Malala Yousafzai: Bringing Hope

By Constance Anderson Tate, World Service Council Chair and World YWCA UN Volunteer.

Today was a beautiful end-of-summer day in New York and yet not really a normal day at all over at the United Nations – more of a totally inspiring one! Some five hundred young people had lined up in a block-long queue at the gate by ten o’clock and later filled every seat in the large Trusteeship Council room to hear Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon share their strong thoughts about educational goals for women and hopes for the world’s future. For those of us who accompanied five young Afghan women students to the event, the session was also a reminder of the dangerous conditions facing girls in many countries and the harsh or challenging road that lies ahead for so many.

The two speakers didn’t disappoint at all. Ban Ki Moon spoke of calling Malala two years ago when she was recovering from the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate her in a bus and of her words then – how she said, “I’ve been shot but I can still walk and I can still talk and I can do anything to help, especially women and girls.” He also spoke of all the crises facing the world today, saying that war stops all kinds of progress, but that we have to “put out the fires” and “keep the flame of hope alive,” working for major millennium goals such as women’s education and an end to poverty along with desperately needed sustainable development – the “defining issue of our times!”

Malala spoke just as strongly about her dream of seeing every child in the world able to go to school but also of the bad conditions that she has seen in her recent months of travel and trying to help with the Malala Fund that has been created in her honor. She spoke of seeing many of the 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan with 60,000 of them being children who now have no school. Also of her own country Pakistan, where so many girls are stuck in domestic child labour and never have a chance at education or a life before they are married off at age 13 or 14. As a contrast, she then held up the country of Trinidad and Tobago where oil and gas revenues have been used so that every person in the country gets a FREE education. As she concluded to great applause, this should truly be the goal for every country. gal-land-Malala-600x400

As Ban Ki Moon and Malala spoke, the youth audience of all nationalities responded with many of their own questions and goals, asking how to take first steps and how to protect girls and women? When the moderator asked for one-word suggestions of how Malala has helped the causes of youth and progress, one of our Afghan girls who is only 14 years old gave a cheering reply with the word “hope”, saying that Malala with her courage has given girls the world over some hope that they matter and can have real lives of contribution instead of just being property and trapped in early marriage. Others mentioned such words as “drive” and “change,” and one of the leaders encouraged the audience to chant the words ”momentum” and “time for action” to help get the United Nations moving on these goals.

While the programme ended after only an hour, it was an impressive show of youth interest in the work of the United Nations and the impact that both Malala and Ban Ki Moon are having in such forums as courageous and outspoken leaders. Also, while Malala was obviously speaking about women’s rights and equality, the audience held a large number of boys and young men, several promoting causes such as the curbing of sexual violence. So the outlook was unusually positive – even while many who attended know that the UN’s Millennium goals will expire in 2015 and urgently need reenactment; also that the UN is facing a heavy dose of acute political problems that can sidetrack or slow down such humanitarian concerns and efforts.

As for our Afghan girls, they were thrilled to meet with Malala, both formally and also outside for some cherished pictures. One or two even spoke to her in Pashtun, a language shared by neighboring sections of both their countries. Since all five of our students attended a special school in Kabul called SOLA and have made remarkable progress in learning English and in being accepted in the United States for either high school or college, they are walking examples of the goals that Malala and Mr. Ban Ki Moon were both promoting. And it was thrilling to be part of such a scene here in New York, seeing the challenges for world cooperation and education as well as a sample of how it really can work and offer hope for us all.


Holding Governments Accountable

By Antoinette Yah Sendolo, YWCA of Liberia.

It is indeed a great opportunity to be a part of the 24th Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) pre-summit consultative meeting on Gender Mainstreaming to discuss issues affecting women and Girls in Agriculture, Food Security and Agribusiness and especially meeting the Chairperson of the African Union Commission HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Many thanks to the World YWCA foryah providing this exceptional opportunity to young women of Africa to share their experiences and also to the YWCA of Liberia for selecting me to form part of this unique experience and for its diligent efforts in ensuring that the capacities of young women and girls in post-war Liberia are built.

