YWCA Prepares for CSW

By YWCA of Canberra Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti 

CSW has not yet started but YWCA is already working to progress issues that we believe are key to improving the lives of rural women.

From the left- Rebecca Vassarotti, Alison Laird, Jessica Hamilton

Over the last few days, YWCA women from around the world have been converging in New York to ensure the voices of local women are heard at the 56th session of the Commission for the Status of Women.  Women from countries including  Trinidad Tobago, Sweden, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Eqypt, Australia, the United States of America, Liberia, Kenya, Finalnd and Columbia are participating in the YWCA delegation to this year’s CSW. On Friday we prepared through an introduction and orientation to UN Human Rights system and CSW, shared our experiences of the issues facing women in our countries and considered the key issues that we believe should be addressed by governments meeting at CSW. Key issues that emerged included the importance of the use of language that is appropriate and accessible for rural women, ensuring that leadership models are able to be accessed by rural and particularly young women, that violence against women as a key priority, access to health services, particularly sexual and reproductive health rights and services.

On Saturday 25th, a number of delegates attended the Ecumenical Women’s session and joined women’s faith based organisations in planning advocacy for the event. Michelle Deshong, member of the YWCA Australia delegation provided a powerful and thought provoking reflection of the experience of Aboriginal women living in Australia.

We also joined together to reflect on what the task ahead was, how best to support each other and the group and what specific roles would be required over the two weeks of the Commission session.

While CSW is yet to begin, the World YWCA delegation is coming together as an immensely talented team who is no doubt going to make an incredible impact at the meeting. Collectively we have committed to honouring the privileged that has been afforded to us in representing the 25 million women and girls who are part of the YWCA. We hope to give voice to the women who are part of the 22000 communities in which we work and aim to be an authentic voice to rural women, and provide a link for rural and local women to international policy and decision making. This is a huge responsibility. However, getting to know the amazing women who are part of this delegation, I am energized and inspired that we will make a difference to the lives of women through participating in this event

“I am a Leader”

Samara and Shernael from the YWCA of Australia reflect on their experiences at World Council 2011 as part of a presentation to AUSAID, who are currently funding YWCA projects in Asia and the Pacific.

Hello, my name is Samara and I am here to talk to you about my experience as a young Aboriginal woman who represented the YWCA of Canberra at the recent International Women’s Summit hosted in Switzerland by the World YWCA Council. My story starts when I applied to the YWCA of Canberra to attend this Summit, and the reason I applied was that I was excited at the idea of meeting influential women from all around the world. I just couldn’t believe my luck when they told me I had been selected to attend this summit.

Shernael Teaurima & Samara Plunkett

At first I felt very happy and privileged to go. But then I started to feel nervous when I thought of all the powerful and inspiring young and older women from around the world who would be attending. I thought, ‘I am not a leader and I won’t be inspirational to anyone at the Summit’. I somehow felt I didn’t have the right to attend the event. In desperation I called my grandfather who is an elder from the Wiradjuri Nation. I told him about being selected to attend the Summit, and I told him I would be representing Australia and my Aboriginal people. I told him I felt bad about being selected. That I didn’t feel I was a leader, and I didn’t have anything to offer.

He told me he had gone through the same issues living in an Aboriginal community, but he had overcome these issues. Now his role was to encourage his kids
sons and daughters to be good role models for Aboriginal people and that he knew his son―my father―had passed that down to me! He said he knew about the work I am doing for the YWCA in Canberra. He said I had achieved a lot, and I should feel confident that it was the right thing for me to attend the Summit.

So I went.

In her opening speech at the Summit, Dr Michelle Bachelet (Head of UN Women) said that women and girls were the key to the solutions to the many major issues in the world, such as poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and violence. Her message was clear – the world can no longer ignore women and girls as positive agents of change. Young women like me needed to start from as young as possible to grow as leaders, and work to change the circumstances we live in. Dr Bachelet’s speech inspired me. Then over the following days I was again inspired as I attended the workshops and listened to women’s stories, their experiences, their struggles with poverty, with disease and violence. I was inspired by all these women who run programs in their own countries. They are not just claiming the right of women and girls to be free of violence and HIV. Women and girls also claim the right to public participation, and to positions of leadership.

