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How Women Self-Organise: The Birth of Street and Antiprohibition Feminism

TalkingDrugs has partnered with Luana Malheiro, anthropologist and drugs researcher from Brazil, to bring to life her insights from her extensive research with women who are homeless and use crack in Brazil. This work at the margins of society is incredibly important to highlight, particularly because it was built alongside this drug-using population.

This is the second part of Malheiro’s reflections on her work, exploring how she worked with her street partners to enhance their self-organisation and critical consciousness. Part one can be read here.  


“Nowadays I don’t lose any sleep, I’m not afraid of sleeping anymore. It was the [constant] fear of laying your head down to sleep and not knowing if you would wake up. Using crack on the street is surviving the street adrenaline. Because the street is an adrenaline. If you don’t know how to live in the streets, if you don’t know its limits, you’ll lose yourself in them. Nowadays I see it and say it: there’s a bunch of young girls, that I know have been living here for a short while, they’re all terrified. We could get together and teach them how to protect themselves. We had people teach us, they should have them too, no? What do you think?” – Luanda

What’s the responsibility of those that do in-field ethnographic studies? Should you only return to the field at the end of the investigation? How do you deal with the ethical implications? And how do you conduct studies in a place where there’s constant abuses of rights? Those and many other issues are part and parcel of what it means to use activism as both a method of investigation and a motivation to get back into the field.

The quote above is from a conversation with three partners who told of the hardships of learning from pain, trauma and rights abuses. Noticing their shared struggles, Luanda proposes to break this cycle to constitute a safe space where women on the street can learn in a loving was how to protect themselves.

In my book, I discuss the limitations of traditional and extractive research methods, that have researchers inserting themselves in places without establishing any agreement with the studied population. Research should be allied with activism, helping capacitate the studied populations with the chance to self-organise to resist the many situations of violence and violation of rights they must face. In this way, we redefine the production of scientific knowledge, placing the researcher as an active member of the population, working together to find answers rather than just extract them. An ethnography should not only present or describe a studied environment; it can also be a means for collective social transformation.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the presentation of this envisioned approach to research: it focuses on my experience as a political organiser, both in helping establish a feminist collective with the women who use crack, as well as helping build alliances with local organisations as part of a wider Street-Life Movement. Self-organisation became the best method to reclaim their rights and to protect against the various violences their members had suffered. After Luanda raised the question above with me, I spoke with Maria Lucia Pereira, the founder of the Street-Life Movement. In our meeting, Maria Lucia made the headquarters of the movement available for the women to meet and organise: she too was looking for women who lived on the street who would join their cause.

Parallel to these events, the National Network of Anti-prohibition Feminists (RENFA) was born: they were a collective of women who use drugs who would gather to combat the damage that drug prohibition had wrought upon their lives. As a founding member of RENFA, I was responsible for organising a local collective of women who used drugs. I spoke with the other women from the streets and with Maria Lucia, and we embarked on this joint adventure. In one of our meetings, Maria Lucia encouraged us to interlace the anti-prohibition feminism with what she called the “street-found feminism”: this was a feminism of survival, a type of feminism that manifests itself in the daily practice of looking out for yourself and your partner on the street.

“It’s the street-found feminism, the one that no one ever sees, that exists in the little gestures of solidarity between women,” Maria Lucia would say.

Some of the women Malheiro worked with at a memorial event. Photos by the author.

In its end, the book narrates these final moments of research: the meeting in the Street-Life Movement headquarters, meeting other women on the street, and the process of building the group’s critical consciousness. Through support from a university, we were able to raise awareness of their organising efforts, and develop the knowledge needed to achieve the group’s aims. One of the outputs produced was a project, supported by RENFA, that brough financial support for four of the women who used crack on the street to become outreach workers. Until then, they had entirely depended on money from drug sales to survive. The project’s end coincided with RENFA’s first national meeting in the city of Recife, Pernambuco, where the research partners had their first experience of participating in a social movement.

This project, entitled “Women and Drugs: Nothing About Us, Without Us” allowed us to create safer spaces for knowledge production and political empowerment. The latter part of the project was to help these women properly formulate the experiences that they faced in society, particularly as drug users. When racism – as a technology of power and subjugation – is compounded with sexism and drug prohibition, injustices are created that endlessly play out in the lives of these women. Understanding this proved to be essential to liberate these women of the burden of guilt that they carried on their shoulders, a guilt triggered by their status as people who used crack. Removing the alienating and stigmatising features of drug prohibition from their lives was one of the primary goals of their political empowerment.

The book provides some ideas on how to democratically build a drug policy system, one that can pierce the traumatic experiences faced by individuals, as well as break cycles of social, racial and gender-based injustices. The key to the puzzle lies in investing in the activism of people who use drugs, so that they may build a new framework for the elaboration of public policies that relate to drug use. Through the lives, stories, struggles, pains and projects of women who use crack, the book aims to break their enforced silence, imposed by the stigmatising and dehumanising stereotypes they face.

By organising alongside my research partners, we built a strong case that influenced the feminist agenda around drugs. Within it, we inserted: the right to motherhood for women who uses drugs, their right to life and the management of pleasures, to their protection from the various types of violences they have suffered.

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