Lets Talk about Gender and Rights

By Kuena Diaho

Kuena, from the YWCA of Lesotho, was an intern at the World YWCA for the year 2010. She was a member of the YWCA delegation that attended CSW. Kuena attended a workshop on Gender and rights at CSW55 and shares her thoughts on the matter.

Kuena Diaho participating in a panel on ending violence against women at CSW 2011

Remembering vividly the first time sex was mentioned to me (not by my peers) and how I had giggled out of embarrassment, I sit in this room full of young women from around the world, and women who are possibly mothers and mentors in their own right, and mull over whether I would have still childishly guffawed if the word “gender” was used instead of “sex”. While looking around the full room for a place to sit, I looked at the curious faces of the participants at CSW 55. Their faces tell nothing about what they say to their daughters about sexuality, or how their mothers or mentors address such issues as puberty, feelings, body changes or even contraception to them, if at all. But as the speaker rescued me, I consciously decided sex and sexuality is no laughing matter when it comes to the impact it has on young women and why it is important .

Why SRHR is important:

  • Rights based approach used (Declaration of sexual rights used 2008)
  • Link between autonomy and protection
  • Gender transformable approach
  • Period of adolescence is the most crucial – young people change, not only physically but also emotionally and mentally. The body and sexuality are not only a biological phenomenon, and during puberty gender disparities are deepened
  • There is a double burden of being young and born a female. In many communities girls are put out of school and forced into early marriages, resulting in horrible states of social exclusion and isolation, subjected to harmful traditional practices and subject to abuse
  • Girls experience more abuse than boys.
  • Today, the woman who was raped yesterday, and who fell pregnant in her teens, the very same woman who was denied the right to speak and be heard, who advocates for gender and human rights, that woman would reason for the inclusion and prioritising of the adolescent, the beloved girl child whom she believes carries the key to development, because adolescents:
  • Have a positive economic social effect
  • The adolescent/girl child needs to be given an identity, she needs to be found, given information, counted, trained, and given skills. The girl child needs to be empowered to stand up for herself and break social isolation. She needs to keep herself connected and safe, to foster her leadership through mentors and to be kept in school.

The woman who was confused by her sexuality and desperately, but in silence, sought explanation, today says, comprehensive sexual education is needed because:

Gender and power matter. Traditional gender norms that prevent young women from using contraception of any form, and the power to negotiate safe sex, are addressed when sexual education is provided in schools.

There are additional benefits of addressing gender which include equitable gender and less intimate partner violence. This can be addressed through the critical thinking of students and participatory learning.
Young women are marginalised because they lack economic power. Sexual education helps girls develop healthy behaviours and goes beyond just intimate relationships. It is useful in combating gender based violence and transforms women from being passive receivers, to active ones.

The CSW: A Whirlwind Exchange of Ideas and Meeting of the Minds

by Muna Killingback

Muna Killingback joined the World YWCA in 1990 as one of the first ever young woman interns. Muna shares with us her experience at CSW

At each annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, hundreds of women representing tens of organisations and networks converge at the United Nations in New York, bringing with them their issues, their reports, their ideas, and their passions.  They have their differences for sure, but what we all agree on, the goal we all share, is creating a world where women and men can live freely and equally and in peace.

Representing the World YWCA, I attended two meetings this week that reflected this passion.  The first – called Bridging the Israel-Palestine Divide – brought together a young Palestinian woman and a young Israeli woman who belong to an organisation called One Voice (http://www.onevoicemovement.org/), that unites mostly young Palestinians and Israelis in promoting their common vision of, and wish for, the two-state peace solution.  Rosa Helou of Palestine and Dana Sender of Israel both agreed that their organisation “amplifies the voice of the moderate majority.”  Their role in One Voice, Rosa said, was to tell their governments to work for an end to the conflict.  She added that, “We are inspired by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Both focus on their own populations using vehicles such as town hall meetings, extensive social media, and sometimes publicity stunts to raise awareness on the need for a just and sustainable peace solution.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that women comprised 60 percent of members in the Palestinian section of One Voice and 70 percent of members in the Israeli section.  This is not a coincidence, I believe.   Feminist psychologists such as Jean Baker Miller, particularly in her groundbreaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women, have noted that women value and invest in relationships more than men do and perhaps this extends beyond the personal into the public and global sphere as well.

During the discussion, a very interesting question came from a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the organisers, along with UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Ireland, which hosted the event.  She asked Dana about how she felt about the obligatory military service Israelis have to undertake and said that her own niece in Israel had been a conscientious objector and had faced a trial for her beliefs.  Dana, who had earlier said that she had already done her Israeli military service, responded that she was a patriot and would serve in the army again.  I think in this case, a more feminist approach would serve to accelerate the goal of peace because all militarism is an extreme manifestation of patriarchy, the seeking of power through force.

