" We all have wounds ,whether we talk about them or not, those wounds remind us of where we came from and it helps us question if we have healed."
These powerful words start my 2nd day at the UN Commission on the Status of Women 55th Session. The day was yesterday, Monday, March 1st, 2011 the first day of International Womens Month and it couldn't have started any better than women from all over the world gathering in New York City, sharing powerful words and cleansing tears. I can still hear and feel Mandisa Monakali words from South Africa as she continued to speak about Gender Equalization and the Abuse of Rights of Women and Children, the first of three workshops I attended today.
She continues to share her wisdom with us, " We talk about others but not ourselves, we talk about generations, we talk about them , my mother, my grandmother, those women but we don't talk about ourselves. You sit here holding back your tears because you are busy supporting others and not yourself".. And yes, I was holding back my tears because at that moment nothing separated me from the women talking on this panel, her story became my story, its our story.
This panel was amazing because it not only addressed gender equality but it did so within the context of violence against women and the tears from the panelist set the tone for a human conversation. One women from Oaxaca, Mexico shared her story of being a young girl having to go to school five hours from her house, she took 2 pounds of tortillas and 2 pounds of beans with her for the week and came home during the weekend to work with her family herding sheep,getting corn and coffee while in her head she thought it was unfair because other children in the rest of the world were playing and having fun. In Oaxaca only male children get to go to school so at the expense of leaving her family she headed to Mexico City because she knew if she stayed at home there was going to be no possibility for her development. Now she is at the UN speaking on behalf of the women in her community.
Another, women shared that in South Africa, violence against women is still an open debate because cultural practices promote it. Many people ask her how can women, the poorest of the poor have cell phones and she responds, " for communication, to call each other when they are selling at the market to see how the sales are going or to ask how is your family is doing and share stories or report that they are being abused, that's why they "waste" money on cell phones."
This was a different type of panel because it made the connection that violence against women is a cross cutting issue , you cannot talk about anything without talking about violence against women, so they had funders at the table and to my surprise an organization from New York called CONNECT to talk about their program for men who are ending violence. It was great to hear another persons perspective on violence against women in the United States and the role that patriarchy plays in supporting gender inequality.
"Its easy for people to point and say over there, those men, those women but in the US, violence against women is our norm", says Sally from CONNECT. She reminded us that while mutually men must be a part of this movement historically, the government has placed institutions in our communities that are sexist and women are continued to be battered by that system hence, women in New York barely go to them to access help. In addition, she also threw out some interesting questions for us to think about as we continue to want men to a part of ending violence against women. 1. How can they be a part of it? 2. What does holding men accountable look like? 3. When and where do they enter this movement? 4. How do we undo the socialization of men and the way they listen to us?
Through out this whole conversation I am looking around to see who I can pair up with to go to other workshops as today I am here alone. I am also noticing that in order to be a journalist I too have to listen differently. I noticed that I would switch from activist/organizer with opinions and judgments to journalist, objective, writer and learning how to use all my senses to be able to bring you my audience into the panel or the day with me. I want you to smell it, visualize it, and close your eyes and hear it. So, today I bought my camera with me to take pictures to share with you.
Its time to go to another workshop, this time at the UN building. Oh my god , I have never been inside. I quickly run out of the workshop because of course the workshop here are in different buildings and they are either happening at the same time or overlapping so you never really get to stay till the end of any workshop before you have to run to another. I remember to take a picture for you and get online to pass the security detectors. I have to take off my coat, put my purse and shoes in a bucket and pass my body through a scanner while the rest of my belongings pass through another one. I get that there is a need for security but really lets end the violence, this process makes me want to turn around and leave, its not that serious and I feel like a criminal. Breathing and I am finally in! I look around excited and then see all the flags from around the world and I think, What an oxymoron, the United Nations in the USA that divides nations with war and economic control, really?. I'm inside, but it turns out i'm in the wrong building because the workshops are being held across the way in another building of the United Nations. The security is the same and wow what a difference from where the parallel events are happening. Parallel events to me are workshops, panels , and discussions being held by grassroots, and main stream organizations that we you don't need a special pass to attend and to some degree open to the public, except no one knows this is happening on the ground and women from other countries cant afford to come here and also don't know this is happening.
Until now , I didn't know what the difference between parallel and official events meant and now I know, I feel it, I see it. This building compared with the Church Center across the street is inaccessible. It is a beautiful marble floor space with conference rooms filled with hundreds of men in business suits. Sprinkled in between them are those of us coming for the event, you can tell us apart because we bring color, literally and figuratively, woman are wearing their beautiful colorful cultural attire that makes them stand out. I decide I want to walk into every room to see whats happening. I walked into conversations about Arms and Treaties and Green Economy. I picked up literature and was like wow, these are some powerful conversations happening that no one knows about. Deep!
Finally, I make it into conference room five and immediately I thought about the power of media and technology. There where about 100 people sitting around a rectangular shape table with microphones, translation devices for peoples ears, water, etc. Where was all of this at the people's workshops where translation came from someone sitting next to you and there was one mic for people to share?. This my people is an official event and todays conversation was about Securing Quality Education for Women and Girls categorized as a high level panel discussion. At the table where Secretary Generals, Ministries of, and a whole bunch of other folks with titles unknown to me and from institutions I never even knew existed. This made the room feel sterile and the information inaccessible. It made me think who is your audience? because you really are just preaching to the choir, yourselves, not the women who came to this country for this conference and definitely not to grassroots women.
However, I manged to get that they where talking about the importance of making connections with illiteracy, violence against woman and education. If women are not being educated then violence will continue and the fact that women are not being educated is violence in itself. Again, I laugh here we are talking about education and its importance on so many levels , to end violence against women and promote gender equality and this morning on the news in New York the mayor announced laying off thousands of teachers and shutting down hundreds of schools.
What I did like was that Ms. Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary-General of Council of Europe defined education not just as access to school but also access to resources, and an environment free from violence. She spoke about how young women out of school are targets of violence, in some places the education system is responsible for violence against women because the young women are being pushed out of school if they report being sexually abused, get pregnant or married with no option to ever go back. She concludes by saying that 87 countries still do not have legislation prohibiting forms of violence in the school system and many countries do not have systems to report, claim, or hold accountability leaving parents in fear.
My day is coming to a close and I am wondering wear should I go next. After this sterile experience , i want to get energy and get re-inspired and motivated so I decide to walk about 8 blocks from 44 street and FDR drive to 52nd street and 3rd avenue to the Salvation Army to end my day with a young womens performance by Project Girl called Voices without Borders. These young women are mutli-cultural and have put together this performance especially for the theme of the UN. I will leave you with my favorite piece by a young black women from Brooklyn, NYC. This is dedicated to Mr. President Obama. I hope I do her piece justice.
Dear Mr, Obama
Why is it that I graduated as valedictorian of my high school and when I was accepted into college I was put into below average classes. I was accepted into PACE University, a private school which I can't afford and because my grades are low I can't get a scholarship. Financial aid is not enough so they school tells me to go to a community college or go get a loan but i cant get a loan because I don't qualify for it. I have bad credit for things I cant even pay for because im poor...."