It has been a wonderful time here in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea joining other young women and girls from across Africa to flag out issues affecting women and girls in Agriculture, Food Security and Agribusiness. The issue of women and girls involvement in agriculture is essential in enhancing food security in Africa because statistic shows that women contribute a higher percentage in producing crops/ Staple food together with their children (especially girls).

With access to land and violence against women being highlighted as some of the major challenges faced by women, it is important to take the appropriate steps now to ensure that these issues are addressed with urgency in order to have food security in Africa. Most African countries are signatory to documents forbidding violence against women and girls in Africa. Yet despite those international instruments, women and girls throughout the continent faced a high rate of violence on a daily basis and perpetrators go with impunity while young women and girls who are the survivors live with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

It is now time that governments are held accountable for the implementation of those international documents that protect the rights of women and girls. In order to have food security in Africa, women and girls must be protected because they constitute over 50% of the population and their contribution to agriculture can be rated at almost 80%. Women and girls rights are fundamental human rights therefore; they must be respected without any form of discriminations.

For more information:

23rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU)

In Her Shoes

Picture 001

Khalea Callender

By Khalea Callender, World YWCA Programme Associate, from YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago.

On January 31st, 2014, Jayanti Dubay-Ramrattan, a 32-year-old nurse and mother of one who was missing for more than one week, was found dead in the trunk of her car which was parked in the hospital car park of where she worked. Police said the body was found by crime scene investigators (CSI) while examining her vehicle. She was strangled, stabbed and beaten to death by who police believe was her husband. Her body was clad only in her underwear and her nurse’s duster was found, shoved aside mere metres from her body.

This incident is not the first of its kind on the island of Trinidad and Tobago. Already, this year 2014, there have been 10 domestic violence murders in January alone. These types of incidences are beginning to cause great outrage throughout the country and the recent surge in domestic violence is becoming a grave concern for the YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago.

Although, the YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago (YWCATT) joins the nation in outrage and mourning of the recent episodes of violence against women in the country, we have been advocating for its end long before the recent incidents. Since 2009, the YWCATT has been campaigning to raise awareness on gender based violence which transcends age, ability, status, race, ethnicity, education, nationality, sexual orientation and religion. We advocate for a society where all persons can live free of violence.

YWCATT uses a visual campaign, referred to as the “In Her Shoes” which is taken around the country raising awareness of gender based violence.  “In Her Shoes” exhibition is a Trinbagonian adaptation of the YWCA Scotland’s 104 pairs of shoes exhibition. It interactively showcases images, messages and stories on gender based violence. The pairs of shoes are strategically positioned to depict “a walk in her shoes” in solidarity with the women and men who suffered or who have lost their lives, at the hands of their abusers. The bags represent the emotional struggle that many in violent relationships experience as the contemplate leaving.

Insights from Addis Ababa

By Raissa Gaju, YWCA of Rwanda. 

My name is Raissa Gaju and Iam 12 years old from YWCA Rwanda.  It’s a privilege and honor for me to be at the 22nd African Union summit, the 23rd Gender is my Agenda Campaign, the World YWCA pre-summit Advocacy training in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I am grateful to the World YWCA, YWCA of Rwanda and the organizers of this summit for hosting us. This summit brought together so many people and it has been my first time to be in the midst of so many people in the same place. I really loved the Ethiopian culture and people and I confirmed what I had read all along. The Ethiopian people are really friendly and they have a nice city. This is characteristic of hardworking people. Keep it up.

