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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/

March 13, 2017 ~ 6:15 PM
Montage Initiative Hosts a Parallel Event at the Sixty-First session of the Commission on the Status of Women

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January 16, 2016

Women, Widows and Poverty in India

 Written by Klevisa Kovaci ~ 16 January 2016

In December 2015 and January 2016, I was fortunate and privileged to make a humbling trip to India with the organization that I have long been involved with, Montage Imitative, a student group from my alma mater Fairfield University, and of course our hosting partner organization, the Guild for Service. We stayed in the cities of New Delhi, Vrindavan, Agra, and Jaipur, in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan.

The purpose of these travels was an immersion and service trip into the main issues facing India today, particularly gender equality. We embarked on field visits to NGOs, poor villages and schools, engaged in discussions with some of the most inspirational women and men in policy and grassroots development work. We interacted and worked with women and children in adopted villages, and the widows of Ma Dham shelter. As such, we got a glimpse of the real India beyond the numbers and claims of “economic boom.” This gathering of insights into the major challenges in India today is of particular interest to me, as a graduate student of International Development. 

Sharing this journey and experience with my colleagues from Montage Initiative and Fairfield University has been a privilege. It is rare to be able to experience one of the most amazing countries in the world, some of the most beautiful sites on earth, and tackle the world's greatest challenges like gender equality - all with your close friends by your side. Yet, the presence of us 14 or so Western, young, light-skinned females in such a heavily patriarchal society, turned the heads of nearly every male around.   

Most importantly, meeting the people and getting a glimpse into their lives was humbling and flattering. While India faces unprecedented levels of poverty, the diverse people of India – from the children to the elderly women - show true strength, spirit, energy, and vitality that inspires and awes me. The dignity, care, and respect that the people who I met is gratifying. These writings are the culmination of my experiences, thoughts, and observations of the scenes and faces encountered in India.   

   

Introduction to India 

Walking through the streets open-air markets in Delhi India, one is bombarded by sights, sounds, and smells - an overbearing feast for all senses. The colors of the clothes in the markets, the smell of the hot fried foods on the streets, the shouting of sellers inviting customers, the roaming dogs (or undisturbed cows in the case of Vrindavan) all creates a unique sensation of embracing the chaos. 

Passing the central mall complex of Delhi, the lights of the mall read Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other names forbidding to anyone below the 0.1% of income in India. The main private malls, are on high level of security, due to threat of safety and terrorism. 

Next door a few meters away lie shanty shacks with rudimentary structures of wooden or metal sheets that serve as shelter for the homeless. But these huts are not isolated to certain areas; they are everywhere. Indeed, traveling for hours between cities, one sees mainly these poor slums of temporary shelters consisting of cardboard, wood, or metal sheets (I think), just enough to literally keep a roof over one’s head. Yet in major cities like Delhi, many sleep on the streets and burn garbage to keep warm at night.  

The colossal scale of the raw poverty in India is stupefying and paralyzing. The struggle for survival is raw and reflected clearly in almost every sight and contact. It is overwhelming, and I imagine that is what Atlas must have felt like when carrying the globe  on his back.  

India, known as a land of contradictions, has it all. One witnesses the highest level of affluence to the most despairing poverty; rapid progress next to languid stagnation. In a modern city atmosphere, the buildings of booming technology, banking, and engineering industries, filled with busybodies and high stress levels, loom over homeless beggars and shantytowns below.  In one scene one sees life and death side by side: crowds of people walking by dead animals on the ground, or by lactating dogs feeding their puppies. The majestic Taj Mahal and other historical monuments of the Mughal empire and earlier civilizations loom high and proud, attracting millions of tourists, most of which are Indian; merely meters away are slums on dirt. One views the constrictions of women in daily life to the private sphere, yet their public sexual exploitation in music videos and beyond. The largest democracy on Earth has a vibrant civil society, although it suffers some of the biggest assaults on civil rights. India is indeed in full transition. 

 

Experiencing Patriarchy  

India is a strongly patriarchal society, of different degrees depending on the level of development of individual states, cities, and regions. Going around to the cities of Vrindavan, Delhi, Agra, and Japiur, virtually every public space in India, one thing stands out to me; almost everyone outside is male. Almost no women walk on the streets, go grocery shopping, or drive. In many (or rather most) parts of India, women are largely confined to the private domain and discouraged from being out in public. Of course, this is changing, and now there are more and more women outside, and more women drivers. The few female drivers in Delhi appeared inspirational and brave simply for being out. The number of girls at universities is also on the rise. 

