Open Letter to Senior Women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

By kimberley kilgour, YWCA of New Zealand.

To the senior women who have been privileged to attend umpteen CSWs and women’s world conferences on Government delegations or with NGOs.

kimberley kilgour

kimberley kilgour

I have not come here to push you out of your position, nor have I come here to take your spotlight. We all want the same thing (to improve the rights of women in its various forms) therefore please, give us all a chance to speak and to share and do not tell us we don’t know what we are talking about.

After discussing with other young women leaders from World YWCA, it seems that our voice and our passion for action is preferred to be silenced by those within some organisations. Young women are seen to be “inexperienced” and should have better knowledge of the UN before speaking out and demanding change. It pains me to think that these more senior women think that their views and their voice should resound louder than ours. How are we meant to be effective and achieve equality for women if we cannot even work together with respect?

The young leaders of the World YWCA are doctors, scientists, economists, lawyers, and social workers. We are in touch with our community and know, through our OWN experiences and education, what the real needs of women in our nation are. We are not just here to talk; we are here to develop plans. Please take us seriously.

Failure to engage the next generation will mean the torch will not be passed on. Allowing us to sit at the table and participate in real negotiations and discussions will ensure continuation of the women’s rights and feminist movement.

Kindly recognise the sacrifice every young woman has made to attend CSW and take this into account before you speak and before you exclude. I spent over 40 hours on planes, left my seven year old son and missed the first 3 weeks of my academic year in order to be here, not to mention the community effort it took to raise the funds. I am determined that the sacrifice I made will not be in vain.

Maternal Health in Latin America and Caribbean

By Sophia Pierre-Antoine – YWCA of Haiti

On March 15, during the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women/Beijing+20 (2015), Sophia from the YWCA of Haiti gave a speech and shared her story on mental health and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) from her perspective of Latin America and Caribbean (LAC).


Sophia Pierre-Antoine YWCA of Haiti

Over the last 20 years it is true that if we take a look at the statistics on maternal health in the LAC region, the fact that jumps out the most is that maternal mortality has been reduced by 40% in Latin America and 36% in the Caribbean. Yes, this is very much a victory to celebrate; however we are still dying.  Pregnancy and birth related death remain one of the leading causes of death of young women and girls.

I will share a quick story:  Although I speak on behalf of the region if you could please take your imagination to Haiti. This is my home country, where last year, a girl not yet 14 took her own life after her father threatened to kill her once he found out that she was pregnant. I was not able to find out if the sexual relations which led to her pregnancy was consensual or forced, but what I do know is that a 14 year old girl is dead. What can we do to stop this?

I share this story as a reminder that maternal health is also very much linked to the health of the person, the woman, the young women, the adolescent girl, as much as it is about the future or recently born child.  Haiti has the highest child death rates with 76 children who do not reach the age of five for every 1000 who lives, and as my YWCA sister Paola will mention, Bolivia is the 2nd highest with 57.

Access to good health services and health education has proven time and time again to reduce maternal and child mortality as we have noticed in Cuba and Costa Rica with 7 per 1000 and 11 per 1000 respectively. Now compare that to Haiti and Bolivia.

Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education, medical services and skilled professionals poses a great barrier for young women and girls especially rural women, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender women, and women living in poverty where diabetes, malaria and HIV (21%), high blood pressure, infections, hemorrhages, and unsafe abortions claims the lives of many. These deaths are preventable. Let’s remember our promise of the 5th MDG to, and I quote, “improve maternal health”. I repeat, each of these deaths are preventable.

It is important to remember that the LAC region differs widely in wealth, size, and culture and so statistics, even when they are done with the proper tools and resources, are often skewed. As a matter of fact, stats from different sources give different findings.  To illustrate this, let us look at the disparity in women having a 1 in 44 chance of death in Haiti to 1 in 560 in Belize, and 1 in 1400 in Cuba and Costa Rica. Now imagine for a moment the inequity between the richest and poorest in these countries. It seems as the inequality reflected between countries, can also be seen within countries.

That said, it’s disheartening to hear that the average government expenditure for the region for maternal and child health is only 7%. Before I end, here is a key factor to maternal health that I want to emphasize. Child marriage, legal or not, bound by the state, the church, or by informal deal between families causes girls as young as 12 year old to become mothers, children birthing children, often born with complications and underweight, or to die in the process. We are gathered here today to share experiences, think about what worked and what didn’t work in our programs for the betterment of our future programs on maternal health, and to make sure that pregnant young girls are never excluded from safe spaces and further isolated. As a young women, I say the ball is in our hands, in your hands, too make sure no more young women or girl has to suffer through these hardships in Latin America and the Caribbean.   If the young women who passed had access to inclusive and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and education, chases are that she would have been capable of exercising her right to be healthy, to contraception and safe sex barriers, and to choose when and if she wants to become a mother. Thank you.