Raissa Gaju

Raissa Gaju

I have been volunteering with YWCA of Rwanda for several years and was inspired to volunteer in the YWCA after I made a visit to Nyabihu district and met young girls in a horrendous condition. I couldn’t hold my tears because this was so touching seeing them suffer, with nowhere to sleep, and some of them could hardly get any food. From that day I took a decision of volunteering through which I have managed to be near them, give them comfort, hope and look forward to making all girls around the world have their dignity and be confident. AS someone once said, “The greatest poverty is not the absence of money but a feeling of loneliness and a feeling of being unloved”. By being there for the girls, I have managed to give hope and restore a feeling of being loved among the girls. Participating in this summit has strengthened my commitment to serve fellow young women such that they move from vulnerability to leadership and thus empowerment.

I will continue to champion for the rights of young girls because I believe that all girls deserve a decent life and need someone to be there for them.

The Gift of Education

By Mariam William John Bangafu, young woman from the YWCA of South Sudan.

My name is Mariam William John Bangafu and was born in Khartoum, Sudan in 1990. I finished my primary school there and completed my secondary education in Uganda. Now I am sitting the exam for the South Sudan School Certificate but I am finding it difficult to get to the school campus. This is mainly because I fell pregnant, which has really upset my family and they are very angry with me. That’s all I can say. I am now a member of the YWCA and it is helping me to achieve my dreams.

 Our Visit to Bangasu, South Sudan


Mariam William John Bangafu

My first trip to Bangasu Payma was to a village called Burezigbo. It was wonderful moment; we met with other YWCA women who had come from Tanzania and Switzerland. The purpose of the meeting was to share best practice, challenges and familiarise one another with eachother’s  work. In fact I learnt many different things such as how to develop confidence and be strong as a woman in front of the community and how to communicate and promote our messages. One of the main objectives of the YWCA is to build and develop women’s capacity as decision makers in the community. We also have a very clear focus on youth as a critical population group. If I have to go and help women at Burezigbo I would like to give them the best gift, the gift of education.

Nothing is so marvellous than to travel to different places and get to know the challenges and common threads faced by women and youth. We had the opportunity to visit Nzara County and the first person to welcome us was the Commissioner! He spoke to us and encouraged the women to be active members in the community at decision making levels and mobilise the young women to be independent.

The YWCA women in Nzara have various amazing activities such as having their own plot of land for agriculture and delivering awareness programmes on HIV and AIDS.

However, Nzara women of YWCA have their own challenges- no office for women to carry out their activities and no training space. Despite this, they still continue as best they can. What I found quite interesting was that young men in the village have begun to realise the importance of the empowerment of women and they are giving them support and seeing the positive impact of staying school to reduce poverty.

Palestinian Women under Israeli Occupation

By Naheel Bazbazat, YWCA of Palestine.


Naheel Bazbazat

I want to share with you the situation in Palestine and what it is like to live under occupation. Earlier this year I was part of the World YWCA delegation attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and I participated in a demonstration as part the International Women’s Day Celebrations. I was thinking about the Palestinian women back home and what if just imagine one million Palestinian women came along to that demonstration in New York. People would be asking- “Where do you come from?” and the women would reply- refugee camps, Palestinian villages, Palestinian cities, refugee camps outside Palestine in Lebanon, Jordan, one of the 48 occupied territories, East Jerusalem, Bedouin community etc.  In every place where Palestinian people live they have special cases and when I say special I do not luxury, I mean a hostile situation, were their human rights are not respected.

On 25\11\2013- International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and 29\11\2013 International Day for Solidarity with the Palestinian People, I would like to highlight that violence against women happens everywhere in the world BUT in Palestine it is a unique situation. Palestinian women face two types of violence on two levels- firstly they face the aggressive occupation from the Israel state. Israel has occupied Palestine since 1948, hundreds of villages and communities have been displaced and masses of land confiscated. The Bedouin community who lives in al Negev west of Palestine are today experiencing exile and displacement. More than 800 thousand Dunums (197684 Acres) of Palestinian land in the Negev has been confiscated, which has meant the displacement of more than 50,000 people and demolishment of 36 villages. Palestinians make up 30% of the population of al Negev yet they live on only 1% of the land area of the region.

