If you have not had a chance to visit the United Nations in New York City you need to put it on your bucket list. I had just such an opportunity in February to be a delegate for the Commission on the Status of Women. I was thrilled when I was asked to go and I knew this is just the kind of thing that would get me re-charged and ramp up my energy to keep on working on the women’s initative I am involved in at work and as a volunteer in my community. I had made a vow to myself that I was going to focus on what made me passionate, made me mad, made me sad and made me want to make a difference. I found all when I founded the Womenspeak Project over 10 years ago.
I have dedicated my life to helping women help themselves. Most often the help comes with assistance of another woman. The Commission on the Status of Women has been held each year for over 10 years as well. It seems to me to be significant I was working on similar issues to empower women to have a voice, have a place and to feel just as worthy and important than any other person.
This conference brought together over 3,000 men and women. The first day I arrived at my hotel to register. My hotel was just a few blocks from the United Nations. As I entered the lobby I found myself in a sea of many ethnic women from many different countries. Many wore their traditional clothing of their countries. In the really cold and snowy weather women wore brightly colored skirts and robes and many had head pieces wrapped tightly around their heads. It did not take me long to realize I was looking at a small cross section of women from all over the world. I later heard there were over 193 countries represented at the conference. Diversity was the rule of the day and I must say I felt a strong power and awe being in the presence of so many women from so many faraway places.
There was an eagerness and look on their many faces that was serious and they all appeared ready to tell their stories. Many of these stories, I would find later, were not stories of triumph but of sadness, anger, fear and frustration. I had no idea of what was to be and to this day I am still trying to put it into words as to what I felt in the presence of such brave women who had such resolve to make a difference and to make a way for women in their countries.
The sad truth is many women are not safe in their countries, they are raped, put into human slavery, or prostituted and oftentimes it is only their young beautiful bodies that keep them alive––if that is what you call being alive. They have little education and their own families would prefer they stay home and care for the younger children while parents go off to work to feed their families. If some of them do go to school they risk the chance of being raped by other students or even worse by their own male teachers. We were given a press release that indicated over a 100 male teachers were arrested for raping their own students. It was not a bright hopeful picture we were given but it was the truth and truth, they say, can set you free. I hope so for all these young women’s sake there is an end to their suffering.
I also heard stories of things that were happening that made me feel better. Women in Japan had started schools to help students learn computer skills and knew this would be their way out of poverty and out of ignorance. Other programs in South Africa were giving out micro-loans for women to start small businesses to help feed their families. There were also many organizations that were bringing awareness to the horrific human trafficking problems and ways they were intervening to help women and children escape and live free and safely. Education is important but if you are hungry, fear for your life and have no one to protect you there is little hope for a better life. I was asked in one of the breakout sessions I attended to use a word that would describe what I thought women needed in 2011. We were to share our thoughts with the woman sitting next to us. My partner was from Mozambique. I said, “women need self-esteem,” but she told me the most important word to describe what women need is to be “empowered.” I felt when I saw the resolve in her face and her look of determination I realized she was absolutely right.
I felt at that moment I had much to learn and as much as I want more for women in the United States we are so blessed and so lucky to have been born in this part of the world. What helps me feel better about it all is that I think about all the women I see and work with and volunteer my time with and I know each and every one of us can help. Women helping women is what it is all about. Who knows better about helping another woman with a hand up? I also know one day that woman will “pay it forward.” It helps to also think of all those women marching out to do this for all the women of the world.