Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Myriam Merlet

Part IV of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

Myriam Merlet was considered one of Haiti’s most prominent leaders and catalysts of the women’s rights movement. Merlet was one of the 300,000 people who perished in the  7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. As part of our series on inspirational and influential women, we take a look at her work as an advocate for gender equality and the rights of women facing sexual violence.

Myriam Merlet

 

In the 70s, Merlet left Haiti and sought refuge in Canada, where she studied economics, women’s issues, feminist theory, and political sociology. Upon the completion of her studies, Merlet returned to Haiti in the mid 1980s, stating, “While I was abroad I felt the need to find out who I was and where my soul was. I chose to be a Haitian woman. We’re a country in which three-fourths of the people can’t read and don’t eat properly. I’m an integral part of the situation…as a Haitian woman, I must make an effort so that all together we can extricate ourselves from them [the problems].” Upon returning to Haiti, Merlet used her education to lead grassroots advocacy to promote the rights of Haitian women and worked with others to change the culturally accepted norm of gender-based violence.

Merlet was involved in an array of organizations seeking to create and enforce gender equality. In Merlet’s early advocacy years, she founded EnfoFanm, an organization that sought to raise global awareness about the challenges Haitian women face, namely the history and continued use of sexual assault by government soldiers, police, and criminal gangs as means of controlling and oppressing women. EnfoFanm also led a campaign to name streets in Port-au-Prince after famous Haitian women to celebrate and commemorate their work as well as elevate the status of women within Haitian culture. Later in 2006, Merlet took part in creating the Coordination Nationale pour le Plaidoyer des Femmes [National Coordination for Women’s Advocacy] and served as a spokesperson for the organization to fight against sexism within the public sector.

One of Merlet’s greatest accomplishments was leading the efforts to reclassify rape. Prior to 2005, rape was considered a “crime of passion” or an “offense against morals” in Haiti. Rape victims and their families seldom received monetary compensation from the perpetrators, and had no hope for a legal sentencing or justice for the victim. In large part thanks to the work of Merlet and many other women activists, rape has been reclassified as a criminal offense. However, there remains a lack of a precise definition of rape as well as strong judicial system to uphold and enforce the criminalization of rape. As a result, many rapes continue to be overlooked by authorities and there is a stark lack of rape prosecutions, leaving victims vulnerable and susceptible to further gender-based violence.

From 2006 to 2008 Merlet acted as the Chief of Staff to Haiti’s Ministry for Gender and the Rights of Women. There, she continued to promote equal rights and end gender discrimination and violence. Though in a government position, Merlet continued to participate in grassroots advocacy and worked closely with the Minister for the Coordination of Women and Women’s Rights, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue. Together, Merlet and Lassegue opened the first Haiti Sorority Safe House and V-Day Safe House, both of which act as safe houses for women who are victims of domestic violence. At both of these safe houses women can access medical, legal, and psychological aid as well as gain life skills through the business and computer training courses offered. There continues to be an overwhelming lack of safe houses and aid offered to victims of domestic and gender-based violence. Merlet and Lassegue’s work is carried on by organizations like Fanm Deside, but more needs to be done.

The earthquake served as a reminder of how crucial the work in which Merlet was involved continues to be. A report by Amnesty International stated, “the displacements and living conditions in the displaced persons camps have increased the risk of facing gender-based violence for women and girls, while the destruction of police stations and court houses during the 2010 earthquake further weakened that state’s ability to provided adequate protection.” Women and girls living in the camps with poor lighting at night, unsecure tents, and limited police presence continue to be increasingly susceptible to rape and gender-based violence. Furthermore, the child sex ring run by United Nations Peacekeepers exacerbated the sexual abuse women and girls faced in the camps in Port-au-Prince.

The work Merlet started for the promotion, empowerment, and protection of Haitian women’s rights at the grassroots level remains imperative. The UN’s debacle illustrates why women and local leaders must be involved in the disaster relief process and the need to bring female issues to the forefront of government policy in the hopes of strengthening the justice system to deter rape and gender-based violence as well as provided justice for female victims.

Up Next: Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Sister Pauline Quinn coming April 20th

 

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The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women: the Unequal Effects of Climate Change on Rural Women

This year, the United Nations held the 62nd annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in order to gather the international community to discuss the importance and necessity for inclusion and empowerment of women on a global level and to propose strategies to enact positive change. The first CSW was held in 1947, two years after the inception of the United Nations, with the purpose of creating international conventions and standards to change existing discriminatory male-oriented legislation as well as to foster global awareness on the legitimacy of women’s issues.

http://www.op.org/en/content/csw-62-empowering-rural-women-and-girls

Each year CSW adopts a theme based on the current global realities of women. The theme this year was Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. As the name suggests, there is an array of issues that affect rural women and girls. This post focuses on a particular panel of interest: Harnessing Women’s Rights to Natural Resources to Advance the Status of Rural Women

Many assume that climate change affects people equally or affects them based on geographic location; however, this is not the case. Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change across the globe. This is often easier to see and understand in rural areas. Like in urban areas, rural women typically act as the primary caregivers and providers for the household. Rural women face unique challenges in this role in regards to collecting water and food. Due to the increased regularity and length of droughts, women are forced to travel further distances to gather water. Irregular weather patterns caused by climate change can lead to crop and livestock failure, forcing women to find alternative sources of nutrition. Both of these activities have physical tolls on women’s bodies and reduce their ability to actively participate in the formal economy.

