are facing different issues that have to do with their relationship with their bodies and with their capacity to make autonomous decisions. I think it's very important—and this is something I've done quite a bit of thinking about and work on—how we look at youth as a social construction when we're talking about sexuality and issues of reproductive and sexual rights.
I think many organizations project a lot of biases in terms of how young people are perceived—that they are irresponsible and don't know what they want to do. I don't think that young people are irresponsible and I don't think that they don't know what they want, but I think many young people end up believing that discourse and end up embodying it. Something that was really key when talking and learning with other activists was figuring out how to create a vision and discourse to defend our right to fully enjoy our sexuality and our sexual and reproductive rights. We need to go beyond the stigma of irresponsible youth at risk and more into a vision of a pleasurable, full life with dignity and the full development of the person, and to see youth as people with rights.
Through our conversations, we were not only sharing information about our own work in Mexico and the region, but also learning about the work of young people in other regions. It's very important to use that information to gain an understanding of other people's experiences and an understanding of what has worked in which context and what kinds of alliances can be built. I do see a big change in the way that young people are participating today around different issues. We have moved from a place where a lot of the focus was just on creating and claiming spaces, into more integral and substantial participation. What is expected of young people is not only to be young but also to tell what they think, to share their knowledge, and to contribute. For us at AWID that's a key thing in our young feminist activism work. We see young feminists as partners and we see them as big contributors to movement building. We don't only see them as passive receivers of training or information. We think young women are doing a lot of really amazing work around the world, sometimes not getting the credit or the visibility that they should. So global and regional networking is very important because it helps you understand the relevance of the work that you do at the local level in relation to what is happening elsewhere.
The organization does a lot of training and public policy development. It was able to influence the local government of Mexico City to have a special space called "Lila's Mirror" in different support centers for women the city government has, which is a safe space for young women to come and talk and learn about their sexual and reproductive rights and have access to counseling on violence against women, among other things. All of that is provided by other young people that have been trained by ELIGE and other specialists from the government. They are doing a lot of community outreach, training, capacity building, and networking.
We always saw ourselves, and I think the girls continue to see themselves, as having one foot in the feminist movement—and the broader women's movement—and the other foot in the youth movement. So in the youth movement we push for women's rights issues, sexual and reproductive rights issues and so on. In the women's movement we push for the importance of understanding the need for young people to participate but also to contribute to the discussion on what is more specific about young women and what the relationship is between youth and gender. ELIGE has done a lot of thinking about that. What do youth identity or youth conditions mean and what role do they play when you are trying to defend rights, particularly women's rights?
They also have a project to document violations of sexual and reproductive rights and they have been very involved with the feminist movement in different campaigns. For example, in all the work that was done in the early 2000s to change the criminal code in Mexico City, ELIGE was the only youth organization participating on that process.
We've seen the organization as part of the movement and we have taken leadership positions in the region as well. It's interesting because I was the regional representative for Beijing Plus Five in the international NGO Committee and the coordinator that was there last year was one of the representatives in the region for Beijing Plus Ten. So ELIGE has continued to play a role that goes beyond just sexual and reproductive rights, or just Mexico, or just youth. Last year they did a lot of mobilizing and activism around the Feminist Encuentro, they did e-lists, they did several discussions in the World Social Forum and Beijing Plus Ten that led to quite a strong participation because they did this with other young women's groups from Chile, Brazil, Central America.
LAD: Of course young people are affected by major challenges that we're seeing in the world right now. Issues of increased poverty, difficulty in accessing jobs and good working conditions. You see, for example, in the region, most countries have a really high unemployment rate among young people. Even when you compare that data with data from people that are over 18 or a little bit older you will see that it is sometimes double the rate. So I think the issue of poverty and unemployment is a very big issue because it has to do with quality of life.
Of course, issues of sexuality and access to information and services that are non-biased, scientific, and objective, that do not stigmatize young people as irresponsible, do not push religious values, and do not limit their capacity to exercise their rights. That's very much needed and is not there. As structural adjustment policies and other kinds of sectoral reforms—in the health sector, for example—cut the role of the state in providing those kinds of services, the situation gets worse.
Issues that have to do with violence are also a challenge. There is development in the region of increased criminality—gangs, drugs, and drug dealers—and I do think that's affecting young people as well. Of course violence against women...you notice in the region that the issue of femicide is a big problem. In many places, the people that are getting killed are mostly young women under 30 years old. That's a huge issue because we haven't figured out an updated analysis and strategy on how to tackle the issue of violence against women within the current context, which is a very big challenge.
