IWS is one of the two groups chosen for Amazingy’s DO GOOD, LOOK GOOD, FEEL AMAZINGY CHARITY BOX. We shared with them how we came to be, our challenges in the past years, and our plans for the future.

>> Read our full interview below!

As the story goes, the first draft of IWS was created in Berlin as an extension of the Refugee Movement of 2012, in order to address the issues of migrant & refugee women through a more intersectional lens. Can you tell us a little more about how that first space came to be, and who initially led the charge?

International Women* Space started in 2012 as an actual physical space: a women’s floor in the occupied Gerhart-Hauptmann- School. It was a place created by and for refugee and migrant women: women for whom there is little separation between the political and the private; women for whom a safe and political space is a necessity. Having our own space allowed us to organise and provide access to some basic services not available to refugee women living in the outskirts of big cities: free German classes, free legal advice, free access to doctors, free distribution of food (Tafel). It also allowed us to create networks, to share experiences, to empower each other, to discuss and share knowledge, to advise each other on bureaucracy and daily life in Germany, to fulfill social needs, to organise, to be active, and to face together the intersectional forms of oppressions we face as women, refugees and migrants. After the school was evicted, we worked between different spaces, before getting our own space again in 2018. Our goal is to ensure the continual existence of International Women* Space as the center of our political work, and to develop it further as a social and political center for women.

How has IWS evolved over the years? What are some of the biggest hurdles the organization has had to overcome in the process? What have been some defining moments of progress & success?

After the evacuation of the school, we continued our work of documenting our stories, our lives, our existence in our own voices. We self-published two books: “In Our Own Words” and “We Exist, We Are Here”. The books are a compilation of testimonials from migrant and refugee women living in Germany.

In 2017, we organised the 2-day conference “Als Ich Nach Deutschland Kam”, which brought together 250+ migrant and refugee women from many different backgrounds to share and exchange experiences, struggles, and knowledge. We published transcripts of the six panel discussions that took place at the conference in our third book.

In October 2018, we moved to our new office. Before Corona, the meetings at the office were well-attended and the space well-visited outside of “official” meetings. We continue to offer and host a variety of activities in our space relevant to the political development and safety of our community. These include workshops, meetings with lawyers, self-organised groups, language classes and social events. The office supports our project work, including our upcoming documentary film (especially through the use of our own editing studio), distribution of our publications, our self-administration, providing space for our finance and other bureaucratic work, as well as a centralised place for our archives.

The Break Isolation Group (BIG), a self-organised refugee women’s group of IWS, was formed in 2019 out of the urgent need for political organisation, by and for refugee women, in and out of the German asylum system. BIG organises visits to the Lagers (camps) and workshops to empower and build the capacity of refugee and migrant women. Once the Corona pandemic started, we were no longer able to visit the Lagers. In reaction to this new reality, with some of the IWS members locked in Lagers in harsh conditions, we started the Corona Lager Reports and IWS Radio to report about, discuss, and analyze the situation of women in the context of the Corona pandemic. These platforms enable us to connect and contextualize our struggles within the frame of the international feminist struggle, refugee movements and cross-border solidarity, especially in these difficult times of Corona.

We are presently witnessing a continual rise of far-right extremism in Germany and beyond. On February 19, 2020, in the city of Hanau, Germany, 9 people were killed by a racist attacker. The killer targeted two locations predominantly frequented by people racialised as non-white, people who have what is referred to in Germany as “Migrationshintergrund” (migration background).

The right-wing populist AfD party has been gaining traction in Saxony and Brandenburg. 609 attacks on migrants in these two states were reported there to the police in the first half of 2019. We are witnessing a further groundswell of racist violence throughout the country, inflamed to a large degree by the racist and fascist rhetoric of the AfD. This continues to take its toll on us, our communities and our work. These attacks show us that we must continue to expand our network and structures, to support and empower each other. But we must equally prioritize self-care and finding more sustainable ways to work.

Another external change that affects our work is the new law “Orderly Return Bill”, which came into effect in January 2020 and has led to the increased detention and imprisonment of migrants by the German state; it has simultaneously decreased the welfare rights and social benefits for migrants, as well as ushered in the criminalisation of civil society organisations. As a result, we have seen an increase in groups and individuals reaching out to us who wish to self-organise, to build stronger alliances and networks.

Which other charities / organizations is IWS working closely with as of today? In other words: how “international” has the work become?