  

What a spectacle we made as a group of 14 non-native women in our twenties and one gentleman (thanks Alvin!), attracting much attention everywhere we went. Almost all the men passing by or who caught a glimpse stared intently and unabashedly as we walked on the streets, and peered at us even when we were inside the bus vehicle. Many took photos or videos of us without asking, like paparazzi. A few asked to take photos or selfies - I made sure to firmly say no when asked to take photos with random men. Visual and psychological objectification at its highest, all of my colleagues and I were outraged. 

Having been warned of this and learning from previous experience, I wired my mentality not to pay it attention or to notice – my best coping mechanism to not let the overbearing stares and crass behavior affect me. But the second that I snap out of that mode, I see the photos, stares of questionable motives everywhere, and I was certainly not the only female to feel exposed, scrutinized, and utilized.  

Furthermore, we were warned many times not to go out in the streets of Delhi past 8pm, even in a large group as we were. It was not safe to walk around anywhere alone, regardless of time of day, but especially so at night, and especially not during New Year’s Eve. This is what lack of freedom means, - to not be able to go out alone, or late at night, or to not be able to go out period. It means to be judged and utilized for every stranger’s eye pleasure, while individuality and dignity feels lost. My friends and I caught a mere glimpse of what women and girls suffer as a lack of freedom in a highly patriarchal society. 


The Status of Women and Girls 

The status of women and girls in India is low, as it in most developing countries and even developed countries. Women’s treatment as second-class citizens manifests itself in the form of child marriage, female infanticide, property rights, widow abuse, and more. Women and girls are generally discouraged by their families and society from being seen in the public sphere. Rather they are confined to the home behind closed doors where they  cook, clean, take care of the family, and cater to their husbands’ wants with little freedom of choice. Behind closed doors they are also often subject to abuse by the hands of their husbands or male relatives. Indeed women often do not have the right to their body, such as the right to make decisions about when and how many children to have. Often, this choice rests solely with the husband.  

Patriarchy in India has also caused one of the most skewed gender ratios at about 918 females for every 1000 males. This originates from a society that valorizes males to the detriment of females. Families prefer to have male babies instead of female babies, sometimes resorting to female infanticide to abort their female babies in hopes of having a male baby later. The majority of the factors leading to the skewing of the gender ratio occur during the pre-natal phase of a baby to about age 5. If the female baby survives age 5, then it is most likely that she will continue living. Thus today there remains the question of the “missing girls” who were never born or died as infants.  

But, the preferential treatment of males over females continues throughout childhood. Because there are not enough government schools, families who have more resources sometimes opt to take their children to private schools which cost some money. Families prefer to send boys to school, and sacrifice education for girls so that the girls may help out with chores. This was quite evident in the schools of the adopted villages and NGOs that we visited. In almost every classroom there was a dearth of girls.  

The discrimination against girls and women only intensifies during adolescence and adulthood. While the practice of child marriage is now banned in India, it still occurs in the least developed parts of India and especially the northern states like Rajasthan and Haryana. And while the practice of dowry has ended, it continues in some of the same areas – a girl’s family pays money to the future husband’s family – which rarely but scandalously resulted in bride burnings, in which the husband’s family killed the new bride in order to remarry and obtain another dowry. Now the government of India has put in law provisions that discourage such a practice by holding the husband’s family responsible for the death of a wife within 7 years of the marriage, by default.  

Next, sexual harassment is a massive problem in India. The undermining term of  “Eve teasing” is sexual harassment of girls and women in the form of groping, verbal harassment in public spaces such as the streets or public transportation. Delhi has the highest rate of rape in the world, including gang rapes. 

In a society with such a skewed gender ratio, the dearth of girls has had major repercussions – from an increase in the rate of violence by men, to human trafficking and increased prostitution and “importation” of women. Yet, it is also helping to break some of the barriers of the cast system as people are now forced to intermarry between castes, seeing as how there are few women available.  

