Innovations and Attitudes

by Amy Larsen:

A few months ago, the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, the declaration symbolizes the tremendous strides human rights advocates have made in advancing the causes of women and other at-risk groups. My experiences with women’s rights have shown me, however, that this anniversary marks an appropriate occasion not only to pride ourselves on our accomplishments, but also to realize how far we have to go.
In summer 2007, I confronted this reality head-on. As I waited beside a highway in downtown Tunis for my bus home from work, my wandering eyes regularly met the gaze of men driving by. Usually, I was the first to look away. But when I held their stares too long, the men pulled over expecting me to enter their car and follow up on the inadvertent invitation I had extended.

That summer, I interned at the Center for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR) in Tunisia. CAWTAR is a leading women’s rights NGO that pushes for concrete change by working to expand women’s property rights, develop female entrepreneurship, and increase women’s political participation in the Middle East. Working at CAWTAR was empowering, but leaving the office at the end of each day was a shock.

leaving CAWTAR meant exiting a respectful, protected environment and entering a world marked by catcalls and unsolicited advances, where rights and reality did not coincide. While the international women’s movement has gained momentum through the adoption of many treaties and conventions, as well as through the work of countless organizations like CAWTAR, translating promises into tangible advances for women’s rights is easier said than done.

Although individual organizations do have an impact, broader partnerships are needed to popularize important causes that are still inadequately addressed. A guiding example of this new approach is the recent work of the United Nations development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). On November 25 2008, Nicole Kidman, UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador and spokeswoman for the “United Voices Say No to Violence Against Women” campaign, spoke at the UN headquarters in New York about the urgency of forming a “vast global team” to end violence against women.

I was on the edge of my seat in the audience, thinking how this campaign represented exactly what is needed right now: innovative strategies merged with changing attitudes in order to advance women’s rights.

To date, the campaign has garnered support from over five million signatories across the globe, including representatives of more than 200 civil society organizations and 600 parliamentarians and heads of state. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, also present at the event, echoed Kidman’s message and reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to ending sex trafficking, sexual abuse in schools, and widespread systematic violence against women.

According to Ban, social mobilization can spark creative collaborations between “civil society, government, and private sector organizations.” For instance, the component of the “Say No” campaign dedicated to raising awareness involved popular media organizations. The fundraising element drew support from well-known private corporations such as Avon. And building on firsthand feedback from women in conflict, the chief of the UN police force discussed recent efforts to “feminize” or increase the number of female UN troops in order to meet these women’s needs. The uniqueness of the “Say No” campaign was that it combined the voice of civil society with original partnerships to address an age-old cause.

Advocates of all branches of women’s rights must continue this trend by building the diverse and powerful coalitions for change called for by UN leaders. Rather than shy away from a challenge that is simultaneously overlooked by many and overwhelming to those who dare to stare it in the face, we must seize the opportunities our generation has to improve conditions for and raise the standing of women.

While creating change is often a long and arduous process, a world that professes to support human rights can no longer afford inaction while women wait on the side of a dusty freeway watching their most basic human liberties pass them by.

Amy Larsen ’10 is a Political Science major in Calhoun College.