Tag Archives: women’s rights

Women’s Wear:  Sharing the Burdens of Those Who Defend and Inform, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Afghan II

 

To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs. Tom Rob Smith

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destiny. Takayuki Yamaguchi

If I don’t help the women in Afghanistan, they won’t be around to help me. Cheryl Benard

It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women; that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The end of this past work week was dominated by images that pointed human potential in vastly opposite directions.  In New Zealand, a mass killing in two mosques grabbed world headlines and caused many institutions – including the UN Security Council – to pause for a moment of silence, a moment that underscored both concern for victims and viceral unease at our collective inability to address — let alone eradicate — this “other terrorism.”  Indeed, the relative indifference evidenced by the government of the UN’s host nation stood only partially in contrast with the mostly muted levels of shock emanating from other states, shock perhaps due more to the startling location of this violence than to its severity.   We are collectively becoming numb to the incessant carnage, it appears, renouncing violence only when it hits too close to home, and often not even then.

On the same day, many thousands of teen-aged young people prepared to leave their classrooms and fill the world’s streets, taking adults like me to task for our negligence on climate threats.  Despite the warnings of insufficient responses, despite the scientific consensus on a threat more immediate and widespread than previously thought, we have mostly gone about our regular business as though our concerns were primarily grounded in rhetoric rather than in survival.  Moreover, we have inflicted this “business” on succeeding generations mostly stuck in classrooms and consumed with admission to next educational levels while the planet melts, millions are on the move, rights are being violated with impunity, and violent tensions are on the rise.

That said, it is especially good for all of us that young people take to the streets to protest some portion of the absurdity of “preparing for life” on a planet that might not be able to sustain life as we know it for that much longer.  Among their contributons, their presence on our avenues and boulevards is a reminder to the rest of us that the greatest gift to climate deniers is the lifestyle indifference of we who claim to accept the “reality” of climate threats, our unwillingness to reduce our ecological footprint, to care for the displaced and discriminated, to hold erstwhile “leadership” accountable for what is coming and not only what is.

The UN of course takes regular notice of threats from terrorism and violence even if it must often wait for states, especially powerful ones, to take up their own portions of global responsibility.  For this week, however, threats to and opportunities for women dominated the UN during the 63rd convening of ECOSOC’s Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), ably chaired by Ireland.  Thousands of women from around the world made the trek to New York, filling virtually every available UN space in plenary sessions and copious side events to discuss the merits of “social protection” and link “women’s empowerment” to sustainable development goals previously promised to the world through the 2030 Development Agenda.

The CSW is both a major branding opportunity and a bit of a “mixed bag” for the UN, which failed once again to secure guarantees from the host state for access by all the women registered, while also largely failing to provide levels of hospitality that women who have traveled long distances to participate surely deserve.  What these CSW delegates found instead is endless lines for coffee and basic sustenance, standing room only side events, and rest room configurations that had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate the thousands of women now in the building.  The security officers tasked with screening and providing direction for these women have often been no less stressed than the visiting women themselves.

Moreover, there is a sense in which delegates seem to have been led to believe that the CSW is breaking new ground for the UN in terms of ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, ensuring women’s participation in political and peace processes, and guaranteeing educational opportunity and social protection for women and girls.   These matters already constitute a significant portion of our regular discourse here at the UN.  This is as it should be, with the caveats that our gendered jargon (how do we know when someone is “empowered?”) might actually impede a deeper, connected understanding of the many layers of exclusion that infect our collective interests.  For all the barriers faced by women in diverse cultural contexts, theirs is but one ample portion of a number of often-interlocked exclusions associated with race, religion, ethnicity, poverty, disability and social class. These factors contribute to complex and multi-layered patterns of discrimination that impact women to be sure, but hardly women alone.

It is in the CSW side events where the complexities of human lives – women’s lives – are mostly likely to find their voice.  Two such side events stood out for us this past week.  The first, “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Women Human Rights Defenders,” featured women from Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Nicaragua and elsewhere who literally put their lives on the line to defend rights and public interests in places where most of us – including many who reside in our UN safe spaces – would not be anxious to tread.  The powerful and largely humble testimony of these women did not downplay either the threats they face in the field (including gender-specific threats) or the limited reach of UN protections against reprisals for their activities (duly acknowledged by the UN officials present).  Women defenders are expected to “navigate layers of power” while insisting that their own “layered” and often-traumatic experiences inform what one defender referred to as women’s rights discourse that has become “too predictable,” a “tool for repressive states,” alienating for many women on the front lines of change.

Another side event this week, “Journalism and the empowerment of women,” featured women journalists whose difficult work is both facilitated and imperiled by their deep connection to and reliance on “social media.” Such platforms have become havens for “anonymous” and mean-spirited trolling of the journalists who tell the public things they would rather not know, trolling sometimes accompanied by gendered threats of overt violence that, in some instances, morph into physical attacks against individuals and families.  One of the free-lance panelists who is dedicated to covering right-wing movements cited “staggering” amounts of anti-Semitic, derogatory responses on social media in response to her body of reporting. Another journalist capably extended the discourse on exclusion and abuse, noting that when you examine issues of race, “you put a target on your back,” a target for which there is scant protection, especially from online assaults. Male journalists, it was noted, are also subject to abuse, but are generally regarded as “hated equals,” a courtesy rarely extended to women in the profession.

I was so grateful for the women on both these panels who were generally able to speak clearly about the extraordinary pressures they face without demonizing others or minimizing the generalized impacts of the recrimination and violence that characterize much of our current social climate.  But I also wondered: What keeps them going when their energy and hope have worn thin?  What allows them to do their work, day after day, knowing that they and their families risk being “hung out to dry” by those of us in much safer spaces who can simply redirect our energy to other matters?   Is it pride and determination? Have they simply “stitched their fate” with those serially oppressed?  Do they feel the hurt that can only be healed through intention?   We need to know more about their motivations and feed off their examples.

With an absence of essentialist jargon and with the recognition that too much global policy is like rain that forms in the clouds but never reaches the parched earth, women defenders and journalists are boldly sharing stories and contexts that some want to kill and too many others ignore.  If we want a world where families are safe to worship and children are confident in the health of a planet that will house their adult aspirations, we must all pledge to do whatever it takes to offer mechanisms of protection and solidarity with the eye-opening and often life-saving work of these people of courage.