In November 2019, I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Since then, I have had this reflective piece in draft. When I came back to the United States, life got busy with the holidays, planning my wedding that was supposed to take place in May 2020, and then the world hit a standstill in March due to COVID19 lockdowns. As I reflect on the conference and think about how much the world has changed in three years – food insecurity, financial decline, and limitations in mobility – the setbacks are heartbreaking. We will get past this disease and/or we will learn to live with it, but either way, the need for and the work towards achieving justice and equality does not stop and has not stopped. In fact, this disease has shed light on the inequality that exists.
This is meant to be a reflective piece, not an educational one. I realize my understanding and insights gained from this conference have been known to many for a long time. This is a description of my experience at this amazing event that I feel compelled to share where I plan to go next. I will be sharing this in three parts, this first one being more personal in nature, the second will summarize key conference insights and the last will focus on what comes next.
ICPD is based on the premise that the respect and recognition of human rights is part of the foundation for development, particularly for women and girls. These rights are often taken away from women and girls and in many instances; in physically harmful violent ways, stifling their ability to live healthy safe lives and to contribute to the larger society and development of the community and economy as a whole.
My background in development is focused mostly on economic development, both in study and in practice. I am new to the focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights but even in my previous experience, a great deal of emphasis was placed on economically empowering women with the goal of helping the whole family. This conference opened my eyes to the fact that we need both. We need the means to support ourselves in order to gain more control over our lives, but as women, we have particular health needs that if not met, can impede our ability to achieve the same opportunities as men. For example, girls not being able to go to school when on their menses because they do not have adequate hygiene products, or women not being able to decide if and when to have children, or equal rights not being included or respected within the law.
Two quotes that stuck with me at the conference highlights the role of power in the human rights discussion. Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA said, “It is not about empowerment; it’s about power” and Dr. Gita Sen, General Coordinator, DAWN said, “Speak truth to power and transform power.” There will be more on this in my next post, but for now my goals are to: Educate. Advocate. Change the law. Change the norms. Repeat as necessary until every girl and woman is respected and treated as an equal in her own community.
It has been many years since I have been able to attend a conference. I used to frequent them for work and volunteer activities throughout school and career. Like most people, I love the energy of being surrounded by like-minded people eager to change in their own lives and in the lives of others. The conference started with an energetic plenary session and a group of young girls singing “Roar” by Katy Perry. This was a special moment for me not just because it was the beginning of a conference I had looked forward to attending but also because this song had inspired me years back when I needed to decide to take back the power in my life. Also, because I made that decision with my friends at There Is No Limit Foundation and my sister who is now deceased. Aissata, Patricia, my dear sister Rosie, and I would meet on Saturdays to dream and inspire one another. One Saturday in January of 2014, these women gave me strength and helped me recognize my own strength to get out of an unhealthy relationship. “Roar” was the song I listened to on the train ride home as I prepared to exercise this strength and take back the power in my life.
I am in recovery and I am part of a 12-step program that helps me maintain my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Part of that maintenance is attending meetings with people in similar situations to provide one another mutual strength and support. One aspect of why these programs work well is that no matter our differences, we have a common bond from the moment we meet. Given that the program is needed for survival, we hold fast to that bond and respect the boundaries of it as well. I have attended meetings on five continents, including one in Nairobi. There were only three of us at this meeting and one of the other two women there told a story that was almost identical to mine. We were around the same age and although growing up in different parts of the world, we are now bonded.
I will end with one very impactful and humbling experience. For the past three years, There Is No Limit Foundation has been presenting awards to organizations and individuals who are working to advance the rights of women and girls. Aissata, Mariama and Patricia named one of the awards in honor of my sister who passed away four years ago so this holds a special place in my heart. At the conference, I had the incredible opportunity to present the 2019 Silence Breakers Award to one of our partner organizations, MenEndFGM, an online and offline movement that rallies men from all over the world to join the fight against female genital mutilation and other harmful cultural practices. I am so grateful for the time I got to spend with the movement’s founders to learn more about who they are, the work they are doing, and their organization’s history.
I wanted to join There Is No Limit Foundation as a concerned citizen of the world who wants to help my fellow human beings, especially the ones who are being abused, hurt and having their power and dignity taken away. The goal of the ICPD Programme of Action is to empower women and girls for their sake, and for the benefit of their families, communities and nations. The words “for their sake” really resonate with me as I am passionate about the fundamental human right of self-determination. My passion for the human right to self-determination motivates me to help others who are having this right taken away from them, especially in violent or cruel ways. I have been so fortunate to exercise this right so profoundly, and that is why I have been able to create a life I can be excited to live and have hope for the future. It is hard for me to fathom how this can be purposefully taken away from human beings by their fellow man. We all deserve security and dignity as our foundation from which to grow into our full potential, for our own sake and to be able to share our best with others.
Next up, I will share what I learned from people all over the world working to make this happen.