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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Invest in Girls": Global Women Leaders' Message

Blog Series on the Women Deliver Conference: #2

By Allison Schaefer, CEP Intern

“The girls of today are the women of 2030.” With these emphatic words, Kathy Calvin of the United Nations Foundation set the stage for a scintillating dialogue and “business proposal” to invest in girls. Appropriately titled “Investing in Girls”, this panel discussion at Women Deliver featured some of the world’s most promising leaders. Maria Eitel, President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, Dr. Nafis Sadik Special Advisor to UN Secretary General, Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World YWCA all provided their unique experience and expertise in girls’ development. The “sales pitch” these four inspiring leaders provided as to why we must invest our resources in girls is highly effective and compelling.

Maria Eitel spoke of the importance of focusing on the often forgotten age group of women, 9 to 19 years old. She asserted the common dangerous assumption that women’s studies pinpoint this age group, when in fact little data and focus exists on girls’ development during these critical years.

Lying within this age group, I found myself instantly compelled to learn about the importance of this demographic of the female population and what these girls can contribute to society. Ms. Eitel introduced the idea of “latent potential.” I myself have always been intrigued by latent potential, the idea that one has power, skills, and brilliance that is just waiting to be discovered. She feels that by investing our resources in and attention to adolescent girls, we can provide them with opportunities they had previously lacked to contribute to society artistically, scientifically, and technologically.

So how can we understand just how much these girls contribute to civil society? Ms. Eitel has embarked on a cutting-edge research project to find the answer. In order to bring the voices of young girls from around the world to Women Deliver, she has conducted research and communications with girls in seven countries. Through the Nike Foundation, she spoke directly with girls about their hopes, dreams, and concerns for the future. In her work, she identified a specific trend. Young girls, Ms. Eitel contends, are full of hope, aspiring to be doctors and leaders. However girls in their mid-teens see their future as barred by social barriers and their success hindered by violence and economic depression. But among all girls, there is a sense of urgency, dedication, and perseverance. She found that girls were determined to obtain a better education and better health services.

When I heard about Maria Eitel’s experience with young girls around the world, I was immediately reminded of my own experience abroad. Last year I traveled to Myanmar, a country struggling in both development and basic human rights. There, I had an amazing encounter with one young girl who embodied the spirit Maria talks about. We were traveling in a rural area of Myanmar and a young girl, around my age, approached initially trying to sell basic handicrafts. We looked at the bracelets she had made and purchased one, but our interactions did not end there. She walked with us as we toured the area, practicing her English with us and expressing a genuine interest in our background and desire to learn. This young woman had a profound impact on me, and demonstrated the vitality of young girls and their desire to become educated.

Dr. Nafis Sadik was the next to provide her insightful views on girls in the modern era. Dr. Sadik explained how she was greatly inspired and influenced by her parents growing up in Pakistan. In a highly conservative society where many girls did not attend school, she was lucky to have parents that pushed her to obtain her own education. She warned however that today many women lack the power to obtain such an education and even make decisions about their health. Women and girls lack independence in civil society. Dr. Sadik contended that the solution to this problem is changing the mindset of society. Though challenging, only by altering the way families see the role of women can we move forward and make progress in the rights of women.

In any investment, one must weigh opportunity costs and look at the benefits an investment will bring. Reeta Roy in this Women Deliver panel showed us the tangible benefits investing in women’s education can bring to society. She argued that by investing in young girls education, we can create economic growth and prosperity. When we think of education, images of textbooks and problem sets often come to mind. Ms. Roy reminded us that education for girls is more than just a road to employment, it should also teach life skills. I found Ms. Roy’s view on the value of education for young girls very powerful. She asserted that through education girls can “find their voice” and make a profound impact not only on their own lives, but the lives of others. She explained how organizations such as Africa-focused Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) are helping provide safe access to health services and viable education for young girls. Additionally, ELA clubs in Uganda (Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents) give girls a safe place to play and have fun as well as to obtain education. Organizations like Camfed and ELA are showing the world that investing in girls is very worthwhile.

The personal stories of young girls are often the most powerful motivation for change. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda uses her personal experiences and stories to show the important role girls play in our society. Ms. Gumbonzvanda believes girls are the true leaders of the future. She told the story of Mereso, a young girl who at age 13 was forced to marry a man who could be her grandfather. Mereso underwent extreme hardship in this child marriage and is now an activist for women. Nyaradazyi explains that barriers facing girls has prevented Mereso from even coming to the United States to share her experience. Mereso’s story demonstrates the need to protect the basic rights of women. She proclaimed that we need to transition from a state of vulnerability to leadership. Girls need empowerment to rise above the glass ceiling that is holding them back. Ms. Gumbonzvanda wisely warned, however, that words are not simply enough. We need action for girls, and we need it now.

