In an era when some women hold positions of great influence in politics and business while others have their civil rights trampled on a daily basis, The Light Millennium – in collaboration with Stevens College of Arts & Letters (CAL) – presented a panel discussion on a critical global topic: “Gender Equality and Empowering Women: Minority Rights and Discrimination.” The program marked the 11th anniversary of The Light Millennium, an independent public benefit multimedia and culture organization established in 2001 and associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations (UN) since December 2005.
Ambassador Palitha T.B. Kohona, permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and Diakhoumba Gassama from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) gender team were keynote speakers. The panel featured distinguished guests including Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, Organizational Coordinator of Domestic Workers United; Prof. Surendra K. Kaushik, Founder of Kaushik Women’s College in India; Dr. Sorosh Roshan, President of the International Health Awareness Network; and Bircan Ünver, Founding President of The Light Millennium. CAL Dean Lisa M. Dolling gave opening remarks and CAL Associate Dean Edward Foster moderated the panel.
The panel discussion was targeted to students and faculty of Stevens, local residents, civil society, non-governmental organizations and local media, focusing on the rights of and discrimination against minority women. It provided an opportunity to disseminate information about the programs and work of UN Women – an organization that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women in UN member states – and serve as a forum for open discussion and reflection. After each panelist presented, the audience got a chance to ask questions about gender equality and the discrimination women face in and around the world.
In the opening remarks, Dolling remarked how humbled she was to host the conference within CAL, a department that seeks empowerment from open dialogue and the exchange of ideas. She called this discussion “transformative” and asserted that knowledge is the key to empowerment.
“Our guests serve as the example of how to make a better world,” she stated.
Dr. Kohona began his keynote address by describing the pivotal role Sri Lanka’s historic election of the world’s first female prime minister played in the politics of his country. He described different programs for women that are in effect today in Sri Lanka, such as clinics for war widows. However, he lamented that women are still being prosecuted for speaking out and coincidently lagging behind in politics.
“There is a long way to go, but we will not stop,” he said. “We will go to the high lengths to achieve our goals.”
Next, Gassama took the stage to explain how this topic is very dear to the hearts of UNDP, a platform for action that was created in the 1990s and now includes a global network of more than 177 countries with the goal of developing and granting peace for women everywhere. She explained how Africa currently has the most developed treaty on the rights of women, but still the current statistics are tragic and avoidable. UNDP’s goals – which it hopes to reach by 2015 – include improving education, promoting gender equality, improving maternal health, aiding those with HIV/malaria and eradicating extreme poverty.
“We need to come together to achieve our goals by 2015 on a local and international level to make a more equitable world for girls and boys,” Gassama said.
During the panel discussion, Kaushik – who founded the Mrs. Helena Kaushik Women’s College in India in 1999 – said one way to eradicate the demoralizing statistics Gassama shared was through community initiatives and advocacy. He believes strongly that education empowers people and is vital for human progress.
Gill-Campbell, a former nanny, advocated against the exploitation and abuses that women face in the domestic industry. She is currently working relentlessly in the Campaign for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Calling on the audience to step up and lend their support to the women around the world in difficult times and situations, she portrayed a grim picture as to what really goes on in the homes where domestic workers are employed.
“Behind closed doors, you wouldn’t believe what happens,” she said.
Dr. Roshan, a board certified obstetrician and gynecologist and a delegate to the United Nations since 1985, has been on the forefront of issues affecting women throughout the world. Her fundraising efforts with the International Health Awareness Network have made it possible to conduct significant field projects in and for Kenya, Jordan, Ethiopia, Romania, Brooklyn, Ghana, Bangladesh, South Africa and Somaliland. She discussed the inhuman physical experiences women and girls face throughout the world, including genital mutilation and impregnated, malnourished mothers. She declared that the next step for women’s empowerment is to change the attitudes of boys and men in their relation to women.
“It is about time we collaborate and not be in competition to bring about change,” she said.
Ünver, the permanent representative of The Light Millennium to the UNDPI since 2006 who has garnered several awards for her television programs and other media productions, delved into the ways women are marginalized through the lens of her native country, Turkey. She described how in the past, men always ate first at the table. On behalf of women everywhere, she said, “It is time for each of us to claim our place.”
The audience members stayed more than one hour asking questions of the panelists, inspired by the support and fight of individuals who are working towards for the rights of women and girls everywhere. Attendees left with a central message to take up the fight for gender equality, as every contribution, whether small or large, will help to shape our futures and make our world a better one.
Foster ended the conference on the perfect note.
“It is not ‘behind every successful man or woman that there is the other, but it is beside one another that they are equally successful,” he said.