Change is Possible: A Feminist’s Journey from Pessimism to Optimism

By Annie McNamara, Short-term intern from Collgate UniversityAnnie

Growing up in an idyllic suburb in western Pennsylvania, I lead a relatively sheltered childhood from the cruelties that plague the world, particularly those that women face simply due to their gender. While my parents made a conscious effort to educate my siblings and me on the hardships those less fortunate than us experienced, as a child, I could not fully grasp the realities of such hardships. Looking back, it seems so horribly silly to me that at 15, as I stressed over unwanted homework assignments and obtaining the perfect date to the school dance, a girl my same age faced far crueler obstacles, such as female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriages.

As I grew older, my coursework in high school and college truly exposed me to the injustices women and girls faced worldwide–transforming my initial ignorance on the subject into an outlook just shy of hopelessness regarding the attainability of women’s equal rights. While I desperately wished to discover a straightforward, concrete solution to end discrimination and violence against women, the obstacles in achieving this seemed too great to surmount, at least in my lifetime. Moreover, I became increasingly frustrated by my peer’s general apathy towards women’s issues, as too many turned a blind eye to the indisputable inequalities women experience, even in the United States.

However, after only a few short weeks since I began interning with the communications department of the World YWCA, I am filled with a renewed sense of optimism for the future of women worldwide, due largely to the organisation’s efforts and achievements. Firstly, the opportunity to be surrounded by smart, energetic women, proud to label themselves as feminists has been a refreshing experience, as my female peers at home often hesitate to identify themselves with the term due to its undeserved negative connotation amongst members of my generation. It is empowering to work in an environment of women reclaiming feminism as a positive movement, fighting for its ideal of equal rights for women.

Additionally, one of my responsibilities as a communications intern involves writing articles on the accomplishments of the global network as well as those of regional YWCA chapters. Through this responsibility, I have been enlightened to serious achievements for women due to the efforts of the YWCA and its partner organisations. More specifically, I was thrilled to discover that last week, the Malawi government announced the passage of legislation which will raise the legal age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18– certainly a huge milestone in bringing an end to child marriage worldwide. This achievement in Malawi can be attributed in part to the efforts of the World YWCA General , Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, who is also the AU Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage. Malawi is a country that was specifically targeted by the AU, which speaks to the influence the YWCA possesses in the global fight of injustices against , such as child marriage.

Furthermore, I am inspired by the individual successes of YWCA chapters, such as the YWCA of Romania’s programme to address the issue of domestic violence against women in its country by providing educational workshops to females and males, coupled with counseling services for victims of domestic violence. Successful programmes of regional chapters demonstrate the idea that smaller movements can still promote change, especially in the minds of the individuals reached through each project.

While my time thus far with the YWCA has left me with a sense of optimism that the fight for women’s equal rights can be won, it has also exposed me to the reality that much more must be done in order to achieve this. However, my optimism prevails, as I now understand that while no concrete, straightforward solution exists in achieving equality for women, incremental change, fostered by both the global network and the regional chapters, can have a lasting impact, and can help us obtain our ultimate goal.

Technology and Economic Empowerment of Women in Fragile States

By Krista Seddon, YWCA Australia. At the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Side Event: Technology and Economic Empowerment of Women in Fragile States: A Multi-Country Perspective from Africa and Asia ‘We need to focus on the future young women want, but also the future that young women deserve. We need a clear focus on economic empowerment and how technology can be leveraged to empower young women and girls,’ said Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, World YWCA General Secretary, when opening the event.

Opening statements were made by Belinda Bennet, Board Member, World YWCA. Belinda set the scene by sharing with the audience two stories on how technology has been leveraged in Northern India. Women who live in a rain feed area are using technology to communicate in order to reclaim skills they have been traditionally known for, such as growing Millet. She shared another story about an e-commerce programme in Bangladesh which is being used to connect rural and urban women to allow them to buy and sell fruit and vegetable baskets.

Anne Sipilainen, Under- Secretary of State, Finland, linked Resolution 1325 and the Beijing Platform for Action talking about the importance of accountability of these human rights instruments. She said technology is an important tool for breaking down the barriers of gender equality. ‘ICT can be our ally, ICT needs to be included in training provided in post-conflict situations. It can provide a platform for creating accessible economic opportunities for women and girls’.

Vanessa Anyoti, is a youth programme coordinator with the YWCA of Tanzania. She started by talking about the population statistics of Tanzania. With a population of 49 million with 66% under the age of 25, 53% of those young people are unemployed. Young women face more barriers for economic participation. The YWCA of Tanzania is looking to create a custom app for young women working in farming and agriculture that provides information on the weather, credit, and farming techniques.