This forced and aggressive level of violence is known as occupation and is not presented as conflict. The occupation increases the level of violence inside the Palestinian society because it affects all the components of society not just the women. However women experience a double effect from the occupation through both inequality and domestic violence which exist inside our communities. The occupation contributes to the further marginalization of women from the formal framework, either directly or indirectly. All Palestinians are routinely harassed, intimidated and abused by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and gates. Palestinian women, in particular, are humiliated in front of their families and subjected to sexual violence by both soldiers and settlers. Violence can be indirectly, through the obstruction of the judicial system for example, which hinders the provision of legal protection for women or impeding the work of organisations working on women’s rights to amend laws and legislation on women’s rights because of the disabling of the Legislative Council.

The second level of violence its domestic violence which I believe is rooted in patriarchal practice inside the community. This resulted in increases in all form of violence such as honour killing, violence against women, verbal and nonverbal violence, emotional and psychological violence which extend from inside families and impact the wider community. We as Palestinians, especially as Palestinian women need to work towards changing national legislative law, engage politics and run for political office and engage in advocacy at the international level.

Finally, if we take time to reflect and think deeply on the Palestinian situation, it is clear that we need more effective advocacy actions to make the occupation end and Israel accountable. We must work to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.


Human trafficking is a crime of a global scale

By Lauren Shannon Shaw, young woman from the YWCA of Ireland.

“It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity.  It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric.  It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets.  It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organised crime.  I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery” – Barack Obama


Lauren Shannon Shaw

Human trafficking is a crime of a global scale. It affects every country in the world whether as an origin, transit or destination country. Human trafficking is a heinous crime and a serious violation of human rights. In today’s globalised society it is easier than ever to transport people through countries and across borders and the rapid advance of technology means a buyer can select their purchase at the click of a button.

The International Labour Organization estimate that there are 2.4 million people in the world at any given time who have been trafficked for forced labour or sexual exploitation. In fact, human trafficking is believed to be the second largest global crime today, generating approximately 31.6 billion USD every year. The reasons for trafficking are numerous and complex but universal factors include limited migration opportunities, lack of effective legislation/enforcement, political and economic instability and war or fear of conflict. Woman and girls are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking due to deep rooted social inequality. This includes gender discrimination within the family and community, a tolerance of violence against women, unequal access to education and the subsequent lack of employment opportunities available. The means by which a victim is entrapped include threats, deception, fraud, abduction and sadly some are sold by their own family.

The majority of women who are trafficked are exploited in the sex trade which is believed to be the most common form of trafficking. Many survivors speak of being offered well -paid jobs abroad as waitresses, dancers or au pairs but instead find themselves forced to work in brothels, often unaware of their location and unable to speak the language. Some are led to believe that they owe a debt to their trafficker which they must work to pay off, but in reality the debt will never be paid. Studies have shown that 70% of victims of sexual exploitation meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as victims of torture. Last year Stop the Traffik launched a video campaign to raise awareness of the reality of sex trafficking. The video shows a group of women dancing in a window in Amsterdam’s red light district while spectators gather to enjoy the free entertainment.  The cheering turns to stunned silence when the slogan appears “every year thousands of women are promised a dance career in Western Europe, sadly they end up here.”

Of course the current publicity around sex trafficking should not distract us from the other forms of slavery that exist today which include forced labour, domestic servitude and organ harvesting. These crimes are equally deplorable and also prey on the vulnerability and desperation of others. Whether it’s the child labourer working long hours on a cocoa farm in West Africa or the factory worker subjected to dangerous conditions and an unfair wage to provide us with cheap clothes, it is the same denial of equality and dignity that is intrinsic to our common humanity.

