On International Women’s Day I was lucky enough to join 1200 other women at the UN Women International Women’s Day breakfast at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre on 8th March 2013. The women of Brisbane were out in full force in a show of strength and unity. I was surprised but delighted to see high school girls mixing with women of all ages, backgrounds and careers. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a few token men scattered throughout the room, even an Anglican minister.
The theme of the day was ending violence against women. The purpose of the UN Women Australia’s International Women’s Day events is to expand its critical services program for women experiencing violence in PNG. The goal is to celebrate the role that women play in our communities and workplaces and to raise much needed funds to end violence against women.
This event was positioned as a ‘day to commit’ to being aware, creating safe places and to a world without violence. The ultimate goal is to have an influence on strengthening laws, ending violence, and helping communities to become less tolerant of it.
I was shocked to hear that just next door in neighbouring Papua New Guinea. two out of three women tolerate violence from their partner – a recent act that was highlighted included the story of a woman who was burned alive in the street after being accused of sorcery. It is hard to believe this is a possibility in our current world.
The most eloquent and empathetic speech was made via video by our Governor General Quentin Bryce. She spoke about sisterhood and solidarity. “This is a time to draw inspiration on courageous woman, having concern for others and to reach out to women across the globe who can’t fight for themselves. A day to believe we can do something and use our power and privilege to make a difference by joining forces and take a stand”, she said. The Governor General encouraged all women to speak up and speak out against this issue 365 days of the year, not just on International Woman’s Day. The power of her words were felt by every woman in that room.
Guest Speaker Sally Sara, AM, had a commanding presence that makes you immediately sit up and take notice of her message. Sally Sara has a seriously impressive resume. She an award winning journalist and foreign correspondent with the ABC. She has reported from more than 30 countries including Iraq, Lebanon and Sierra Leone. Sally has spent the past year covering the news from the frontline of the war in Afghanistan. During her career, she has broken the glass ceiling being the first female correspondent appointed to the ABC’s Africa, South Asia and Kabul bureaus. Sally has written for the New York Times and the Boston Globe and is the author of the best selling biography ‘Gogo Mama.’ She has won numerous high profile awards including Queensland Journalist of the Year, United Nations Media Peace Awards, medals at the New York Festival Radio and Television Awards and has been a finalist in the Walkley Awards for Journalism six times. In 2011, Sally was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for service to journalism and the community. It is hard not to be impressed by her accomplishments and the single-minded passion for what she does.
Sally shared stories of what she had seen on her travels, the perils these woman live with daily and the often insurmountable challenges they face to survive. Sally spoke passionately about how the psychology of violence can take years to hit and then victims can take years to recover while some never do. Violence transcends national boundaries and women often live with it secretly. Her depiction of life in Afghanistan for women and children was deeply saddening and makes you feel a little helpless. How much impact can one make when such violence affects one in three women worldwide?
It was with heartfelt emotion she talked about a 14 year old Indian girl who had acid thrown over her whilst sleeping. The horrific act was committed by a young man who felt she had undermined him at work. She is disfigured for life and ruined any chance of marriage and children. The heartbreaking fact is that such violence is considered acceptable in that society. Why? Because she is female. What I find inspiring from this story is this young girl’s courage and conviction to stand up against this discrimination and to help educate others in her country. She is determined to live a fulfilling life despite being the victim of a heinous crime. According to Sally, “violence is cheap and accessible”. The acid that ruined this young girl’s life cost a mere twenty cents.
Listening to the stories of violence against women in societies that deem it acceptable practice makes me angry. In this day and age, it is hard to believe that some think it OK to hack off a woman’s nose and ears just because she had an opinion. Or for a man to rape and beat his wife because she is merely a chattel with which to do as he pleased. This is obviously a complex issue but I can’t help but think that perhaps it is the men in these societies – the perpetrators – who need to be educated.
After an event like this one leaves with conflicting emotions – hope, sadness, disbelief, anger, solidarity, inspiration, guilt, uncertainty. On talking to other women, it seemed we shared similar feelings. I was surprised but delighted to hear of some companies encouraging their female staff to volunteer for causes that make a difference in other women’s lives.
The UN Women is focused on long-term sustainable change and has a goal to empower woman which is admirable and gives a voice to women who can’t speak up for themselves.