Several tragic events have set into motion turning the wheel of change. One of the most recent events, the 2012 Delhi rape case flung the country into outrage as masses of people occupied the gates of India in Delhi, and protested in cities throughout the country to demand government action to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. Likewise the 1992 gang rape case of Bhanwari Devi elicited a similar reaction. 

The women’s movement is alive and well trying to influence change. As a result of all these efforts and recent events, the Indian government put into place several laws and even amended its constitution to offer more protection and rights for women, such as  amendments 73 and 74 which set a quota for maintaining at least 33% women in local governance assemblies. It also enacted the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013, and made changes to inheritance in property laws, dowry, child marriage, and more in favor of women. 

 

Widows, and Poverty 

Rolling into Ma Dham shelter was one of the most emotional and memorable moments of the trip. Under the clear sky and bursting sun of midday, the sheltered widows lined up to greet us with flower necklaces in their hands. As we got off the bus, they put wreaths of marigolds around our necks and the red tikka on our forehead as is the custom when welcoming guests into Indian homes. They bowed, saying “Rather Radhe” – the main greeting in the holy city of Vrindavan, in honor of the Hindu god Krishna. 

Blessed and humbled by the welcome, we met the women and listened to their stories. The widows ranged from as young as in their twenties to as old as over their 80s. Some of them had been in the shelter for a few weeks, others for decades. They came from many different backgrounds and loved to share about their families and lives. One lady in particular had been a chemistry professor and came from a family of chemists. Despite language barriers, we connected as women with a common humanity.  

There is no generalizing “women” into a homogenous group in India, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. There are poor marginalized women in more rural areas, and some well-educated and empowered women in the city. But widows suffer triple marginalization: as women, poor people, and widows. When their husband dies in conflict situations (as is the case of state and militant husbands in Kashmir), a woman is left with no money or income. These are known as “war widows,” but there are all kinds of widows in India. For instance, with looming debt from purchasing seeds of GMO companies like Monsanto, several farmers are committing suicide, leaving behind “farmer widows.” The widow must then take care of her household and children, carrying on in destitution by working the fields in what is known as the “feminization of labor.” 

Indeed women are at the center of poverty, as about 70% of the world’s poor are women. Women suffer poverty more frequently than men, and at more extreme levels. Furthermore, women work several full time jobs in labor, usually the informal sector, and then in domestic work, taking care of all the family’s dependents. This “feminization of poverty” is especially in the case of single-parent homes run by females, which earn the lowest incomes. This poverty is passed on between generations if girls or women are married at a young age to much older men and widowed early on, as they become stuck in the cycle of poverty. Indeed, the lack of education and poverty of women is a defining factor and the key to the overall poverty and development of India. 

There are about 46.5 million widows in India. 75% of women-run households are headed by widows.  A widowed woman is considered bad lack in Indian culture, and she is thought to be the indirect cause of the death of her husband.  Her family often shuns or even abandons her. Indian thought states that in childhood, a girl is taken care of by her father, in marriage by her husband, in old age by her son. A widowed woman is thus considered “masterless” and therefore is at the mercy of the remaining family, such as the brother in law, who often forces her into a second marriage with him in order to maintain the property that she would otherwise inherit from the death of her husband. Widowed women may not wear color or jewelry or decorate themselves in any way, according to tradition. In the past, they were also made to shave their heads to remove any sign of what may be seen as beauty or decoration. In one of the most notorious practices of “sati” widowed women were pressured to kill themselves at the funeral pyre of their dead husband. This practice is now banned in India.  

Abandoned by their families, many widowed women are forced to leave their home and travel to the holy city of Vridavan where they go to live out their last years in the hope of redemption and salvation. There are thousands of widows in the city of Vrindavan, Varanasi, and other areas in India. There are also many shelters, but never quite enough to house and protect them all. 

Ma Dham is therefore a sanctuary for these women. There they do activities like skill building, physical exercise like yoga, visits to the city, and generally enjoy the company of  one another in the beautiful compounds of the shelter. Some participate in computer courses and learn how to make crafts with their hands that they sell and earn a livelihood from. 

Throughout our stay in the Guild for Service’s Ma Dham shelter, we got to bond with the women through various activities, all the while getting to know them better. One of my favorite events was a bonfire, where the widows, and our group sang and danced in the night. We even managed to get the male staff up and dancing!  