While the statistics can be overwhelming and create a sense of helplessness, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan compares the work to be done to that of the abolitionists during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and appeals that:

“We must approach today’s abuses in the same spirit- each of us seeking not to blame somebody else, but to think what we can do to hasten their end.  There is no evil so entrenched that it cannot be eradicated. Inspired by the abolitionists of two centuries ago, let us fight against exploitation and oppression and stand up for freedom and human dignity.”

A first step to take to help prevent human trafficking is to be informed of the signs of trafficking, talk to local politicians about it and participate in local anti-trafficking initiatives. Secondly, be a responsible consumer- enquire about the labour policies of companies you shop in to ensure they are free from forced labour or other forms of exploitation. Finally, if you suspect someone to be a victim of trafficking report it to an organization dealing with trafficking in your area.

More information on human trafficking can be found at:

Gender Based Violence and the Bible

By Kgothatso Mokoena, World YWCA Programme Associate. Kgothatso is attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) held in Busan, Korea.

Violence against women and girls has been described as one of the most wicked, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.


Rev Thabo Makhoba- Arch- Bishop of Cape Town, South Africa & Kgothatso

To illustrate the scope of this atrocity and the lack of justice in many situations, is the story of 28 year old Shrien Dewani from India, who was murdered in Cape Town, South Africa. A taxi driver, Zola Tongo, admitted the murder claiming the Shrien’s husband, had offered R15,000.00 to have his wife killed! The South African courts ruled the victim’s husband could be extradited to face the charges but so far nothing has happened. There is also the tragic circumstance of Oscar Pistorious’s killing of his long term girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, falsely describedas self-defense!  Many other crimes against women remain unrecorded.

These two reports are amongst many which remind us of the negative impact of gender based violence in our communities.

South Africa has 14, 860 rape- GBV cases reported every year, and India has doubled its number to about 24,206 since 2010, of these only 26% resulted in conviction. The South Africa filed memorandum in 2010 indicated that Government and police failures were the root of crimes against women, with insuficient recognition of discrimination, exploitation and suppression of women by political leaders.

Although legislation provides the umbrella, government and social structures have left women and their causes eroding and drenched in a thunderstorm of inequality.

Every year at the Human Right Council, countries report on laws, policies and regulations and proposing new amendment or resolutions on policies in place. Recently most countries have replaced “rape” with the broader term “sexual assaults” . The change is welcome, but to me insufficient. More laws do not change the reality that existing ones remain unimplemented.

In relation to the church,  biblical injunctions are misinterpreted and used to justify the oppression of women. The church also teaches us that husbands are to love their wives in the same way Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). This “giving up‟ carries the implication of giving up one’s rights or privileges, but if Jesus is the example, it extends even to laying down one’s life for the other. This is the perspective which is to characterise a Christian husband’s attitude to his wife.

The extent to which patriarchy has distorted the scriptural teachings and messages of the world’s religions has meant that until now, many women have remained silent and accepted abuse, vulnerable to further emotional or physical violence, trapped in abusive situations and likely to blame themselves.

I was recently at the African Union Summit and the ITI organised by the World YWCA, with young women from over 45 countries. As a community worker I’ve always believed that young women must be given tools to change their communities – education, opportunities, choices, access to their rights and spaces to express themselves without fear (at schools, churches, home, etc).

I call upon civil society, religious communities,  the UN and its respective agencies to hold member states accountable. To make every effort to explore all possibilities to bring mechanisms such as the CEDAW, Beijing declaration, Resolution 1820 relevant to the millions of women and girls in the world exposed to these atrocities.

We are approaching the 2015 deadline on the MDGs, I urge our leaders to include elimination of all forms of violence against women as a target for the next phase, as we also continue with interfaith dialogues to help address this issue.

Every future atrocity – reported or not – in my country or elsewhere, confirms that there is still a long way to go. Kgothatso ya Bakoena

Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women

By Laurie Gayle, Board member of the YWCA of Great Britain shares your experience of the 55th CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women).


