Women in a Changing Cuba: a discussion with Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez

IMG_0958“Vivir en la esparanza; Live in Hope”. This quote comes from Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez. She spoke at the UN Church Center Friday, July 17, 2015, on the topic of “Women in a Changing Cuba”. You could not ask for a better person to speak on this topic than Dr. Suárez. She was the first woman to be ordained in a reform church in Latin America. Furthermore, she has worked closely with Christian Institute for Gender Studies, as well as been extremely active on the World Council of Churches at the UN. She was able to give some background information on the situation in Cuba, and how it is a growing and changing country.

The discussion began by providing some background on the history of Cuba, then engaged in focusing on the issues surrounding Cuban women. Listed below are some major points shared during the conversation.

  • Unfavorable demographics: Since people are living longer, and having fewer children, there is a growing population. This means that there are fewer people in the workforce, as well as fewer people to take care of the elderly.
  • Migration: A lot of young women are leaving the country, which leaves this population lacking.
  • The Glass Ceiling: As an issue that women all over the world face, the glass ceiling can be described as, ‘unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.’
  • A Disadvantage in the Church Setting: They are often kept from holding positions, and being ordained: a topic that Dr. Suárez is clearly well versed in.

Following the lecture and discussion, a question and answer portion began. Many of the questions shared are written below.

  • Question: What does Cuba do to address issues with Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights?

Answer: There is preventative work done within the country in regards to AIDS- they have officially stopped the transference of AIDS from women to their children. They have also partnered with UNICEF to help with children development. Finally, they have done a lot of work to take care of people with disabilities.

  •  Question: How does a patriarchal society negatively affect men?

Answer: Dr. Suárez’s church has been teaching that expectations of masculinity oppress men. They use Jesus as an example of masculinity that embraces tenderness and love. She cited that they are not aiming for a matriarchal society, but instead a community of people that work together.

  • Question: How can you use your religious background to educate on SRHR?

Answer: There is an issue with a high abortion rate in their country. They choose to combat this issue with education on family planning, in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. She also discussed domestic violence, and that through giving women education, they can work and support themselves in order to escape a bad situation.

When asked what she learned from the revolution, she responded, “dignity. The ability to look at someone else and say, you are, but I am. Ubunto: I am because you are.” Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez is truly an inspirational woman. She works to better the society in which she lives, and embodies the idea that women empowerment needs to be a priority in any society that wishes to progress.

Human Rights Roundtable: Civil Society Engages with Permanent Mission of China for the First Time

On Thursday, July 2nd, the Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Committee on Human Rights hosted a roundtable discussion with the Permanent Mission of People’s Republic of China to the United Nations. With the help of keynote guest speaker Yao Shaojun, counsellor of the Chinese Permanent Mission, representatives from various NGOs engaged in constructive dialogue with the Chinese Mission, as a first step of many in a developing relationship between the Chinese mission and civil society.

Counsellor Shaojun has an extensive history of defending human rights at the UN.  In keeping with these values, Shaojun introduced himself at the roundtable by stating the importance China, as a nation, and its position on human rights. Shaojun also urged that NGOs play a key role in mobilizing human rights issues at the UN. We were excited by this opportunity to work with him because our Unitarian Universalist faith urges us to fight for universal human rights, in keeping with the view of Counsellor Shaojun.

Representatives of UN NGOs brought up queries ranging from the freedom to form social groups in China, and the hardships NGOs in many countries face in prioritizing human rights, without consultative status at the UN. Other topics discussed include Chinese NGO presence at the UN, and LGBT rights activism in China and at the UN.

Shaojun highlighted the pillars of development that China has undertaken over the past several decades. The Chinese Permanent Mission has created initiatives to develop its Economic, Social, Cultural, Environmental, and Political sectors. Through these actions, the People’s Republic of China hopes to embody civil society into its mission to the UN as well as inviting Chinese NGOs to be accredited at the UN.

Thank you to Counsellor Shaojun and the Chinese Permanent Mission for joining us in a conversation with civil society. We look forward to work with him and furthering our human rights activism at the UN.

To support our continued access to the highest levels of the United Nations and to the Canadian and American governments, please donate generously to the UU-UNO.

