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Commemorating Women 3/13/2018

Commemorating Women Worldwide

March 13, 2018

Klevisa Kovaci

“No more being afraid to speak the truth, no more fending off sexual advances from an employer or person in power, no more pay disparity. The time is now,” declared Sade Baderinwa of ABC news at the 2018 United Nations Commemoration of International Women’s Day.

There is still a backlash against women who speak out against sexual harassment, with minimal repercussions for harassers and criminals. Monica Sing, at age 19, suffered an acid attack by her boyfriend after refusing to marry him because she wanted to study in college. Nadia Murad, at age 19 was made a sex slave by ISIS, before escaping and becoming a vocal activist for Yezidi women. Malala Yousafzai, at age 15, was shot by the Taliban for going to school. For every woman who speaks out against her abusers, hundreds of others are shamed into silence by the patriarchal society around them, police systems that refuse to protect them, and by male antagonists and harassers.

Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp call out in mass scale against gender-based abuses and impunity– in the music industry, in the filming industry, and more. “We have reached a tipping point in history for gender equality,” Baderinwa declared.

Gender equality has been shown to benefit every aspect of human progress- research consistently shows this. GDP is stronger when women participate in the economy, while gender-based violence costs global GDP 4% every year. Women do 75% of the global unpaid work, totaling a value of 10 trillion US dollars; in the formal workforce, women’s compensation consistently lags behind male counterparts for doing the same work. Peace negotiations that involve women are more likely to last. Money earned by women and cash aid delivered to women is invested in the family, health and education – more often than when transferred to men.

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres stated that from empirical fact and basic sense of humanity, gender equality is what everyone and “what sensible men and boys should want.” “We still live in a male-dominated world and culture… the world is out of balance.” So long as it is lopsided, we will continue to experience ailments that afflict us today, such as high rates of poverty and violence. 

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A “proud feminist,” the Secretary-General outlined his plan to improve gender parity in the United Nations, particularly at the top senior leadership level where only 13% of staff are women. He spoke passionately for his zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment. This is in light of sexual harassment scandals discovered at the hands of UN Peacekeeping troops, including in Haiti and Congo. Tackling sexual harassment requires reporting, accountability, and protection for whistle-blowers – all policies that the UN has made progress in during the last 5 years, but where more action is necessitated.

Indeed, champion for women’s empowerment and President of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajcak noted that states are “doing more” by enacting laws to protect women, and that people are marching more. However, he showed the great work still to come, “We cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or peace if half of our global population is denied their rights.”

At that point, Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female foreign minister, showcased model policies in Australia that increased the number of women in leadership through mentorship programs by women in power. The keys to success involve policies that bring women into the economy, into political leadership, and that halt gender-based violence.

The necessity of support from men becomes clear – Danai Gurira, female protagonist of the film Black Panther, challenged, “Where are the men?” Why does the male bystander condone and fail to speak out against abuses by other men, even when aware of them? “No more locker room talk, or bar talk, or anything similar,” Gurira continued. Men should call out and refuse to participate in sexual harassment behavior of their own and their peers. After all, as Gurira noted, men are heavily influenced by one another and listen to each other, perhaps more so than to women.

One thing is certain about the women who speak out and are changing the system – they are not pausing for the men to stand up for them. “We are not waiting to be saved. We are saving ourselves. Women are rising up taking decisive action. Right now we are catalyzing a seismic shift,” stated Monica Ramirez, president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. UN Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Gcuka called all the movements represented in the General Assembly Hall that day: Bring Back Our Girls, Time’s Up, #AskHerMore, Stop “Marry-Your- Rapist Laws,” and movements spearheaded by French, Latin American, and Afrian women to the sound of cheering crowds. Irishwoman Geraldine Byrne Nason, chair of the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, summed it up, “We have had it. The time is now. We will plan to rock the system.” 

Time's Up - UN Women photo cred

Photo Credit: UN Women

Baderinwa brought to center globally-acclaimed actresses Reese Witherspoon and Danai Gurira. With the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light, Witherspoon started the Time’s Up movement after gathering with fellow actresses who also experienced harassment in film. After the movement went global, she received a letter from Monica Ramirez’s constituency of farmer women – claiming solidarity with Witherspoon for women in the agriculture industry. Ramirez recounted the plight of farmwomen and the violence that they experience while preyed upon by company owners, bosses, supervisors, and male co-workers. Although from different walks of life – some from a billionaire industry of screens, others from farming fields – all women face some of the same challenges.

In the most iconic moment, Gurira, female protagonist of Black Panther, brought the spotlight to some of the strongest women who had suffered the most in the world. She shared her inspiration for her film role as General Okoye. With superhero qualities, Gurira’s character inspired audiences and prompted questions among even young male audiences of why there are not more women generals. Of Zimbabwean roots, Gurira described her personal journey visiting women in Liberia and in the Congo.

“’Humanity’ privileges certain stories,” she remarked. It does so while silencing or ignoring others. Often, the stories heard are from men – hence even the etymology of the word “history” means “his story.” Whose points of view are not being taken into account? Imkaan’s Executive Director, Marai Larasi, supported this, “We are not voiceless… we just aren’t being listened to.” In a quest to find the stories and voices missing, Gurira went to war-ridden places to learn from some of the women who had suffered the most. Women in civil war experience unspeakable atrocities at the hands of militia and government forces, as mass rape and torture are used weapons of war, continuing war crimes. What Gurira witnessed was the courage and wisdom of women in Africa, who had risen through so much pain to keep going for their families and rebuild their communities post-war.

Theirs were the missing stories that she brought to the General Assembly Hall of the UN and to the world, the stories that needed to be “amplified.” Gurira’s inspiration for her character and work was the courage, willpower, and strength of these women to carry on no matter what, and to continue to make a difference for those around them – to rebuild communities and nations, thereby becoming leaders in their own way. 

Returning to the US, Gurira keeps a photo of one of these ladies on her mirror to move her every day. She committed herself to revisiting these women, perpetuating the circle of action and inspiration. As her voice shook with emotion, Gurira’s words pierced the silence, the strength of her inspirers resonated behind them. The answers for how to address world problems and create peace, “these answers are in the bosoms of those women in the Congo, in Syria, and in Liberia,” Gurira reiterated. These are the women and heroes everywhere keeping the world going in the face of all obstacles and atrocities.

In my mind, Danai Gurira’s call to amplify the voices of these women echoed Meera Khanna’s call to share the stories of widowed women survivors in Kashmir. Gurira brought a global event for the heads of the world back down to the people working the hardest for change on the ground.

The commemoration concluded with the folks doing some of the hardest work for marginalized women, non-profit organizations that go into isolated corners of the world to bring into discussions the forgotten women there: Imkaan, Indego Africa, Alianza Nacional de Cmpesinas. As so many people call to continue doing the most crucial and difficult work, organizations such as these need support and resources. With a challenging aid environment, these organizations are constantly being asked to do more with less. It is time to invest more in change makers such as these, and the women who they support. Working in such an organization that promotes women’s empowerment, I often know the struggles of this type of work; dressed in solidarity in black and white, it is refreshing and restorative for any morale to enter this room and feel understood and supported. Against a backdrop where real heroes are forcing positive change every day, and where more people are acknowledging the realities that women face, the time to join in the movement is now.

View the event here: http://webtv.un.org/watch/international-womens-day-2018/5747875746001/