International Women's Rights Conference Puts Women's Rights Into a Global Context
The National Film Board's Citizenshift, February 16th, 2006
Canadian feminists came together on Parliament Hill , Ottawa February 14-15, 2006 to mark the 25th anniversary of the historic 1981 Ad Hoc Women and the Constitution conference that led to the creation of Section 28, -- the first 'notwithstanding' clause in Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms promising that 'all the rights and freedoms are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.'
They invited women from around the world to celebrate in their successes and further talks on women's rights. Panel discussions by the International delegation featured a suite of speakers from South Africa, Rwanda and Afghanistan. These delegates spoke authoritatively on the history of the women's rights movement and where it is going, both in a global context and in regards to their native lands.
Speakers from South Africa began with esteemed law professor Penelope Andrews, who spoke proudly of the strides women have made over the last few decades, citing the recent election of a female president in Liberia and "25 years of [political] agitation" by the pioneers". "Women's voices are no longer muted in the last couple of decades' proclaimed the statuesque lawyer as she listed milestones, including the signing of the UN Millennium Declaration which was designed to promote gender equality. She was quick to remind however, that "patriarchy in all its guises" remains subtly hidden in present day culture. 'Culture should be protected but should not be used as a tool to subjugate women' she asserted.
Dovetailing Andrews' speech was Gertrude Fester, a South African MP and Commissioner on the Commission for Gender Equality, lovingly introduced by Andrews as "my sister Gertie". She spoke passionately of the south African constitution that came into effect in 1994,noting that South African women " got their freedom late, but... were able to learn from women of other countries'. One of these countries she noted, was Canada, which had a constitution that served as a template for the South African constitution. Like Andrews, Fester was also quick to point out that, though many laws have been drafted, they have not necessarily been applied. 'Rights are not enough on paper' she stated, pointing to disturbing cartoons she had on powerpoint slides depicting women looking fearfully at paper houses built from legal paperwork.
She also mentioned her dissatisfaction of the Parliament's female quota system, which she believes appoints only women that are subservient. Looking towards the mostly Canadian audience , she reminded them that 'the role of Canadian women is to promote equality in the world.'
As she watched from the sidelines, Lerato Legoabe- a younger activist following in the steps of her colleagues- beamed as she set to take the stage. As though letting the audience in on a secret, she confessed her admiration of the women preceding her- women who she had "watched on television as a child". With an air of innocence, she insisted that had she been alive during the apartheid struggle, she too would have marched alongside her mentors. Turning the focus on her generation, she spoke through tears as she told the audience about AIDS/HIV among her female peers. "We might not be there in 2014" she said, of the 15-24 age group in South Africa. She also spoke of the poor education this group has, citing laws that don't allow pregnant women to finish school. As a result of their weak education, Legoabe insists that women are ignorant of their history and as such, lack in enthusiasm for action.. 'How do we start being activists on the ground [and] stop being activists on the surface?" she asked.
With Legoabe's question still hanging in the air, women from Afghanistan took to the podium . Cabinet Minister Dr.Sima Simar spoke fearlessly as she condemned the treatment of women in her country, citing the Taliban and religion as the source of their oppression. Like Fester, she expressed an admiration of her homeland's newly drafted constitution, and a dismay at the inefficacy of the laws. Echoing Legoabe's concern of the lack of political education in women, Simar spoke of women voting for candidates that "the men [fathers and husbands] tell them to".
One woman who would not listen to what any man would tell her is Malali Joya ,who took the stage next. Despite being of small stature, Joya proved to be larger than life, recounting her experience as a critical opponent of Afghanistan's powerful warlords. Wanted in her home country, Joya -who is also an elected MP- needs to be accompanied by bodyguards at all times. She spoke of the media's skewed coverage of her country, where the the US encourages the warlords to continue their reign. She also spoke of the mismanagement of funds from the international community, which are meant to go to the people in need, but instead end up in corrupt hands. Every so often she paused, holding up a sign that read "blood on their hands", reminding the audience of those guilty of oppressing women in her country. "I don't want to be a criminal for saying the truth" she said, almost pleadingly. Embodying all the great freedom fighters, she left the stage holding her head and her fist high in the air, while flashing the peace sign.
Next to speak were Mary Balikungeri, founder of Rwanda's Womens Network and Justine Uvuza, an attorney and gender trainer with the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development. Hailing from a country devastated by genocide, the two women displayed a remarkably positive vision. Leaving the country at age five, Balikungeri has since returned and helped rebuild the country by opening the 'Polyclinic of Hope'-a clinic for women in crisis. Although Rwanda satisfies the highest quota of women in government at 49% representation, she spoke of increasing the number. The genocide "has left a very traumatized society"she says, noting that women in particular have been left sick and alone by the terrible war. Despite this, she insists that her people are "proud of being at struggle" and are "inspired [to build] a new society".