Supporting Caste-Oppressed and Indigenous Feminist Leadership in South and Southeast Asia

Jewel Antoine

11 October 2023

In this conversation, Foundation for a Just Society’s Communications Associate (Jewel Antoine) interviews the South and Southeast Asia team (Senior Program Officer for South and Southeast Asia, Prachi Patankar, and Senior Program Associate, Phoebe De Padua) as they reflect on funding feminist movements led by caste-oppressed, ethnic minority, and Indigenous women and queer people. They share what FJS is learning about supporting feminist organizing that addresses the multiple injustices facing women, girls, and queer people in the region.

Jewel Antoine (JA): Let’s talk first about how FJS thinks about feminist leadership, and what it looks like in action in South and Southeast Asia?

Prachi Patankar (PP): One of FJS’s core values is an expansive and anti-racist feminism. We say that our feminism “provides a framework for understanding and addressing the multiple injustices affecting women, girls, and LGBTQI people.” How we think about feminist leadership flows from this definition of feminism. In South and Southeast Asia, oppression is rooted not only in patriarchy, but also in racism, caste systems, and capitalism. The effects of all these oppressions overlap in people’s lives, especially in the lives of women and queer people. FJS draws on Indigenous, Black, Dalit, and de-colonial feminist traditions to lift up and support the leadership of those who experience oppression at the intersections of gender and race or caste. 

In the region, the women’s rights groups that tend to receive funding are led by upper caste women and women from ethnic-dominant groups. Their approach is often patronizing and does not challenge the caste framework. Sometimes an individual from an oppressed caste may be represented in a group’s leadership. While this representation is important, we believe it’s not enough. Our approach is to support the movements that are led by caste-oppressed, ethnic minority, and Indigenous women and queer people that are organizing for structural change. They are organizing what we refer to as “collective movements for liberation” – movements that name and challenge all the forms of oppression they experience. They experience the deepest forms of injustice, and this puts them in a position to create the most effective and lasting solutions to injustice. These caste-oppressed and Indigenous-led movements have been organizing for decades, pretty much without funding, and at FJS we believe it’s urgent to invest in centering and supporting their leadership. 

Phoebe De Padua (PDP): In Thailand, for example, the middle-class and urban-led women’s rights movement has received the most funding. Its analysis sees patriarchy as the most important source of oppression. In contrast, a lot of our grassroots feminist partners in Thailand are working to include peasants, migrant workers, sex workers, marginalized LGBTQI people, and Muslim women in their organizing to build a coalition beyond the middle-class, academics, and elites. These grassroots leaders are thinking not only about patriarchal oppression, but also about economic exploitation, militarization, and the damaging effects of extractive industries. Their feminist leadership moves beyond single-issue silos to aim for broader, structural change.

PP: We are also learning about new and more expansive expressions and definitions of leadership.  We believe it’s important to support groups or movements that encourage and support many people to exercise leadership. They are sometimes referred to as “leaderful” movements, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US is a good example. This approach to leadership makes movements stronger and more sustainable. As a funder, we also ask groups about their second-line leadership and how they are supporting leadership development within their group. We want our support to help them build their leadership and share power within groups. This is important to us as a movement-building funder.                

JA: How are feminist movements addressing some of the deep challenges in the region, like authoritarianism, militarism, and climate disasters?

PP: The frequency of climate disasters is increasing, and we know that they are often linked to commercial farming practices, deforestation, and the proliferation of genetically modified seeds in agriculture. In many parts of South and Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the world, women have traditionally played a crucial role as seed keepers, preserving and managing various crops, sharing knowledge about agricultural practice, and ensuring nutritious and familiar food for their communities. One of our grantee partners, UBINIG, in Bangladesh, supports rural women seed keepers. Through this work, they promote biodiversity and prioritize community sustenance. Supporting local women’s involvement in seed systems and seed preservation strengthens local food security and livelihoods. This is an example of lifting up the leadership of local women who have solutions to the urgent problems facing their communities. For us, this is feminist leadership in action.

