Center for Environment & Population (CEP)

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Future of Women’s Rights and Empowerment: A Youth Perspective

Blog Series on the Women Deliver Conference: #3

By Allison Schaefer, CEP Intern

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, upwards of seven thousand leaders, activists, and advocates gathered for the Women Deliver Conference. They met to discuss the status of women in our society in 2013 and the progress we have made as a global community. But this powerful group of leaders also met to discuss a very important topic, the future of women’s rights and empowerment. What will be the status of women’s rights after this meeting, in a couple of years, even a decade? And what about youth? What role can they play in the future?

Such an intriguing, complex, and essential question was appropriately tackled by a brilliant panel of leaders in one of the conference’s last large panel discussions. Titled “The Development Through a Young Person’s Lens” this panel explored the answers to these questions. Moderated by Remmy Shawa, coordinator of the International Sida Project and Sonke Gender Justice Network, the panel addressed the Post 2015 Development Agenda.

With so many different panels, interviews, and discussions at the annual Women Deliver conference, I struggled to decide which to focus on and write about. I surveyed and watched many, but found myself instantly drawn to this discussion. With a panel made up of bright, young leaders, I felt a connection to their work and service. I found their stories compelling and the nature of their discussion extremely pertinent to my own life. The Post 2015 Development Agenda for women around the world directly will directly affect the society in which I live. As a youth, I was interested to learn what role I could play in the future of women and education around the world.

My curiosity was aptly satisfied by these four inspiring speakers. First to speak was Saba Ismail, Executive Director of AWARE Girls in Pakistan. Following Ms. Ismail was Mary Mwende, the Global Ambassador and Partnership Manager of the Global Giveback Circle in Kenya. Bringing a male perspective was Ahmed Awadalla, a Sexual and Gender-based Violence Officer, Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance. The last panelist was Maria Jose Rivas, the Director, Board of Directors of International Planned Parenthood in the Western Hemisphere.

To describe these activists as passionate would be an understatement. They are both inspired in their line of work and inspiring to others. Moderator Remmy Shawa tapped into that sense of inspiration by starting off the panel with a discussion of what inspired each panelist. Their stories and backgrounds proved unique. Saba Ismail tells the story of a young girl who was violently harassed in Pakistan. Despite her hardship, she persevered and became an activist for women’s rights. The story itself was inspiring, but became even more so when Saba admits that this is the story of her own childhood. I was touched at her bravery to share her story. Speakers like Ms. Ismail are what make Women Deliver a truly remarkable global event.

Mary Mwende responded that a global giveback program that visited her school prompted her passion for women’s rights and education. She explained that growing up, she experienced what it felt like to truly need an education. She fights for education for women because she feels every girl should be “empowered, educated, and enabled.” This simple three- step formula can transform opportunities for girls. Ahmed Awadalla brought a very different perspective to the table. Exposure was the catalyst for his passion and involvement. His exposure to people living with HIV AIDS, social stigmas, and even working with refugees has molded his perspective. For Maria Jose Rivas, a lack of access to health education and information drove her to promote change.

As they looked at the Post 2015 Development Agenda, the panelists looked at specific issues to focus on. Physical violence, lack of information, disengagement of youth in the political process and inequality were some of the repeated issues. While addressing these issues, Mary Mwende brought up a point I found very interesting. She points out that issues such as physical violence and barriers to information have been a problem for the past 22 years of her own life. As I listened to her, this made me question, have we really made progress? Saba Ismail adds that in Pakistan, such problems have actually increased due to religious extremism. The dialogue between the two allowed me to see just how important it is to discuss the future of women’s rights, as our progress may be less than we think.

Throughout the discussion, empowerment of women was a goal for the future. Ms. Ismail hopes to see strong women leaders. Similarly Ahmed Awalla envisions women becoming the doctors and medical professionals of the future.

But women’s empowerment cannot be solely limited to women. Men too must be part of the demonstration. That is why I found it very fitting that the panel included a male perspective. Mr. Awalla agreed that in order to reduce gender based violence, men must be engaged, as he himself is through a program he is involved with that helps survivors of domestic violence and rape. He argues the gap between men and women must be closed.

So what else must we cover in order to be able to look to the future? Mary Mwende stresses the need to understand the roots of violence. One of the most insightful of the panelists, she remarks that violence towards women is not engrained in any culture or religion. She calls a tendency toward violence a “mental poisoning” that must be eradicated.

Having pointed out the past problems of society and the problems of the today, the panelists ended by looking to the future and stressing key goals. When looking to the future, Maria Jose Rivas sees a need for better accessibility of health and reproductive services for youth. Mary Mwende sees a need to work at a grassroots level to affect youth. Ahmed Awadalla feels we need to hold countries accountable for their actions in order to promote women’s rights. By sharing information, Mrs. Rivas contends, we can enable youth.

Finally, the agenda. Each panelist closed by contributing goals to the Post 2015 Development Agenda. For Mary Mwende it is girl’s education and rights. For Maria Jose Rivas it is sexual rights, autonomy and health information. For Ahmed Awalla it is ending gender-based violence. For Saba Ismail it is empowering women to be part of the decision making process. In just one hour, these speakers set out a comprehensive agenda that can steer us towards the future.

The tasks, goals, and objectives ahead are daunting. The youth of today and tomorrow have a lot of work to do. But seeing the devotion and ingenuity of these youthful speakers has given me great confidence for the future. Similarly, my experience as an intern at the Center for Environment and Population (CEP) has shown me that with a passion for promoting the global health of women, a drive for positive growth, and a dedication to improving the global environment, we can overcome and achieve such goals, making the insurmountable surmountable.

To the full video from the Women Deliver Conference, see link attached.

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