When I left the Summit I felt I wanted to bring something back to Australia. So I organised an exhibition at the ACT Legislative Assembly to raise awareness of domestic violence and its impact on women. And I do believe the exhibition achieved its purpose! Then, I realised that each one becomes a leader in different ways. I grew up in Wagga and left my community there because I had a strong desire to support my people. I wanted to be a good role model for young kids and young women in my community. I wanted to be a Youth Worker. Now, I am a youth worker! I have a huge amount of knowledge, and what I want now is to give back to my own Aboriginal community.

I want to reduce DV and I want to contribute to making young women leaders. Leaders of today, leaders for tomorrow and the future! And I want to tell young women not to be afraid of being different, not to be afraid of taking opportunities. Stand up for your rights!! So, in attending the Summit and listening to the many stories from women and young girls I felt empowered and wanted to be like them.

I realise now that I was―and am―a leader!!

Shernael shares:

A year ago, I remember hearing talks of World YWCA Council and how it would be an unforgettable experience. Who would have thought that one of the people attending would be me! My initial reaction was excitement when I heard the news, and then fear stepped in  – similar to others, going to something for the first time and not really knowing what to expect from it was quite nerve-racking, but I knew with the with the experience of other members of our delegation, I was in good hands.

Being part of something this big, was awe-inspiring. I enjoyed the rush, the inspirational young women with so much passion behind their ideas, thoughts and experience were all thought provoking. Those young women who stood out for me were those from the Pacific. I had the opportunity to attend the launch of the Pacific Young Women’s Leadership Strategy (available on the YWCA Australia website), the very first of its kind marking a new way of collaborating and connecting at the regional level, with the objective of developing young women’s leadership. The Strategy, was developed by the World YWCA in partnership with regional stakeholders and funded by the AusAID Pacific Leadership Programme (PLP). Addressing the room at the launch, World YWCA President Susan Brennan said “This strategy presents a comprehensive agenda for any organisation or individual wanting to develop the leadership potential of young women in the Pacific”. Juli Dugdale, World YWCA Global Programme Manager,Movement Building and Women’s Leadership Focal Point for Asia and the Pacific, emphasised the importance of developing young women’s leadership in the Pacific and the great contributions by each young women who worked on the strategy.

At the launch at the International Women’s Summit I was privileged to hear two very personal and moving stories from young women from the Pacific on their struggle to have the opportunity to build and assist young women in the region to reach their potential through leadership training. The need to see that sisters from the Pacific are safe, respected, include, connected and skilled was reiterated throughout the launch and it was wonderful to see the passion and dedication of the young women to ensure that there are safe spaces to develop young women’s leadership. It has led me to quite some reflection on “How can I assist and help out?”. As a young women with a South Pacific heritage, and a passion for helping every ‘sister’ reach their own potential, I wanted to jump on board and be part of the change in creating safe spaces for young women in the Pacific.

I realised that having the right knowledge and skills was the way to go. So I have been thinking about studying, and more specifically about how I would be able to gain the skills and knowledge to help my sisters from the Pacific? As a young woman, I also had the privilege to attend the pre Council young women’s leadership dialogue, and its summer BBQ on the outskirts of Zurich. It was a fantastic way to kick off the week and the energy from all the young women, many in national dress, was truly amazing. The highlight for me that evening, was not the catwalk, but just being in the presence of so many inspirational young women from all over the world, all coming together for one same purpose. The joy and excitement of those gathered was fantastic and it was very clear that we were declaring that young women of the movement are present – we were claiming our voice.

The high energy and excitement continued the next day as we gathered together for a day of dialogue and skills building. It was clear that providing leadership opportunities to young women is critical and all YWCA women have a responsibility to be inclusive and supportive of young women at all levels. One of the highlights of the day was the ability to directly contribute to the drafting of the World YWCA Young Women Leadership Strategy presented at World Council. I was in a group looking at our statement on young women and violence against women. It was such a privilege to work with some absolutely incredible young women.