Emergency Burma Meeting – Raising Awareness About Violence Against Religious and Ethnic Burmese Minorities

Blog Photo FINALOn June 2nd, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office co-sponsored the meeting, ‘Burma Refugee Emergency Roundtable: Democracy or Demonizations?’ with Burma Task Force USA and the Amnesty International United Nations Office.

Stakeholders such as Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation Burma Project, American Jewish World Service, the United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and Physicians for Human Rights attended the meeting, discussing the human rights violations of Non-Buddhist religious and ethnic minorities in Burma.

In particular, thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim group in Burma, are being exiled and forced to military patrolled displacement camps because they are not Buddhists. Philanthropist George Soros compared the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma to his experiences in the Nazi-created ghettos of Budapest, Hungary in a short film clip presented at the meeting.

In recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of religious or ethnic background, we cannot stand idly by while the Rohingya face these injustices daily. (more…)

Peace and Planet Mobilization and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference

The 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT Rev Con) took place at the UN from April 27th to May 22nd. Though the NPT is a legally binding treaty that calls on nations that possess nuclear weapons to negotiate “in good faith” toward the goal of total disarmament, the officially recognized nuclear weapons states, also known as the P5, have shown little inclination to move in that direction. Worryingly, the recent crisis in Ukraine has both led to increased nuclear saber rattling and also stymied what was already halting Russian-American co-operation on disarmament issues.

On the eve of the Review Conference, I attended the Peace and Planet Conference and Rally. The Peace and Planet movement is a collection of organizations that stand for causes including disarmament, peace, and sustainable growth all gathered under an anti-nuclear umbrella.

Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War told of how the nuclear warfare contingency plans drawn up by the US military during the Cold War called for the deaths of 275 million people, from the nuclear explosions alone, with radioactive fallout killing tens of millions more. He reminded the audience that nuclear weapons today have far more destructive power than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hibakusha Sumiteru Taniguchi told of the unimaginable suffering he experienced during after the bombing of Nagasaki. Setsuko Thurlow, a Hibakusha who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima previewed the remarks she gave at the NPT Conference itself. She criticized the nuclear powers for their continued stalling and prevaricating on the issue of making good faith efforts for disarmament. (more…)

From the Director: Women’s Rights and Human Rights: The Path to Full Participation, April 28th Breakfast

Chelsea ClintonOver the past twelve months, I’ve found myself a regular invitee at the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York City. Richard Haass is the Director. I met him from time to time when I was an American Diplomat in Kenya and Sudan.

On April 28th I was invited to a breakfast with Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF and Juju Gupta, Co-anchor, ABC News “Nightline.”

While in the West, we have become accustomed to seeing women attain ever greater roles of responsibility, the fact remains in the United States, women earn $0.77 for every $1 earned by a man and in much of the rest of the world women’s health and education are neglected.


Appeal from Burundi Unitarians for Emergency Support

P1010585Since Sunday April 27th, the capital city of Burundi has been living in a difficult situation. Many areas of the city have seen people on the streets demonstrating against the third term of the current president.

Communes like Kanyosha, Musaga, Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Cibitoke and now Kinindo have joined the demonstrations by burning tires and pieces of wood blocking the streets to prevent people from moving from place to place and to prevent the police from coming to destabilize the demonstrators.

The behavior of the police was criticized by many because they acted against the demonstrators by using real bullets and excessive force, killing 5 people to date, arresting more than 400 people and leaving dozens wounded.

In Kanyosha, some people had to flee their homes out of fear that they will be attacked by the police or the ruling party militia. Some of our church members fled their homes, others decided to send children and women in places believed to be safer.

The church is seeking to arrange a temporarily shelter in a place where it is relatively safer for people to stay. The church will provide food, water, medicines for members in the shelter and those in other places.


The church is appealing for funds to cover these needs and the needs that will come up in the next few days and weeks.

We know we are not alone and thank you very much for your support.

(Note – Please see updates below)

Thank you.

Rev. Ndagijimana Fulgence

Minister of the Unitarian Church of Burundi








To donate online, please use the link below to give using your credit card or PayPal account.

If you wish to donate by check, bank transfer or other means, please email development@icuu.net for more information.

It is expected all donations will be needed for this emergency effort, but any funds not needed for this purpose will be applied to the ICUU Global Fund for Unitarian Universalism for ICUU work in Africa.