A UN Women representative also asked if their work was affected by the fact that the peace process had not had any traction, noting that it had not succeeded in getting Israel to stop building settlements in the Palestinian territories it occupied [a violation of the Geneva Convention]. Dana noted that the Israeli section felt it had strongly contributed to the recent creation of a two-state solution caucus in the Knesset and she said that they were working for the implementation of international law.   Rosa commented that the shape of the two state solution was already basically known and that both sections of One Voice were working for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.

At another meeting later that afternoon, a very stimulating panel entitled “Created in God’s Image:  Promoting Positive Masculinity from Hegemony to Partnership,” discussed the specific idea of challenging patriarchy and its restricting gender roles. The panelists represented the World Student Christian Federation, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and the International Council for Reconciliation.

LWF feminist theologian, Elaine Neuenfeldt, observed that religion reproduces and maintains patriarchy and its structures, and worse, “gives the impression that it is sacred.”  She said that since both women and men are created in God’s image they are equal.  Because this “equality is shaped by divine wisdom, breaking down this relationship is sin.”  She talked about seeking the Biblical and theological notion of justice and noted a paradox in the men aspiring for gender equity:  “How can our partners live out this idea of justice while benefitting from this hierarchical [patriarchal] structure?”   Partnership can only be achieved in a context of justice, she affirmed.  Noting that gay activists had pointed out that negative masculinities cannot be ascribed to the entire male population and asked, “How do we deal with non-positive masculinity?  Men who are violent, perpetrators of violence?”

Patricia Ackerman of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Women Peacemakers Program (http://www.ifor.org/WPP/) talked about the success of gender trainings for men that promoted and enabled men to think about new ways of defining and thinking of themselves as men.

The second part of the programme was devoted to small group brainstorming to define which concepts of masculinity need to be challenged and what approaches in the gender discussion initiated by women need to change. Finally, they asked how we can motivate women and men to engage in change?

In the spirit of the CSW, I, like every other participant, came away with new ideas, inspiration, and programme designs and I am looking forward to my next whirlwind day at the CSW.

Baptism by Fire – My One Year Internship

By Muna Kaldawi-Killingback

Muna Kaldawi-Killingback joined the World YWCA in 1990 as one of the first ever young woman interns. Muna shares with us her experience at the World YWCA and how her intnership helped her in her professional and personal development.

Exhausted with jet lag, one day after the flight in October 1990 that took me from my native New Jersey to Geneva, I was in the World YWCA office and my head was spinning. I was one of the two first ever Young Women’s Interns and Rosemary Machicado de Quezo, the Young Women’s Coordinator, was talking in strange acronyms – FLE, EGGYS, ITI and manyothers—that stood for large looming projects that I was expected to help organise.

Muna Killingback

I finally understood that the letters stood for Family Life Education, the Ecumenical Global Gathering of Youth and Students and the International Training Institute. But so much was happening, I still felt completely lost. Then General Secretary, Elaine Hesse Steel, who was very welcoming, gave us an indepth briefing on the background, structure, and governance of the World YWCA, particularly its Constitution and Byelaws and Policy Statements.  Once again, I felt the familiar mind-spin as I tried to absorb all the information.

My fellow intern, Elizabeth Yavana from Sierra Leone, and I were honoured to have been selected for this new programme. The World Office had many plans for us. But some arrangments had not yet been tested. Our living accommodation, for example, was a small one-bedroom apartment that did not leave us any privacy — and we were both young women who had been used to having our own space, so this was tough.  Our desks were next to each other as well and we had to work on many of the same projects. Between this and the small apartment, it was just a little too much togetherness. Another dimension (which changed after our year) was that many of the staff referred to us as “the interns” and not by our names. This did not make us feel like individuals with different personalities and strengths.

However, apart from these small hiccups and first year growing pains that were remedied for future interns, it was a truly amazing year.  We participated in the 1991 International Training Institute (ITI), then only organised every four years. This particular ITI was exclusively for young women. We also attended the World Council in Stavanger, Norway, and it was the 700th anniversary of the Swiss confederation. The Convention on the Rights of the Child had been adopted in 1989 and the World YWCA was a leader in the follow-up and promotion of this important treaty.

It was also a troubling year in the world: we arrived in the run up to the first Gulf War and there was a strong feeling that diplomatic channels had not been exhausted. One of my early assignments was to represent the World YWCA at a meeting of youth organisations against the war, followed by a huge anti-war demonstration in Paris. I still have the badge I received there with this quote from French poet Jacques Prevert:  “Quelle connerie la guerre.”

The ITI was an unforgettable experience. It brought together young women from more than 20 countries around the world, all living together for nearly a month in a convent in the tiny Swiss village of Pensier. During this time we learned about development, gender analysis, ecumenism, advocacy, health and environmental issues. We learned to work successfully in teams with women from different cultures and backgrounds.  We learned to solve problems together.  We also grew very close, and to this day, I am still in touch with many of these women. The 1991 ITI was a leadership training like no other, and one that only the World YWCA could provide!