Ma Dham which means “my home” really felt like a home. Even the staff was like family, especially the sweet soul Urmila. Originally from Virndavan, she works at the Guild for service, and was one of the most positive influences, always cheering everyone up, serving delicious tea, and sharing her culture with us, including teaching us how to write in Sanskrit! The staff at the Guild of Service was very kind and welcoming to us. I made friends with the lovely young women Nadya and Mavra from Kashmir, and of course our valuable and most trusted intern, Jessica. As our time at Ma Dham drew to a close, we waved in a bittersweet goodbye or maybe see you later. I am certain that some of us will be back to visit again someday. 

         

Women’s Movement, Advocacy and Grassroots Work  

India is also filled with many empowered women catalyzing change for gender equality. The leaders and staff of the Guild for Service, under the direction of the legendary Dr. Mohini Giri, champion for women’s rights and widows, are the epitome of change makers. The board members of the Guild for Service, such as Dr. Meera Khanna, work tirelessly on advocacy and grassroots work. Advocacy acts on the level of influencing, changing, and even creating policy at the local, national, or even international level. The Guild for Service works on all levels including in the international arena through the UN.  

Likewise, the women working in social service NGOs for their fellow women are other examples – such as the organizations All Indian Women’s Conference and Jagori, whose headquarters we visited to meet and discuss with their leaders. The organizations run gender service centers that offer healthcare services and information, make women aware of their rights under Indian law, provide support in the cases of domestic violence, train and award women diplomas in skills so that they may obtain jobs, and more. 

Even in the most patriarchal states of India, like Rajasthan, empowered and elite women have risen and led change from the top down. But change does not have to be only from those of the highest social class. The empowered women in the adopted villages spoke loudly and clearly, communicating their ideas and speaking their minds at meetings. They joked, exchanged experiences with us, and brought us to join them in song and dance in celebration of life. The young women of the Jesus and Mary College of Delhi University, with whom we got to converse, are already breaking barriers for women and spearheading change. As demonstrated throughout this trip by the amazing and powerful women that I 

met – from the leadership of the Guild for Service, to its female and male staff, to the NGOs, and to my colleagues - change is underway happening marginally but making a difference  daily. 


March 4. 2015
Montage Initiative is pleased to participate in the 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 59), which will convene in and around the United Nations Headquarters in NY, March 9-20, 2015 with the theme: “Beijing+20: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.” 

It is our privilege to co-sponsor Women’s Federation for World Peace International's (WFWPI) parallel event, taking place on Monday, March 9, from 12:30pm to 2:00 pm, in the Armenian Convention Center, 630 Second Avenue, 35th street, New York 10017. The theme is “Young Women and Leadership: Education, Opportunities and Obstacles.” Co-sponsors of this event include the World Youth Alliance, Montage Initiative, and WFWP USA. It will feature a panel of young women leaders who will address the theme, inspire the audience, and engage them in discussion.

December 2, 2013
Montage Initiative will be back at the United Nations with Dale Allen's one woman show, In Our Right Minds, participating in the fifty-eighth session of the Commission on the Status of Women. This side event will be hosted at the United Nation's Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium on March 11th, 2014, from 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM.  Please check back with us for more information and to RSVP!  You must have a UN pass in order to attend this event.  Montage Initiative will have a limited number of passes to give to those that RSVP.
 
March 8, 2013

In Our Right Minds?
57th Commission on The Status of Women

'In Our Right Minds', was the perfect title for a session at this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Not because it’s the name of Dale Allen’s one woman show, the main speaker at our event, but because who in their right minds, of all the delegates, NGO’s and agencies attending one of the largest international forums in the world, could possibly think that we can actually ‘prevent’, never mind ‘eliminate’, violence against women and girls in our lifetime? The title theme of this year’s 57th meeting of the Commission?

 
I had the privilege of being the opening speaker at the session, sponsored by Montage Initiative; a US based organisation working to create sustainable livelihoods for women in India. The participants purposefully reflected not only a range of expertise and experience but also the rarity of wisdom and youth as well as generation and gender; constituencies that must work together to help counter violence against women and girls. 