Yadanar, YWCA of Myanmar, spoke about a young woman who participated in the YWCA holistic development programme or microfinance This young womawan was provided with access to a mobile health clinic and a scholarship to help her attend ICT training. The income generated through this training has led to more education, university and security for her family. She is now mentoring and supporting other young women.

Cherelle, YWCA of Samoa, a young women and a business owner, spoke about how young women take action for themselves. She talked about the importance of innovation. Recently she worked on a project called Ray of Hope which raised $150,000 for the development of a women’s refuge center in Samoa.

The important messages that came across in this conversation we’re that often young women are seen as vulnerable. But these young women are challenging that stereotype. These young women are already leaders, making decisions and creating change for a better future.

The Fight against Child Marriage

By Jesca Mmari, YWCA-TANZANIA attends the AU Summit and shares her reflections.

This year is an important year for the women of Africa. For the first time, the African Union (AU) has dedicated the year 2015 as a “Year of women’s empowerment and development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. It is reason to celebrate and join our efforts towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment now more than ever. There is a need for collective efforts in expressing what we women want; including the changes in policy and development that support the growth of women.

But as I look at young girls in the society it is sad to see that our communities still engage in child marriage, even though it is against human rights. These young girls who are married are not yet mature enough to bear children and take care of a family. They are committed to heavy responsibilities and when they fail to perform these, they are either physically or emotionally abused. In this year of women, I urge the AU to step up in ensuring that the rights of young girls and women are well protected. jesse

I attended a dialogue held by the AU Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda; on Ending Child Early and Forced Marriage which brought together different stakeholders. There was a heart moving story of a survivor of child marriage from Zimbabwe, Miss Loveness Mudzuri. It greatly touched all of us as we faced a 19 year old mother of two who was forced out of the house by her parents after she got pregnant as they felt ashamed. She was forced to live with the man who got her pregnant and could not continue her studies after giving birth. This is one of the problems that young girls experience in our society. Most of them lack comprehensive sexuality education and that makes them fall into the hands of men who manipulate them and get them pregnant.

At the dialogue, the AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, H.E. Dr. Mustapha S. Kaloko said “If equal opportunity is given to both boys and girls, girls do better than boys”. I saw this statement as enough motivation for the parents who marry off their young daughter thinking that their place is in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. Parents should change their way of thinking and instead give them the same chances as boys to study in a suitable environment. Parents should engage in conversation with their children on the changes in their body and how to respect their bodies. This can build good relationships between parents and children and help children consult their parents in case of a problem rather than falling into peer pressure advice.

Our governments need to commit on the marriageable age of a girl (which is 18, but there could be advocacy for a higher age) and setting appropriate punishment for all involved in the marriage of a younger girl. But also, the government needs to commit to a holistic approach in education. The AU can hold the states accountable on reporting how they implement laws and policy to end child marriage.

It has been said that “If you educate a girl you educate the whole community”. Let’s all join efforts from the local to the global level and fight to end child marriage and build the Africa we want.


Making progress, keep marching

by Inunonse Ngwenya, YWCA of Zambia.

For young women and girls around the global social isolation, economic vulnerability and a lack of appropriate health information and services are critical problems that prevent a healthy transition from girlhood to womanhood.

Inunonse Ngwenya

Inunonse Ngwenya

Young Women and girls need to maximize our potentials but we do not think that we can do it alone, we need mentors and a society who really understands our needs, gender equality and implementation of policies that help us realize our dreams. Young people are not problems we are part of the solution. We need fewer meetings, less papers and documents, and much more implementation.

Despite numerous pronouncement and government assurance that gaps in programming and policies are first identified, there is still the lack of proper implementation of programmes, at the local and national levels. The measures taken to implement the policy have had hidden agendas whose main objective is to serve the party in power and we refuse as young leaders to have such mindsets and leaders.

One would expect that the citizens would play a critical role in shaping political decisions and holding leaders accountable however, the outcomes are always different and suggest that the elite continue to influence and nurture the behaviour and attitude of the masses on any major policy issue. The culture and perceived mind set of the citizens is that instead of demanding for service to be provided by different institutions of the government, they end up begging for favours from political leaders. Improving participation is not so much about improving consultation processes that enable government to deliver its services more efficient and effectively but more about how government can help to unleash citizen power and to tap into the enormous talent, ingenuity, energy and local knowledge that citizens have to offer.

The government has a role to play in providing resources and developing coordinating frameworks, but the people themselves have the best ideas about what needs to be done and what solutions will work in their community. Participation in this context can therefore be defined as the process of shaping citizen-government partnership to achieve development.

