International Women's Day Celebrates 100th Anniversary, And Still A Fear Of Change


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Tamara Kreinin, the United Nations Foundation’s Executive Director of Women and Population, is a world-renowned expert on women’s and girls’ issues, internationally and domestically, and an advisor on sexual and reproductive health and rights. We had the chance to sit down with her and talk about the global issues facing today’s women and girls in honour of the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8.

Much of your career has been focused on sexual health and rights. What do you see as the greatest obstacles around these issues today?

I started off interested in dealing with poverty and social justice. I was asking the question, “How do you change life for the poorest of the poor?” and I kept running into a common theme: by helping women and children.

The biggest challenge for this group is that there are culture wars going on around their issues. This is a global problem, but in particular an American phenomenon. Americans don’t feel comfortable talking about sex, and as a result anything related to sexual health becomes fodder for culture wars and politics.

Issues like family planning and AIDS prevention, which are critical to global development, have become political ping-pong balls. These are basic rights that our society has made difficult to discuss at the policy level. Congress has thwarted several bills that are good for women and girls, and much of the progress that could have been made has been stalled. A recent UN treaty against the discrimination of women was supported by most other countries, but not by the US.

It appears as though other countries, even religious ones, have a more definite separation between politics and the church when it comes to women’s issues. They take a different approach to personal decision-making versus state policy.

What misconceptions do you think there are in America today about global women’s health and rights?

There seems to be a fundamental fear of empowering women. But empowering women is at the very core of shifting society. I believe it will bring positive change for everyone.

When you invest in women and girls, we now know that 90% goes back to families and communities, vs. the 30-40% that comes from investing in the male population. Investing in girls is not only the right thing to do from social justice and human rights lens, but also from a global development and economic perspective.

What opportunities do you think exist today for women and girls in developing nations that did not previously?

Up until now, women and girls have been invisible in developing nations. We’re just now starting to see more girls in school. In primary schools, the ratio of girls to boys is slowly evening out. This is important—education and vocation are the roots of opportunity for women.

Fortunately, we are also seeing changes in traditional cultural practices, like female genital cutting. It’s slow in happening, but nonetheless these traditions beginning to decrease.

Women are also rising to leadership positions. The president of Liberia is a woman, which is remarkable. Increasingly, women are holding leadership positions in parliament and in business in developing nations.

What is the UN Foundation doing today to raise awareness and support for women and girls in developing countries?

We are starting a multi-faceted global project based upon the principle that all girls are equally talented, but not all girls have the same opportunities. In developing countries, our programs are holistic, rights-based, and empowerment-focused.

By holistic, I mean that we take into account a woman’s whole life, and the cultural context of her life, as opposed to just one facet of it. We try to make sure that these girls are educated, healthy, safe from violence, and have places to go to learn leadership skills and develop a vocation.

In Ethiopia, for example, 43% of the girls are married by age 15. These are the highest rates of child marriage in the world. So we don’t just give these girls schooling and health-care, we also work with the community to have conversations with parents and civic leaders, to help them understand that child marriage may not be the best way forward. Eventually, we hope that they begin to educate each other.

Programs like this have greatly reduced child marriage, and increased knowledge of agriculture and other vocational opportunities for married women. It’s been reported that the girls that go through our programs have the nicest homes within their communities and are seen as positive role models.

We’re now replicating the programs in Liberia, Malawi, and Guatemala. And in every country where we’ve started holistic programs, there is also advocacy, to help sustain the programs we’re supporting.

What about in the US?

In the US, we’ve also started a public-facing campaign called “Girl Up.” It was created by American girls, who wanted to do something about the unequal global women’s rights situation. The campaign is both virtual and grass roots—nearly 150,000 people have “liked” it on Facebook—and the groups will unite for a tour throughout the country. In New Orleans, as one example, we’ve been working on creating a curriculum for girls and raising money throughout the city, and we’ve seen great success.

How can young professional women get involved in raising awareness of the global agenda for women and girls?

What we need to focus on now is helping to change public policy. Young professionals can start by learning facts about global women’s rights and development, and with these in mind, write to members of Congress. Ask public officials running for office about how they plan to deal with global challenges for girls and women.

Getting involved politically is very important. Congress and foreign affairs committees have a huge impact on funds that can change a girl’s life. Futher, elected officials like a mayor or a governor have it in their power to declare a day for girls.

To get started, three important facts that are good to be aware of:

1. Currently, only two cents of every development dollar goes to adolescent girls aged 10-14. This time period is often the crucial determinant for a girl as to whether she stays healthy and avoids pregnancy. This time period will shape the rest of her life.

2. There are 215 million women in the world who want family planning and do not have access to it. With access to these services, they would have resources that would help them plan for pregnancies and prevent pregnancy-related health risks.

3. There are 356,000 women who die in childbirth each year, most of these being young girls. With family planning services, we could avoid at least 30% of these deaths.

For further reading on these subjects, Tamara recommends Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof, or Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.

You can also:

-Check out Girl Up online.

-Sign Girl Up’s pledge and like them on Facebook.

-Find out more about Tamara and UN Foundation’s work

The author, Liz Elfman, is a contributing writer to Pretty Young Professional, and a post-graduate student studying international relations. Previously, she worked for IBM and as a researcher at The Atlantic.

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