The situation in Burundi is far from being over. Demonstrations are still going on after over a month, people on the streets are clearly tired and the problems not solved.

There is another heads of states summit tomorrow, Sunday in Dare salaam, Tanzania and people have high expectations of the decisions? Looking at what the government and what the president has announced this last week, it is likely that not much will come from Tanzania and the question is whether the demonstrations will go on or whether new strategies will be explored to confront the government.

Local and parliamentary Elections are planned next Friday and the major opposition parties have decided to boycott the process and only the ruling party will go to elections with only some satellite parties, rather very close to the party.

The government is now isolated with all the major funders gone and obliged to fund its elections. One way was to create even more deficit and take all the money designed for other ministries including funds to fight Malaria, funds for fertilizers subsidies, funds for education,… these are difficult times!
The independent electoral commission comprised by 5 members may have lost 2 of them. If this information is confirmed, things will be even harder.
We are all in the waiting mood. We need all the prayers and thoughts that we can get.

Rev. Ndagijimana Fulgence
Minister of the Unitarian Church of Burundi


Warning of ’empathy gap,’ Ban urges faith leaders to speak up against injustice and brutality

UN Secretary General with Faith Leaders at the April 22, 2015 Session of the UN General Assembly

A recent UN press release informed us that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged faith leaders gathered in the General Assembly on April 22, 2015 to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding. He warned against an “empathy gap” that causes people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities.

“At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond,” the Secretary-General said on the second day of a gathering at Headquarters in New York of leaders representing diverse faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, as well as ministers, academics, and spiritual teachers.

Mr. Ban said that he was deeply concerned as today communities rushed to point out an affront against themselves, but ignored or dismissed the legitimate grievances of others. “I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity,” he said.

“Religion does not cause violence, people do,” the Secretary-General continued. “Today we turn to what you as men and women can and must do in this vital endeavour,” he told the High-Level Assembly meeting on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation, Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism.

“The dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women, tolerance and living together in harmony…these principles are our bedrock and they are what this organization defends,” he emphasized. (more…)

2015 Spring Seminar Recap

For the last 48 years, the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office has hosted annual Spring Seminars on pressing social, economic, and political issues. Participants in these seminars learn about a topic and are also asked to consider their own connections to the issue and develop the capacity to take action on behalf of meaningful change. This year’s seminar, “International Criminal Justice: From Punitive to Restorative,” detailed the myriad flaws of the punitive model of criminal justice and called on all attendees to work for a more just system. In this post we hope to share some of what we learned and experienced during the seminar.

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts opened the seminar with a stirring invocation of the memory of Unitarian-Universalist civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, who was killed while fighting for equal voting rights by members of the Klu Klux Klan. America no longer has laws that take away rights on an explicitly racial basis, but it does have a criminal justice system that in more ways than one emulates the infamous Jim Crow system of oppression. By remembering the strength and courage of those who have fought for civil rights, while drawing upon our own conviction and determination we can help make the “New Jim Crow” history.

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts kicks off the seminar


The UU-UNO’s contribution to the Commission on the Status of Women

This week is the start of the 59th annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Every year, delegates from all over the world come to New York to discuss the challenges that women worldwide face. After discussing these issues, they come up with concrete plans of action to raise the status of women worldwide. 2015 is a particularly meaningful year for the movement, as it is the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, also known as the Beijing Conference. That conference featured a memorable speech by Hillary Clinton declaring that “women’s rights are human rights” and ended with a groundbreaking declaration that set the agenda on women’s rights for years to come.

As an NGO, one of our key missions is to educate delegates and members of other NGOs. On Tuesday March 9th I had the pleasure of attending a panel organized by our Women’s Initiative Intern, Nazli Boroshan. The panel was moderated by UU-UNO chair Bruce Knotts and featured two wonderful speakers, Dr. Marciana Popescu and Jomana Qaddour talking about of the effect of humanitarian crises on women’s reproductive and mental health.