  

Dr Mohini Giri - Head of Guild for Service, India; Photo by 'LarJ'  

The wisdom manifested itself in the form of 78 year-old veteran activist and scholar, Dr Mohini Giri, former daughter-in-law of President V Giri of India, and Head of India’s Guild for Service. Dr Giri, who saw first hand the affects of widowhood in India when her own father died, and who was later herself widowed, helped found the Guild in 1972 and works tirelessly to improve the lives of widows in her country. Numbering a staggering 42 million, many of them barely surviving and living on the streets, widows find themselves betrayed by a culture commonly lacking in compassion for its women, in a country beset by corruption that is flagrantly active at all levels of society and governance. 
 
Dr Giri’s tiny bespectacled frame belies her huge passion and commitment, undiminished with age, that bubbles just beneath the surface. Her opening words, that ‘patriarchy breeds poverty’, were received with nods of agreement from an equally distinguished audience and her sense of urgency for action only increased with the announcement that she had just delivered a declaration to the UN, requesting the rights of widows be formally recognised as a United Nations Mandate.
 
Violence against women and girls has for so long been firmly framed as a ‘woman’s issue’; a messy subject like menstruation; a taboo that no one wants to talk about, with some cultures in silent collusion more than others. But the thing about women’s issues is that they are for the most part, more about men than they are about women.  Particularly in cultures where men have absolute power over women and corrupted that partnership absolutely in many cases, disastrously holding those cultures back socially, emotionally and economically. Even in the case of FGM, where it is mostly women themselves perpetrating and perpetuating the practice, it is with men in mind, marriage, and the need to be identifiable as a virgin, that young girls continue to be subjected to this ritual. Who will want them otherwise? 

UN Per Carlos Garcia-Gonzales, El Savlador

Photo by 'LarJ' 

Which is why it was essential to have a male voice on our panel, to provide that additional perspective to the discussion. That voice was the UN permanent representative to El Salvador, Ambassador Carlos Enrique Gonzales-Garcia, and this year’s Vice President of the Commission. For how can we talk seriously about ‘women’s issues’ without including men? 
 
The lack of men on other panels in some of the sessions I personally attended was disappointing.  In an early one on eliminating violence, where increasing political accountability and addressing structural violence was high on the agenda, not a single man was on the panel comprising senior UN agency heads and government ministers from around the world.  As heartening as it is to see women heading these organisations and holding ministerial posts, when the obvious absence of men on the panel was raised during question time by a young man working for the UN himself, the response from the chair was decidedly brief and vague, as if wrong-footed by a question that was totally unexpected. 
        
Self deprecating and with equal amounts of humility and humour, Ambassador Garcia animatedly spoke about the need for accountability, calling for an end to impunity in cases of violence against women and the need to work together. Not just top down, through political policy, or bottom up through social movements but sideways as well. Integrating and collaborating with one another, with organisations dovetailing to create a whole approach to issues as never before.  Not just soft power in action but the judicious use of smart power in pulling it all together.

Garcia is a huge advocate of El Salvador’s ‘City of Women’ Initiative - Cuidad Mujer in Spanish, supported by the country’s first lady,Dr. Vanda Pignato, who is also the Secretary for Social Inclusion. It is more than the usual one-stop social shop for women providing refuge from violence, however. City of Women will provide childcare, police support, help and education on legal and civil rights, job training and a raft of other meaningful integrated services.
 
The plan is also to provide entrepreneurship opportunity as never before, creating confidence as well as competence. Crucial components for what could create a huge cultural shift regarding women if this initiative’s success equals its ambition. And with these centers set strategically around the country, connecting holistically with one another, not only will whole communities benefit from such collaboration, but the whole country as they form a new social, emotional and economic infrastructure driven by women.  This is not just an initiative with guts but one with heart and a model to be applauded, adapted and adopted around the world. 

And finally at the other end of the generation scale, the youth and enthusiasm on the panel came from the Co-Chair and founders of Montage Initiative’s Student Advisory Board, Klevisa Kovaci and Sharon Pedrosa.  These young stars from Fairfield University are no longer leaders in the making for they have already demonstrated they are leaders and role models, working for the empowerment of young women not simply as a cause to champion but as a way to convert energy and ideas into action.

 

Klevisa Kovaci & Sharon Pedrosa, Chair & Co 
Founders, Student Advisory Board, Montage Initiative  Photo by 'LarJ'

 
With polished professionalism, Klevisa and Sharon spoke about creating a ripple affect of change through the board they had founded and model they created for youth empowerment. They outlined the need for other organisations to be more aware of how educational opportunities in Service Learning can reap real dividends for both parties if viewed as an investment and how they themselves had benefited from Montage’s student program.
 