Laurie Gayle

To paraphrase a lady who’s been getting quite a lot of press in Britain this Summer[1], it is a truth universally acknowledged that Government will always fight its corner…even if the room they find themselves in is round.

Such was the case in July, when I attended the 55th CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) session and the UK examination at the United Nations in Geneva on behalf of YWCA Great Britain. To the casual observer, only a troglodyte of a country would not comply with the treaty which many have labeled the International Bill of Rights for women. Of course, the devil is always in the details and the cause of concern for the United Kingdom, whilst less overt than that of the country which had been examined the previous week (Democratic Republic of Congo), is marked by subtlety and intersection.

The examination came after a year of immense struggle. Recent policy changes, namely the introduction of the Equality Act, austerity measures and the Welfare Reform Act have had a regressive effect on the rights of girls and women in the UK.

Even more unsettling are members of the current government, led by Theresa May, Minister for Women and Equalities, stating that they are currently looking at options to repeal the Human Rights Act and also leave the European Convention on Human Rights. Seeing that CEDAW is the Human Rights treaty for women, the above directly contradicts the Government’s repeated statements during CEDAW55 that they take the treaty ‘very seriously’.

The Government was asked over 100 questions and participated in the dialogue with the United Nations for the better part of 6 hours. By UN standards, the examination was a damning one and the formal recommendations proposed by the UN and published at the end of July solidified this.

No bones about it, the UK CEDAW report card isn’t great for a country which has always considered itself ahead of the proverbial curve where women’s rights are concerned. The Committee did not prevaricate where recommendations were urgently needed. Issues borne out of the Universal Credit system (one of the major elements of recent Welfare Reform Act), were exposed as not having undergone a gendered assessment and as such, the Committee urged the Government to adopt measures to prevent manipulation of the system by abusive male partners. Further recommendations related to economic policy focused on ensuring that government spending reviews continuously and wholly focus on balancing the impact of the austerity measures on women’s rights.

And it wasn’t just benefits that felt the brunt of the war on welfare. Access to legal aid was cut as well and here, the UN strongly rebuked the Government and implied that reforms must be looked at again to assess the impact on how women are protected.

Further to this, the Committee requires the UK to now unequivocally provide access to justice and healthcare to all women, regardless of their immigration status or nationality whilst they’re in the United Kingdom. Part and parcel of this, the UN also want to see the establishment of a framework to nationally address trafficking and urges the ratification of the Istanbul Convention to criminalise forced marriage – both of which are rife in the UK.

But the recommendations that were most localised to the UK context revolved around the more subtle nature of patriarchy and sexism at work in the country. The Committee now calls for measures to work with media outlets to eliminate stereotyping and objectification of women in the media, with express emphasis on the advertising industry. On top of this, they’re calling for implementation of a regulator to intervene in matters such as this and of discriminatory, sexist reporting. This is a first.


UN UK reporting

In all, the UN’s full recommendation list is 11 pages, and interestingly is largely based on the direct input from the NGOs involved in the process.[i]  Proving again that NGO participation is crucial for a democratic process like CEDAW to be more than just two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

For the process to work further, those who want to hold the Government’s feet to the fire must to do the following (as individuals or as part of an organisation):

  • Contact their MPs and ask what they are doing to address the CEDAW recommendations in your constituency
  • Use CEDAW ‘language’ in any lobbying or advocacy materials
  • Raise general awareness about CEDAW with your networks and encourage them to share with theirs
  • Embolden others to get involved in shadow reporting  for the next examination

The UN now requires the UK Government to report on their progress within a year’s time as well as the year following. By then – July 2015 – an election will have taken place in Britain and we’ll know if the Government really takes its obligations under International Law seriously or if they just know how to take a punch.

