How women self-organise: The birth of street and anti-prohibition feminism

Luana Malheiro - Shared on TalkingDrugs


How women self-organise: The birth of street and anti-prohibition feminism

11 July 2023
Luana Malheiro
Talking Drugs
“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.

Related Profiles

  • Rede Nacional de Feministas Antiproibicionistas – RENFA (National Network of Anti-Prohibitionist Feminists)