February 2023 marked the second anniversary of a military coup in Myanmar. We see that women have been active in opposing the coup since it took place and that women garment workers were among the first to mobilize union opposition to the coup. Now, Women's League of Burma and Karen Women’s Organization are at the forefront of the fight to oppose militarism and authoritarianism. Despite facing military violence, women and queer people in Myanmar are working together across movements to advance gender justice and LGBTQI rights and to resist the repression of ethnic minority communities. This commitment to cross-movement collaboration is a key feminist strategy in the region; it strengthens movements and builds the capacity for civil resistance. 

PDP: In this challenging military context in Myanmar, feminist leaders were really the first to advocate for the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group against which the government has committed atrocities and genocide. Karen¹ Women’s Organization, a group that represents another ethnic minority, has taken a bold stand in advocating for the Rohingya people. Their analysis has been crucial to the anti-coup resistance and is an example of feminists making connections about the interconnectedness of different groups’ experiences of oppression in the current authoritarian context.

We also see our grantee partners in the region including more young people in their organizations and supporting the leadership development and the feminist political education of young people. For us this is an example of grantee partners taking a long-term view. Challenging structural oppression requires sustained opposition and resistance. It is encouraging that groups are being deliberate about supporting younger leaders to offer their unique insights and solutions to build durable movements. 

JA: What are some of the lessons from our grantee partners that you want to share with other funders?

PP: Feminist leaders are developing analysis and practices that address multiple forms of oppression and violence faced by women and queer people. They prioritize collaboration with other social justice movements across countries and the region to ensure that all forms of oppression are addressed – this is crucial for achieving long-term liberation. For instance, the Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand fights for their land rights while also working to support the demands of sex workers’ organizations and other landless and poor people's movements. Feminist groups see all these struggles for survival and liberation as being interconnected. 

PDP: FJS supports the feminist leadership of women and queer people who have been the most impacted by oppression and whose leadership has often not been recognized. This means that they are taking ableism, caste frameworks, and the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities into account. We also support intergenerational organizing and the work of younger feminists. Resources need to be allocated within the region so that feminist activists who have been most affected by injustice are generously funded with the kind of flexible support that allows them to build inclusive, sustainable movements.

PP: Another lesson we are learning from activists is the importance of engaging in collective care. They may not use the phrase “collective care,” but caring for each other is an integral part of their work and of how they are building movements.  For instance, we met with young Dalit feminists in Nepal, and they talked to us about the daily struggle to access good food and how their organization is making sure that good, nutritious food is available to their community. This is part of the care that their organization provides. They also talked about the importance not only of caring for each other but also extending care to each other’s families. When a member of their group had to be hospitalized, the group took on responsibility to care for her baby.

We have also learned that the definition of care is context specific. Care involves safety and security, and providing for an organization’s safety in militarized or authoritarian situations is different than in a peaceful or democratic context. In the midst of violent conflict, when bombs are being dropped, we as funders need to be sensitive to what that means for how an organization takes care of itself and its people.

We talked earlier about learning to value different leadership practices. As grantmakers, we need to learn not to tokenize leaders from oppressed groups. By “tokenize” I mean the tendency to focus on one visible individual in a leadership position and relate to them as if they are the only leader in the group. It is important for funders to recognize that groups often have multiple leaders, and we need to think about how to support leadership transitions and to encourage our partners to think about second-line leadership and leadership transitions. These are important contributions that we can make as funders.

PDP: We support our grantee partners to learn from each other about feminist leadership, especially from non-hierarchical collective organizations that share decision making and power internally. We support their desire to connect with other groups and create learning spaces. These spaces can provide powerful examples of feminist leadership, not just in SSEA, but in other parts of the world, too. Donors can support learning spaces to explore and develop new approaches to feminist leadership.

JA: Thank you both so much for sharing with us your thoughts about supporting feminist leadership in South and Southeast Asia.


¹ The Karen, also known as the Kayin, Kariang, or Kawthoolese, are an ethnolinguistic group of Sino-Tibetan language-speaking peoples. The Karen reside primarily in Karen (otherwise known as Kayin State) in southern and southeastern Myanmar. They account for around seven percent of the Burmese population. Many Karen have migrated to Thailand, having settled mostly on the Myanmar–Thailand border. A few Karen have settled in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, and other Southeast Asian and East Asian countries.


Photo credit: Women's League of Burma