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