Another clear memory of my internship year was representing the World YWCA at NGO meetings at the United Nations in Geneva. I was very fearful about saying the wrong thing or not saying the right thing at the right time.  Elaine Hesse Steel smiled when she explained to me that the YWCA believes in “baptism by fire” and it would not take me long to know exactly what she meant.  Elaine had a long history in the YWCA movement and she was a great believer in supporting young women’s leadership development. Being given assignments that were new and slightly scary forced us to grow.  I remember calling the World Office from the UN during a break in one of those early meetings to ask if I could mention the World YWCA’s policy on the issue under discussion.  The World YWCA policies were eloquent, not only in defining the problem, but also in offering solutions to important social and international questions.

During my internship, I also represented the World YWCA on an NGO committee that organised a high-level peace conference of Palestinian women diplomats and Israeli women Knesset members. Another outstanding leader, Edith Ballantyne, the General Secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) led the committee. The women worked very hard for long hours and, perhaps not surprisingly, reached a peace agreement at the end of the meeting. Sadly, they lacked the power to implement it, but it remains a testimony to the superior negotiation skills of women.

The World Council meeting in Norway was yet another incredible highlight and I was asked to write the Popular Report for it.  Later, I spent three weeks visiting the YWCA of Palestine where I learned a lot from their dynamic General Secretary Doris Salah. I conducted a young women’s leadership training there and assisted with some communications projects.  I was also part of the 1991 delegation of YWCA women who travelled to Palestine and Israel to meet women from both sides and to gain a deeper understanding of how the Israeli occupation had impacted the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

My internship was a turning point in my life.  When it was over, I remained in Geneva working at another international NGO for a year and was then hired for a position in the World YWCA’s financial development department.  About 18 months later I became the Director of Communications and was at the World Office for 10 years in all. I am currently the Executive Director of the Theological Opportunities Programme, a small non-profit based in Boston that organises lectures and conversations on issues in women’s lives.  I also continue to do freelance writing and editing.

I have found that the mentoring and support young women receive in the YWCA  are unparalleled. I doubt I would have reached Geneva without mentors at the YWCA of Essex and West Hudson in New Jersey, particularly Priscilla Stauffer who sadly passed away last year. At the World YWCA, our mentors came from different cultures with different styles, and it was a tremendous opportunity as a young woman to learn from all of them. I am truly indebted to Elaine Hesse Steel whose belief in young women’s leadership enabled so many of us to go places and do things we’d never dreamed we could do.  Other important YWCA mentors were Doreen Boyd, Elaine Carlson, and many others, including former World President Razia Ismail-Abassi, whose writing skills I am still in awe of.

Since the first year of our internship programme back in 1990, the World YWCA has developed even more opportunities for leadership training and involvement in international issues for young women. If you are a young woman, this could be the most important and life-changing experience you will ever have.

The Role of Women in Politics and Public Policy

By: Alemtsehay Zergaw

Alemtsehay Zergaw, from the YWCA of Ethiopia,  is the new World YWCA intern for 2011. She shares with us her thoughts on the role of women in politics and what is needed for more participation of women in politics and public policy.

Alemtsehay Zergaw

Our generation is accommodating more and more women in politics across the world – but even more significantly in the developed world.  This is clearly because the developed world has a system that encourages and educates women to value civic engagement and helps them to see themselves as empowered leaders in politics and public policy. Studies conducted in the United States demonstrated that the public has more interest in women leaders. For instance, in a 2008 study it was found that the public would like to see more women in politics and public policy.

Another question to explore is whether women in public office have a distinct impact on public policy? Do women have a different political interest than men, and under what circumstances and conditions? Can women officeholders bring to the office important perspectives and priorities that are underrepresented in a male dominated policy making environment? An extensive study made by the centre for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP) demonstrated that the impact of women lawmakers on public policy is profound and distinct.  The three major findings of this study were that women public officials: 1) have different policy priorities, i.e. they are more likely to give priorities to women’s rights policies; they are also more likely  to give priority to public policies related to women’s traditional roles as caregivers in the family and society; 2) that they are more active on women’s legislation, whether or not it is their top priority, and 3) that they are more feminist and more liberal in their attitudes on major public policy issues.

The report outlines steps which may be taken to expand women’s participation in politics, focusing on those findings which are relevant and useful for women interested in seeking public office and for people who conduct programmes to increase women’s numbers in public life.

However, for women politicians to succeed in office, it is necessary to strengthen their capacity for leadership. It is also necessary that voters support them. Believing in women’s experience to bring about wider social change and an end to inequality in particular, training for women who are running for office needs to ensure that women are willing and able to promote gender equality while governing.