Women and girls often occupy a lower status in societies as a result of social and cultural traditions, attitudes, beliefs that deny them their rights and stifle their ability to play an equal role in their homes and communities and the global at large. Governments in equal partnership with the private sector and young people especially young women and girls with special emphasis on marginalized and vulnerable groups should work towards investing in building the capacities of young people and in creating an enabling environment for young people to meaningfully participate in all stages of decision making and implementation processes.

Young women and girls should show unity, transparency, accountability, and responsibility in their initiatives and engagements at local, national, regional and international levels when it comes to programmes that affect them so as to have a voice rather have people speak on their behalf. After all we know our agenda very well and we deserve the best. In Conclusion even if it’s just small steps as long you are making progress, keep marching.

Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region

By Sophia Pierre-Antoine, YWCA Haiti

We have to make sure that women’s issues are an essential element on the agendas of all heads of States, all governments.

These are the words of Michelle Bachelet, former Head of UN Women and current President of Chile, now in her second term. During the 51st meeting of Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean held in Santiago, Chile, the World YWCA delegation worked tirelessly to ensure that this was a reality.

Our diverse delegation represented Belize, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Honduras, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago. We were nine women and girls’ rights activists with a purpose. Our days started at dawn and ended late at night because we made sure to be the first to arrive and the last to leave at all Government, UN, and NGO/Civil Society led events. Our goal? To network and to raise awareness and knowledge of the World YWCA’s agenda. During this past week’s convening, I had the privilege to meet with delegates from Women Machineries all over the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, from my home country of Haiti, and with members of UN Women and Civil Society organisations. Already, I have been in touch with government officials and civil society organisations from various countries of the LAC region, which want to support the work of YWCA Haiti. I am eternally grateful to the World YWCA for creating this space for young women. It truly was the embodiment of transformational, intergenerational leadership.Sophia

Each of us selected government and civil society delegates with whom we would constantly engage and advocate for our cause. I don’t think I have ever said the phrase “Young Women” in my life as much as I have during this week in Santiago. As governments of Latin American and Caribbean countries drafted the Beijing +20 agenda for the region, it was a key moment for us to remind them of the importance of hearing and including the voices and experiences of young women.

To include the voices of young women is to guarantee that the specific issues, wants, needs, and rights of the girl child, the adolescent girl and the developing woman are not forgotten, or worse, erased.

Access to the following rights were discussed throughout the week:

  • to education;
  • to bodily autonomy and inclusive/comprehensive sexual and reproductive health; this incorporates access to safe abortion methods, birth control, and maternal (pre-post natal) health care;
  • of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women to live openly and without fear
  • to participate in government and leadership positions;
  • to work in male dominated fields (sciences/engineering for example), for domestic work/ child-elderly care to be valued, and for the right for a young woman to choose sex work as a profession and get access to social and health services;
  • to social security for women-headed households;
  • to access funds for gender mainstreaming initiatives;
  • of HIV positive women and girls to live without stigma and access health services;
  • to programs protecting women and girls from gender-based violence including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and harassment, organized crimes, disappearances, trafficking, sexual exploitation, feminicide;
  • to the protection of women human rights activists and journalists;
  • of rural women to live without the pressure of the consequences of climate change and of genetically modified food on their crop production and food quality;
  • of indigenous women, migrant women, and afro-descendent women to live without racist and xenophobic attacks;
  • of women with differently abled bodies to occupy space within the public and private sphere.

In one week I have learned so much about the important role of civil society in government and UN led meetings, the power of concise language and advocacy, and what actually happens behind closed doors at such events. I feel that my eyes were further opened about many truths and realities and I feel even more inspired to continue fighting actively for the rights of women and girls.

The “leaders” of our delegation, Khalea Callender (YWCA Trinidad & Tobago / World YWCA) and Icilda Humes (YWCA Belize / World YWCA), mentored us and made sure every single detail went smoothly throughout the entire week. The input and advice that I received from them is extremely valuable and I know that I will continue to carry them with me in my personal life and career path as I flourish as a young woman. I have formed deep bonds with sisters from other YWCAs and the United Methodist Church (UMC) as we shared experiences, hardships, and debated heated topics. We also shared victories, tips and tools for us to continue to empower ourselves and women and girls in our respective countries.

To Paola Quevedo (YWCA Bolivia), Delia Medel (YWCA Chile), Yuleida Alvarez (UMC Columbia), Andrea Gradiz (YWCA Honduras), Marie Soledad Benjamin (UMC Haiti), and Barbara Lont (YWCA Suriname): you are all amazing women, you are a force to be reckoned with, and you are agents of change and leaders in your own right. I love you all and wish you all the best in the struggle for women and girls’ rights.

I cannot thank the World YWCA and YWCA Haiti enough for this opportunity. I am confident that the outcomes of this past week will have a positive impact on our fight for the rights of young women.

In peace, love and solidarity,

Sophia Pierre-Antoine, YWCA Haiti.


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