Stories from Women in Syria

By Jo Allebone World YWCA Short-term Advocacy Intern, Jo attended the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council  (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Original source of blog:

This morning we attended the last Women’s Rights Caucus for the Human Rights Council. The Caucus is co-organised by the World YWCA, World Women’s Summit Foundation (WWSF) and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The meeting provided an opportunity for members to hear from women who are working in NGOs in Syria and Jordan on what is ‘really’ happening to women and girls in refugee settings in these countries.

Jo Allebone

Jo Allebone

This is an important issue for the World YWCA as it has member associations in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt – all of which are affected by and connected to the Syrian conflict. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, World YWCA General Secretary welcomed us to the meeting, she’s always so powerful when she speaks and brings everyone right back to the heart of why we’re here in Geneva.She reminded us that we need to make sure there’s a connection between what’s being talked about at the HRC and the realities of what women refugees are experiencing.

We know that the HRC will look at adopting the resolution on violence against women, and she challenged us to consider how today’s discussion can inform our broader engagement and advocacy at the HRC. She also noted that we need an intergenerational focus in our dialogue, from girls and young women as refugees, to women and mothers, and older women. The first guest speaker was Ms Fardous Albahra, from the Syrian Women’s League (SWL), who reminded us that what’s happening in Syria is not an armed conflict, it’s a revolution to reach democracy and justice.

The regimes have been focusing on different strategies to crack down on the revolution. Many Syrian women from a range of social classes have been raped and imprisoned, but there has been a particular focus on disadvantaged women. The aim of such tactics are to break the human spirit, disempower communities, and ultimately deter people from continuing their participation on the revolution.

She shared with us an insight into politics in Syria. Unsurprisingly, very few women are involved in Syrian politics. Fewer still are part of the women’s movement.

The majority of the women involved in Syrian politics don’t support the SWL’s call for women to have the right to pass their nationality on to their children. It was in fact the democratic secular men in parliament who supported it. The SWL hopes that the revolution will end soon, and that a secular and democratic government will encourage women’s participation in decision-making, politics and public life. They called for the international community to oppose human rights violations, and to support their long-term strategy and constitution for women to become a part of political life in Syria.

Next we heard from Ms Sabah Al Hallak, also a representative from the SWL who provided a brief overview of how the conflict in Syria began, and reminded us that women are disproportionately affected during times of conflict.

She said that women in Syria are calling for peace, and the SWL is doing whatever it can to seek women’s involvement in the political process, and demand women’s rights in the next government’s agenda. She noted that the media has played a big role in enforcing negative framing of women, and in exaggerating claims about violations towards women.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to chat to her about this (she was whisked off to her next speaking engagement), but I presume that the government and media are closely aligned and work together to perpetuate a sense of fear among Syrian people.

Ms Dana Abu Sham, from the Arab Women Organisation of Jordan (AWOJ) reminded us that domestic violence is seen as a part of some Syrian cultures, particularly rural areas, and that this was occurring prior to the revolution.

She spoke of the AWOJ’s work outside of refugee camps, and the current challenges around data collection, and so was reluctant to make concrete statements about which issues were most impacting on women.

She shared a very different perspective on the way that men, particularly Arab men view women from Syria, and women from Jordan.

“Syrian women have a reputation of being fair-skinned, very beautiful, knowing how to please men (both physically and emotionally), and being sweet-talkers.

Jordanian women on the other hand are not as fair-skinned, they are more aggressive and they will stand up to a man”, she said.

It’s not uncommon for wealthy Arab men to fly into Syria or Jordan for one week, pay a small dowry to the girl’s impoverished family, marry her, and after a week of pleasure leave her forever – with nothing.

When child brides get married and do not register their marriages in host communities, then it is considered illegal in that country. Moreover if she were to have a baby, then automatically that child is considered illegitimate. The ramifications on her rights and the rights of the child are overwhelming. So what can women’s organisations in Geneva do? We were urged to continue our work on women’s rights especially in refugee settings, protecting women from all forms of violence, particularly in conflict situations, and to advocate for women to be involved in peace negotiations.