Youth organizing – I think that's a challenge, in effect, because I don't think we have a very strong youth movement in the region. There are strong attempts but they haven't really been consolidated. If the situation of young people is going to change, a lot has to come with youth mobilizing and work.
The issue of fundamentalism and the strength of the Catholic Church, in particular, in Latin America and the Caribbean is a huge concern because it affects so many different levels. It affects the culture but also public policy. It has a major impact on hegemonic discourse around sexuality and reproduction that focuses on guilt and punishment. They'll push for abstinence as an option-I think it's okay as an option, but not as the only option.
We really need to push for a rights-based approach, for really respecting the rights of young people. That means challenging ourselves to understand that youth exercising their sexuality is their right and is not just something that society has given them. So, for example, we give young people access to condoms. I don't see that as a major thing to prevent HIV/AIDS or to prevent unwanted pregnancy only, I see it as a means for them to enjoy their sexuality fully. The most important objective of providing services and information is to give people the tools so that they can fully exercise their rights and as a result of that you can prevent AIDS, you can prevent unwanted pregnancy, you can prevent many other problems.
LAD: First, I think there have to be clear mechanisms to involve young people and to make sure they have meaningful participation. By that I mean not just having them there as tokens, as usually happens, but to really enable and give them the resources so that they can contribute to the substance of the discussion. For me, participation without resources and mechanisms is just rhetoric. I think young people are very important partners in the development of those policies. They need to be more involved and policymakers have to be sure that mechanisms are in place.
At the same time, a lot of learning has to be done around the good experiences where young people are seen as subjects of rights and public policies and, in turn, try to provide for different conditions for young people to exercise their rights. This is very different than just an epidemiological approach, such as distributing condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Tools like emergency contraception being available and easily accessible are very important for young people because they have to be able to enjoy their sexuality and make reproductive choices.
Also, tackle some of the key issues that have to do with limiting the power and the influence of the Church in public policymaking. In Mexico, there is a big discussion right now because there were some textbooks produced by the government for secondary level-for high schools—and the National Association of Parents and the Church have been boycotting their distribution, demanding that all of the sections on sexuality—that actually weren't bad at all, in terms of their content, have to be removed. This is the current discussion. So, in terms of policymaking, we really need to affirm the secularity of the state because these attitudes have a really pervasive impact in people's lives. I think the attitude of the conservative right wing and the Church is actually killing people.
LAD: For me, human rights is a very important framework, so it's a world where all people are ensured their human rights. That means everybody has what they need to have a satisfied life and to develop themselves.
It's a world where what it means to be human has been fully expanded to a really broad understanding of not only women and men, but transgendered and intersex people. Therefore, the definition of what it means to be human has changed and nobody will be discriminated against because of their specific identity. Of course, in that world discrimination will be a thing of the past.
It's a world free of violence – for everybody. It's a world with an amazing multilateral system, like the United Nations or something similar, that really works, that really mitigates conflict, that really keeps peace, and that ensures that there is equitable distribution of resources and wealth in the world in a sustainable way.
It's a world where we are able to actually change the threat of climate change. Where we have a balanced relationship with each other and with nature. It's a world where different groups of people can be creatively involved in the way public policies are defined. Where corporations are very well regulated and are accountable to the people, not to profit. Where the states are really there to protect rights-and not violate them as they usually do-and where we have come up with a very good framework for protecting individuals from rights violations by private actors from all sorts of different sectors.
It's a world where spirituality is very strong – but it's a choice and it's not imposed on people. The important thing is that people have choices in terms of how they want to develop their spirituality, not so much institutionalized religion imposing things.
Of course, it's a world that is very equitable, where women are fully engaged in all sorts of decisions of public life and private life. Where people really care for each other, moving away from the culture of each person saving him- or herself and not caring about the rest. It's a world where communities are very important as forms of support and reference but not the spaces of oppression as they sometimes come to be.
It's a world where tools like communication technology and media are there to really enhance culture, celebrate diversity and build on it and not impose a hegemonic market culture as we have right now. It's a world where science and technology are in the service of ensuring that people are living the best life they can. Where nobody dies of hunger and where there is no war. Where sexuality is fully embraced as an important part of what it means to be human and there is no discrimination because of the way that you choose to express it.
And there is a strong women's movement checking that everything is going well. All different sizes, shapes, and flavors of women's groups, very well connected, very well resourced, doing amazing things every day on the ground to provide women with better conditions to enjoy their rights.
LAD: I met Francois Girard and Wilhelmina Waldman (who were working at IWHC at that time) during the Beijing Plus Five process. And through Francois, I met Adrienne Germain and other people from IWHC who were part of the team working on the Beijing Plus Five process.