Dr. Popescu is a professor of social work at Fordham University who specializes in international social work and protecting women in unsettled environments against violence. Her remarks focused on the trips she made to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake and the conclusions she drew from this first-hand experience. Throughout her remarks, she emphasized the paramount importance of ensuring that women feel safe and secure. Even when women have equality under the law, they may not be able to exercise their rights or receive benefits they are legitimately entitled to for fear of sexual or physical violence. She recounted the problem of refugee camps in Haiti where supplies were adequate, but violence against women was so rampant that women had difficulty making use of them. Bruce underscored the importance this point with an example from his own experience- during his time in the State Department, as a regional [something] in West Africa in he received reports of male teachers sexual harassing female students in USAID funded schools . In this case, the basic right to education was under attack not from lack of access, but from a lack of security. Dr. Popescu also made the important point that the disaster in Haiti did not begin with the earthquake, rather the foundations for it were laid by years of political unrest and unresolved societal conflict.

The other panelist, Jomana Qaddour is a former patent attorney born in Syria who co-founded the Syria Relief & Development charity with her father in 2011. Her work has brought her onto the front lines of one of the most acute humanitarian crises in the world today and given her a strong perspective on the struggles of women in a country turned upside down by a brutal civil war. Ms. Qaddour brought up many timely issues, one of the most striking of which was the use of women as a weapon of war. Though women rarely participate in pitched battles, both sides in the civil war have made extensive use of violence against women (or the threat thereof) to achieve their objectives. As a result of this violence, it has become very difficult for women to put their trust in institutions that could provide them with assistance and support. The percentage of Syrian women receiving medical care has dropped dramatically since the start of the war, not just because of the massive exodus of doctors, but also because women face the threat of violence when they leave their homes.

A packed house

Every Child is Our Child: Supporting Local Solutions to a Global Crisis

My name is Jonathan, and I am the Every Child is Our Child (ECOC) intern here at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO). In this post I will outline the mission of this program and highlight its role in bringing about development and empowerment.

During the past decade, the world has made massive strides in confronting the HIV/AIDS crisis. New infections have fallen by 33% since 2001, new infections in children have fallen by more than 50%, access to anti-retrovirals has increased by 40-fold and yearly HIV/AIDS related deaths have fallen by more than a quarter in the last ten years. Though there are still more than a million new cases every year, the combined initiative of governments, NGOs, and countless individuals has prevented millions of infections.

Despite this heartening progress, HIV/AIDS remains an inescapable reality for millions of people, many of whom already suffer from or are at risk of severe economic deprivation. More than fifteen million children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS and many of those children are HIV positive themselves. The UU-UNO’s Every Child is Our Child program to support the education of children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS is our response to this crisis. It began with the realization that the the AIDS crisis has many dimensions and is grounded in the principle that co-operation with grassroots organizations is essential to bringing about lasting positive change.

Providing medical treatment to those suffering from HIV/AIDS is a necessity, but it is also only a first step. A HIV positive child whose parents have died can be given anti-retroviral drugs, but their road to mental wellness and personal development will often be littered with obstacles. The ECOC program is based on a partnership between the UU-UNO and the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association. Manya Krobo is one of Ghana’s poorest provinces and also one of the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.  The Queen Mothers are traditional female community leaders who have taken on the responsibility of supporting children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. While many aid programs work in top-down fashion, ECOC is meant to support the existing goals and initiatives of the Queen Mothers. By providing the supplies needed for children attend school, it furthers the Queen Mothers’ stated goal of improving local society through education. On a larger scale, the program reflects the Unitarian-Universalist commitment to addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Formulated in 2000 by the UN, the MDGs consist of eight ambitious development goals. By providing access to education for vulnerable children ECOC is meant to work toward the goals of achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, and combating HIV/AIDs.

Supporting gender equality . In Manya Krobo, as in many poor areas, girls are far more likely to drop out of school than boys. The negative effects of this are deep and broad, as not only are girls without education are less likely to find meaningful jobs later in life, they are also more likely to be forced into exploitative relationships with older men. These relationships often lead to them contracting HIV, which makes finding regular employment even more difficult, thus leading to further dependency. To have any chance of breaking this vicious cycle it is essential to start at the beginning by ensuring that girls have the opportunity to become financially and socially independent women.
Maria, Bruce, Joseph and Children holding up postcards

Former UU-UNO Intern Mario Militano and UU-UNO program director Bruce Knotts making a site visit in February 2014

When it started in 2004, the program supported 20 students. Today, thanks to the support of many donors, it provides for the expenses of 120 students. To learn more about the program you can visit our website. You can help these students and give other children the opportunity to participate in this program by making a generous donation.