Given meaningful mentorship and responsibility, rather than filing and making tea, these young women had become not only mentors themselves to their peers but real decision makers in their own right. Along with several other Montage student colleagues, they had organised and coordinated most of the UN event themselves and even the camera crew filming the session were students from another university. Showing just what young men and women can do given the opportunity to collaborate and shine. 

As Sharon put it, “Only a year ago we visited the UN during the Commission on the Status of Women for the first time with Montage and now look at us; we’re actually speaking here!  And if we can do it, anyone can do it”.  

Dale Allen - Photo by 'LarJ'  

Last in the line up came Dale Allen. Reading with authority as she stepped slowly through the room, her entry was theatrical. Wearing a full-length black cape she read from a large book, quote after quote, of different religious texts from around the world that collectively demonised and denigrated women throughout history. The largely unsuspecting audience were spellbound by her delivery as much as stunned to hear women officially declared not only worthless but also evil across the continents, through the ages and in every holy book.
 
Travelling quickly but seamlessly through time, Dale recounted how women of early cultures were honoured as goddesses, protectors and co-creators. How their fall from grace began slowly with the advent of the alphabet, writing and reading. The different way in which the brain needed to process this new form of information was also the beginning of its rewiring and the great switch over; like going from analogue to digital. From previously, image orientated right brain soft skills of creativity, empathy and intuition associated with feminine qualities, to left brain, hard analytical skills of logic, reasoning and linear thinking; traditionally attributed to male ways of seeing and being in the world.
 
Leonard Shlain, put forward the hypothesis of the alphabet as the ancient female nemesis, in his book the ‘Alphabet versus the Goddess’ published in 2004, in what he describes as the 'conflict of word over image'.  As a consequence the written word became the God of all things; over symbols, sex and of course women.  Dominating a world where feminine attributes had previously held the greater currency. 
 
But technology and the keyboard is our saviour apparently and its widespread use in our offices, our homes and on the move, by both sexes, is activating left and right brain connectivity in a new simultaneous conversation as never before. Rewiring new areas of our brain and encouraging not only new pathways of connectivity but greater access to creativity and enabling men in particular, to see the world through new eyes. If the left brain/right brain theory holds validity then announcements from the scientific community last year that the human race had reached its evolutionary limit, as there is no space left inside our skulls for our brain to grow larger, then perhaps our brain rewiring itself is where the real action and evolution is; the sum being greater than its parts.

'The human race has reached its evolutionary limit' 

The human race is now exposed to more information in a single day than our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in an entire year.  But while the proliferation of ‘experts’ online makes more information available to the masses, it does not necessarily make us wiser as a result. Information is simply knowledge. The wisdom lies in how you apply it. If Shlain’s theory is to be believed, not only is the use of our keyboards helping to balance out our brain but being bombarded by images through our TV’s, PC’s and hand held devices 24 hours a day may be another contributing factor.  Images being processed in the right, more ‘feminine’ part of our brain.

Dale ended her contribution with a heartfelt song about the long and lonely wait for the return of the soul; the archetype that is woman and the feminine, to an eruption of emotion and applause. Joanne Watkins, my close friend, colleague and CEO of Montage Initiative, had achieved what she set out to do; deliver a session on empowering women using different ways of engaging; through words, images and theatre and one that will be remembered for the unique why in which stories were told and issues were touched.
 
Memorable as it is however, in the time it has taken you to read this, somewhere in the world a woman has been raped, a child abused, and a life will have been broken forever. Against the backdrop of the cavernous collective wound of daily violence against women that mankind continues to inflict on itself, what difference do all the statements, sharing and networking at a meeting of this magnitude make?

What can we take away from our own session and this year's Commission as a whole?  What was clear, is that language and meaning is a key factor in both the sharing of best practice and its delivery. The shameful failure to agree to acceptable conclusions at the end of last year's Commission was due to differences of language and terminology in the final draft document, which contained so many strike throughs and deletions it was rendered virtually incomprehensible.  A repeat of a similar roadblock has thankfully been avoided this year.