One example is the Alliance of Internationalist Feminists – we are now offering our space for meetings of the Alliance. The Alliance usually starts meeting two months before the two annual demonstrations that we’ve been organising since 2014: the 8th of March and the 25th of November. Two months are not enough for us to accommodate the different demands of an internationalist alliance. We need to really understand each other’s campaigns and how we can bring them to the streets in a consistent and effective way. For that, we need to also maintain consistent and structured contact throughout the year.

We have been invited to present our books all over Germany and also in Japan and Belarus.

In 2019, from the 22nd-24th of November, one of our members participated in the conference “Empowerment of Women with HIV in Eastern Europe” – organised by Deutsche Aidshilfe – which took place in Minsk, Belarus. IWS was invited to speak about feminism and self-organisation as well as the importance of self-publication and documentation. The conference was attended by around 100 women, mostly HIV-positive. The collaboration with the Deutsche Aidshilfe is fundamental for us because it not only gives us expertise in the subject of health issues concerning sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction, but also connects us with an institution better equipped to support refugee women who might be HIV-positive. (You can click here to read more about this publication.)

In October 2019, one of IWS’s members was invited by WIDE+ (a European network of associations and activists fighting for women’s rights) to join a group of feminists representing Europe during a one-day event for movement building, advocacy strategizing and solidarity action at the UN. The event gathered 500 feminists from 55 different countries to discuss demands that will be shared at the official intergovernmental meeting, Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting. (You can click here to see a video of her participation.) Since then we have been working with WIDE+ more closely and have been involved in a number of their events.

IWS is currently part of a new EU expert group of a EU-wide public consultation and participates in the development and implementation of migration, asylum, and integration policies, the results of which will contribute to the development of the Action Plan on integration and inclusion announced in the Commission’s work programme.

On September 11th, 2020, we took part in a meeting with Dr. Franziska Giffey, former Bundesministerin für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, and Dr. Karamba Diaby, Integrationsbeauftragter der SPD-Bundestagsfraktion. The meeting was initiated as a part of PAD (People of African Descent) Week, which in turn is a part of the UN’s PAD Decade. We took the opportunity to talk about the racism, violence, and discrimination facing migrants and refugees.

This is a difficult question, as there are many to choose from… but for those wanting to become more proactive with their support: what is currently one of the most pressing issues faced by migrant & refugee communities in Germany & abroad? Where should those of us in more privileged positions place the majority of our focus & resources?

The Lager system and asylum policies in Germany remain our most significant battles. The Dublin regulation has resulted in many women becoming illegalized and undocumented. Furthermore, COVID-19 has generally worsened the situation of many refugee and migrant women: between increased physical and mental health risk, restriction of movement and autonomy of women living in collective accommodations, sometimes sharing small spaces with a violent partner or having to take care of children full-time, with no possibility of accessing kindergartens or schools. In addition to all of this, the number of deportations has increased during this time. The aforementioned “Orderly Return Bill” worsens the situation even more so for migrants and refugees. We are actively working on figuring out strategies and ways to defend ourselves against these threats.

The restrictions of the pandemic have had a huge cost on a group like ours, which relies heavily on face-to-face meetings and organising, mass demonstrations, campaigns and solidarity with each other in person. Several women find it hard to join online meetings which is challenging for an association like ours. As a result, we have not been able to organise in the ways that we could before.

We believe those in privileged positions should work to enact real solidarity by redistributing funding and sharing privileges. It is about material support and recognizing the civic duty they have to dismantle racist structures.

COVID-19 has left much of the world in disarray, and those in marginalized communities have experienced the full brunt of its devastation – further amplified by a severe lack of systemic support. Keeping the debilitating aftereffects of this pandemic in mind, does IWS have any specific goals on the agenda for the next year(s)?

IWS ultimately works to prevent all sorts of violence against women* and especially against migrant and refugee women. Until now we have not seen a single study about violence committed against migrant and refugee women in the context of the pandemic, published in Germany. That is why we plan to continue producing Lager Reports and moving forward with our podcast IWS Radio.

Additionally, we are planning to create an office in Eisenhüttenstadt, which is where the reception center for those beginning the asylum process is located. These centers are always placed very far outside of the city and internet access is limited for those living there, leaving women in the Lagers isolated from essential services and networks. The office will provide resources and information on legal, health, employment, housing, and other matters. The pandemic made it very apparent that we need to have a presence in the Lagers in order to truly break the isolation created by them.

The recent withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention has been another major event. In response to this, we want to organise a campaign about the Istanbul Convention and its importance particularly in ensuring women are able to receive gender-based asylum protection.

And one last question: who are a few activist heroes (past & present) that are a source of inspiration for members of the IWS team?

Wangari Maathai, Kimberlé Krenshaw, Angela Davis