At the conclusion of this Women Deliver panel, these four inspiring women explain to us that the next step is investing in girls. Ms. Eitel focused on the need to create a movement of activism for young girls. She argued that we haven’t really “delivered” on these issues yet, and we need to evolve society to promote the welfare of these girls. Ms. Gumbonzvanda feels the current status of girls is simply unacceptable, and that we need to recognize the intolerability of that status quo in order to move forward. Ms. Roy concluded saying that we must “align values and actions along a common vision.” She stressed the idea of collaboration and community involvement as key. And finally, Dr. Sadik closed by saying we need to work at all levels to promote change. In order to promote the rights of young girls, we must work not only at the top government levels, but within the community and through various partnerships. The road to progress is not easy, but is a road we must embark on.

Outside the conference hall is a tree. Not a pine tree, not an oak tree, but a tree of hope, dreams, and optimism. This tree resembles a wishing tree, with pieces of paper stating the dreams of young girls serving as “leaves.” This tree is a powerful declaration of the power of young girls in our society.

“We are at a unique moment in history,” Maria Eitel argued. Young women have great potential to provide numerous benefits to society. Now is the time to focus our attention on women and girls. Now is the time to invest in girls.

To see the full videos from the Women Deliver Conference see link attached

Monday, June 3, 2013

“Talk, Listen and Act”: Youth at the Women Deliver Conference

By Allison Schaefer, CEP Intern

Allison Schaefer is writing a youth blog series on the annual Women Deliver Conference held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Here is the first in the series.

Engage. The link between youth and issue awareness, policy change, and progress is engagement. The importance of engaging the youth population on the issues of gender equality and health is a reoccurring theme in Women Deliver 2013.

Ibtisam Kassim Ebrahim of the World Assembly of Youth, Helena Nangombe of Advocates for Youth, and Humphrey Nabimanya of Reach a Hand all offer their own unique perspectives of the role of youth in global health and women’s issues. As a youth myself, I found myself reconsidering my role in the global community and realizing the potential I possessed to promote positive change.

Ibtisam Kassim Ebrahim, originally from Kenya but now living in Malaysia, provides an insightful dialogue on mechanisms to engage youth and issues to pinpoint. Representing WAY, an international body of youth organizations, Ibtisam seeks to find resolution to gender inequalities and social burdens for women. When asked by UN Development Programme moderator Boaz Paldi, Ibtisam reminds us that social media is the key to engaging youth on critical topics including quality education for women and girls. Progress in gender equality and education pave the way for equal opportunity and a good quality of life for women and girls. Nangombe and Nabimanya relate a similar message in their panel discussion as well. All mention the essential social media outlets: Facebook and Twitter.

The emphasis they place on spreading awareness via social media struck a cord with me. Growing up in a digital age, my high school experience has been shaped and influenced by social media. I’ve seen first hand the power of Facebook to spread important messages in a short timeframe. By “sharing”, “posting” and “tweeting”, youth are able to use repetition to reinforce the importance of an issue in our society. But Ibtisam goes beyond simple social media, reminding us that there are other outlets for communication. Through WAY, she publishes a monthly bulletin as well as a website. This website contains a directory of youth organizations and current policies to provide youth with direct access, awareness, and information.

Technological sources such as these provide youth with the invaluable link to information and promote education, another issue discussed in Women Deliver. Ibtisam calls youth the “catalyst of most policy making around the world.” With such a pivotal role in issue resolution and the future of women’s rights, the youth population must be engaged.

In an earlier dialogue, Helena Nangombe and Humphrey Nabimanya express a similar view on the importance of social media in communicating with the youth. Helena and Humphrey, however, focus specifically on how social media can be utilized to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS and maternal health to youth.

So how can you communicate with youth? When I heard this question I was very interested to hear the answer and see if I agreed; inevitably, I did. Humphrey explains that in order to communicate with youth on issues as critical as HIV, AIDS, and reproductive health, we must speak the language of youth. This can be accomplished, they argue, by utilizing social media, SMS text messages, TV stations and even local newspapers. Humphrey also suggests stressing positivity. Humphrey rationalizes that we need to excite the youth not scare them away from the issues, an idea I couldn’t agree more with. By using hope, positivity, and progress as themes of social media campaigns we can engage the youth and promote change. He even provides some more unique tactics to reach the youth. Running awareness campaigns through large corporate companies with a youth audience is just one of them. I was struck at the brilliancy of this idea. What better way to reach a large youth audience than to target products that they purchase and are devoted to?

Humphrey also introduces the idea of interconnected media awareness campaigns. As a TV host, he describes how he could post an important issue on Facebook, engage the youth in a dialogue in the “comment” box, then discuss the ideas brought up on his TV program. Multiple facets of information is critical to issue awareness in the youth. Communication is key, but how can we engage the youth to act? Helena reminds us that as youth “we are leaders not of tomorrow but of today.” Talk, listen, and act. These three words are her recipe for progress.

By reminding youth of the responsibility they hold in our global community, engaging them through social media, and prompting action, the future of the health of women and society as a whole is looking a whole lot brighter.

To see the full videos from the Women Deliver Conference see links attached