I should have posted this a while back, I think the message is still relevant nonetheless.
Attending The University of Minnesota’s International Women’s Day celebration has become a long standing tradition for many. At this year’s event visitors swarmed the information-packed booths on Coffman Memorial’s first floor as early as 8am and others secured front seats of the great hall in anticipation of the keynote presentation. Guests read through the day’s agenda trying to figure out which workshops to attend and which ones to leave out.
For fourteen years The Advocates for Human Rights and the Human Rights Program of the University of Minnesota have organized the longest consecutive International Women’s Day event in the United States. This year’s theme, ‘Transforming the World through Women’s Voices’ focused on issues faced by women in war and post-war situations. This theme is especially relevant to Africa where the spotlight is on sexual violence as a weapon of war in areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, Sudan.
“With de-militarization violence against women ends in the public sphere, but shifts to the private sphere,” said University of Minnesota Professor Fionnuala Ni Aolain. “You have to do more than take the guns away.”
Professor Aolain has worked for the UN as a Special Expert on promoting gender equality in times of conflict and peace-making and was critical of the accounting done by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC). “TRCs are theoretically good for women who tell their stories, but the reality is a virtual absence of women. Women talk about men’s experiences and not their own.” She explained that in many cases slim definitions of terms like ‘harm’, ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ do not take into account women’s experiences of violation resulting in this failure to engage with gender issues. “If a story is narrowed, then our remedy to fix the problem is narrowed,” she remarked.
“Women’s rights in Afghanistan now are worse than they were 40 years ago,” stated Fahima Vorgetts, who heads the Afghan Women’s Fund. “Anyone who tells you that the women in Afghanistan are liberated, please don’t believe them,” she added. Vorgetts told of an Afghanistan where women are jailed for going outside, talking to men, running away from abusive husbands and then wait for months in jail for a hearing. “I don’t want to rub it in your face or make you feel bad, but the fundamentalists in Afghanistan were funded by your tax money,” she added.
The Afghan Women’s Fund, which was started in 2001 has set up 7 shelters for abused women and 5 schools. In addition to the 1200 or so girls that attend the schools, mothers frequent the schools in the evenings to learn crafts like sewing and employ their skills in co-ops like silk shops. Even with the success of the organization, Vorgetts argues that more needs to be done, “Women still do not have a voice, please be the voice for women of Afghanistan,” she implored. “We don’t need Obama’s administration to send more troops, you can never with the hearts of people by guns,” she added.
In a workshop that highlighted the global connections between Minnesota and Africa, Dr. Mumbi Mwangi and Tsehai Wodajo discussed the roles that their organizations are playing in making these connections.
“When you educate a girl your transform a nation,” expressed Tsehai Wodajo. Wodajo runs Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL), which is an organization that is committed to the education of Ethiopian girls and young women. “It’s not a hand-out, it’s a hands-up. We are helping the girls to be self-sufficient,” she stated. According to Wodajo, in the poorest 40% of Ethiopian households, only 6% of girls aged 15-19 complete 4th grade. REAL, which was started in 2001 now has 8 schools in Ethiopia each with 15 girls and a mentor. At one site 15 girls contributed money to raise tuition for a fellow student who is disabled and could not afford the tuition.
Dr. Mwangi started to take care of HIV/AIDS orphans out of her own home and as the word spread she found more and more children at her doorstep. What struck her the most was the emotional needs of the children who had been abandoned and recalled how long it took for some of them to become comfortable enough to hug her back. “No one is thinking about the emotional problem. Most of them (orphans) are angry at how cruel the world can be,” explained Dr. Mwangi. She eventually set up NGATHA International and now has a school staffed with 8 teachers, 6 workers and 60 students. She shared her motivation to encourage the audience, “We cannot sit here and enjoy our wealth and abundance knowing that there are people who need our help out there.”