                                                
'We want more mentors and less monsters'


Now more than ever we need smart, collaborative, strategic thinking and action if we are to succeed and making use of technology and big data in creative ways. Both as organisations, and in the use of our tools, approaches and resources from every possible avenue. Conventional and crazy; top down, bottom up and sideways. From left of field and right to the heart; from social media to individual effort leading to widespread co-operation at scale.  Culture change comes through a number of different influences; including education, communication and imagination. Their effects converging in the mother of all tipping points when the 'hundredth monkey has joined the 99' and the timing is ripe for change. Most of all change comes when people have had enough. It is crucial for men to be involved in the culturally sensitive conversations needed at every level along with the concrete commitment at the top that is sadly lacking right now.  We need more men to stand up and stand by us, as role models as well as change agents. We want more mentors and less monsters.
 
While introducing an additional perspective of difference between the sexes that could supposedly change mankind for the better if united, does pose an interesting hypothesis; the real meaning behind Dale's story is to help women understand and maybe even remember, that once upon a time it was different and that they must hold on to the hope that one day it will be again. This is what keeps us striving towards our common goals on the long road towards fighting violence against women and girls.  We know that culture change is a long and complex process and that working together we can make a difference. The belief in that is part of why we have come. Not just to share and learn together but to renew our hope together.  For without that, our task surely feels insurmountable and we will have lost everything.
 
Poetically, hope comes in many forms. The ancient Greeks had a Goddess of Hope named Elpis, who alone stayed on earth to comfort mankind after all other spirits had fled. That the ancient Greeks made the quality of hope itself feminine is perhaps even more relevant in the present. 
 
The Greeks had another Goddess named Nemesis.  She is the Goddess of Retribution whose job it was to restore balance to the world.  In order to do so, however, she had to first destroy it to pave the way for its rebirth.  If we can't stop the worldwide epidemic of violence against women and girls soon, the perpetrators might beat Nemesis to it.  Ingrid Stellmacher, 8th March 2013

 

January 11, 2013
Happy New Year Everyone!  We are so excited to start our New Year as we have many exciting things on our plate!  I am so proud to announce the roll-out of our Student Advisory Board, Co-Founded by Klevisa Kovaci and Sharon Pedrosa (both Fairfield University Students), and even more exciting, to see them present a peice called "Students Unite!" at the upcoming 57th CSW at the United Nations in March!  We will keep you posted but please check our calendar and home page as we will be announcing much more in the coming months - thank you!  Joanne

January 19, 2012

Talks are underway between the Quick Center and Montage Initiative to host a “History of Woman” exhibit from May 24, 2012 to June 23, 2012.  Montage Initiative, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization headquartered in Bridgeport and London is dedicated to the development of women throughout the globe.  The Quick Center’s stewardship of this relationship with Montage Initiative, is an important, multi-faceted collaboration.  This exhibit can also be seen as one of the capstone events of the Quick Center’s involvement in the University’s Global Citizenship initiative.
 
The art show, part of Montage’s “TAG”  – Travelling Art Gallery – will show “The History of Woman” in the Thomas J. Walsh art gallery from mid-May through mid-June. The goal of TAG is to help artists create, exhibit and sell  their work to gain a sustainable living and to raise funds, continuing  the cycle of "Building Peace, One Woman At A Time."   During this period, from June 11-15, 2012, Fairfield University is hosting the 3rd Biennial JUHAN (Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network) Student Leadership Conference: Global Perspectives on Humanitarian Action.  This will present a tremendous opportunity for the estimated 200 students, faculty and staff attending the conference from Jesuit Universities globally and nationally to visit the exhibit.  A public opening reception has been scheduled to coincide with the conference and participants will be invited to attend this opening.  A student poster show for the conference will also be on display at the Walsh Gallery during the History of Woman opening reception in June.  A call for artists was issued on January 9, 2012 which included a special outreach to students.  Students and faculty at Fairfield University will be encouraged to submit work to this important show.
 
The Quick Center’s collaboration with Montage Initiative builds on an already expanding relationship between Montage and the Fairfield University community.  During the spring semester, Montage Initiative will host students as part of Professor Poli's IL 150: International Operations of Non-Profits. This course is a JUHAN-designated course and has a service learning component.  Students from Professor Poli’s class will  work with Montage Initiative throughout the semester to apply their studies in an NGO setting. 
 
 The main dates for the History of Woman art show and it’s&