In contrast, though urban women often act as the primary caregivers within homes as well, they do not face the same challenges rural women do when gathering necessary household resources. The unequal affect of climate change on urban women is better understood when examining the intersectionality between the lack of socioeconomic empowerment and female participation in the environmental decision making process. Globally, women are more likely than men to experience poverty, often rendering them reliant on community networks and social services. This makes it difficult for women to recover from natural disasters that affect the infrastructure, job market, and housing.

Mother and Child Post Hurricane Harvey

Along with the primary impacts of natural disasters (i.e. lack of shelter, food, water, etc.), women face more secondary impacts, including sexual and gender-based violence, loss or reduction of economic opportunities, and an increased workload. A prime example of this is their susceptibility to human trafficking post-natural disaster due to an increased vulnerability, need for economic stability, and lack of options. Further contributing to female economic disadvantages, the UN Women found that the female unpaid workload is more likely to increase following natural disasters because women are most likely to be tasked with caring for the ill or injured while the men continue to work, further limiting their economic opportunities. Girls were also more likely than boys to be taken out of school to aid with the domestic chores after a disaster, resulting in a lack of universal primary education and further disadvantaging females.

Given the unequal impact of climate change on women, there is an obvious need to include them in climate change decision-making bodies. However, the average representation of females in national and global climate negotiating bodies is currently less than 30%. Women, especially in rural areas, are more knowledgeable about local water systems and crop growth and are regularly forced to find alternative solutions to increase water and food availability by finding new areas to drill wells, using of modified seeds, etc., highlighting their ability to actively contribute to disaster planning and recovery. Furthermore, women account for 50% of the world’s population, and the bodies responsible for climate change response should therefore more accurately represent humanity.

In order to increase female representation in climate change decision-making, governmental and intergovernmental institutions must codify regulations enforcing gender equality in not only the environmental ministries but also gender and economic ministries. This will ensure equal representation, create a shift in cultural and societal norms that portray women as victims as opposed to equals, and create intersectionality between government efforts to address climate change and to empower women in order to make the link between climate change and gender.

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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Nora Astorga

Part I of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

“The great advantage in representing Nicaragua is that this is a revolution with principles and it bases its foreign policy on its principles” – Nora Astorga 

Nora Astorga was born in 1949, to a wealthy Nicaraguan family, who supported the Somoza dictatorship. In her youth, Astorga attended Catholic school under the instruction of St. Theresa of Avila, in Managua, where she was first introduced to the complex realities of the world that surrounded her. During the time of her schooling Nicaragua was plagued with a corrupt government, social unrest, and pervasive violence. Upon completion of high school, her parents sent her to Catholic University, in Washington, DC, to escape the harsh realities Nicaragua faced.

Astorga was in DC when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. From this moment Astorga recounts, “…a political consciousness was born in me”, and returned to Nicaragua to partake in the struggle to overthrow Somoza. Upon her return, she enrolled in Central American University to study law. There, she was introduced to the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front] by a fellow student, and shortly thereafter joined the Front in 1996, to partake in the fight to end the political corruption and inequality perpetuated by the Somoza dictatorship. Initially, Astorga’s role consisted of operating safe houses for the leaders of the FSLN.

In her late 20s, Astorga became a cooperate lawyer for a Nicaraguan construction company. While there, she saw an opportunity to further her involvement in FSLN. Through her position she met General Reynaldo Pérez Vega, nicknamed ‘El Perro’, a high up member of the National Guard under Somoza known to rape, torture, and kill political prisoners, as well as a notorious womanizer. Astorga used her wit and charm to lure El Perro to her house, on March 8, 1978. The plan was for her FSLN comrades to hide in her house and kidnap the general to exchange him for political prisoners; however, there was a struggle resulting in the killing of El Perro.

After Astorga was implicated in the death of El Perro she fled to the mountains to become a guerilla fighter. In an interview, Astorga recounts, “I finally understood that armed struggle was the only solution, that a rifle cannot be met with a flower… For me it was a moment of conviction: either I took up arms or I wasn’t going to change anything”. While fighting, Astorga acted as the political leader for four squads as well as studied the political reality of Nicaragua to further understand the in-country conditions. 

Photo provided by Liberation News

Astorga training new recruits

Following the overthrow of Somoza in 1976, Astorga’s legal background provided her with the qualifications to become the Chief Special Persecutor in special war tribunals for Somoza war criminals. Upon completion of trying 7,500 members of Somoza’s National Guard, Astorga was appointed Nicaragua’s Deputy Foreign Mister for four years, and then became Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the United Nations. While at the U.N. Astorga was one of four women to act as representatives of their countries. In the male dominated U.N. Astorga worked tirelessly to challenge the United States’ policies of supporting the Contras, blockading trade and cutting off international organizations’ assistance to the Sandinista government. While speaking to U.N. delegates she stated, “the United States treats undeveloped countries like little children… Their attitude is, ‘If you behave, I’ll give you some candy. If not, I’ll spank you.’ ’”. Astorga was recognized by colleagues for the strength of her diplomatic efforts, including her work to encourage Security Council recognition of the landmark World Court case that declared U.S. efforts to topple the Sandinista government illegal.

Astorga at the United Nations

Astorga’s work continues to have importance and impact today. There is a continued need to promote and include non-Western voices within the international community in order to inform as well as guide policies affecting non-Western countries. The United States, and many other Western countries, continues to enter inter-governmental spaces promoting their own agenda, without regard of the potentially detrimental impact on the countries they view as ‘lesser’, such as developing countries. This can be seen through the policies and tactics Nikki Haley utilizes at the U.N., which include the deployment of threats to force other countries to support American ill-informed global policies. The inclusion of non-Western voices in inter-governmental diplomacy will allow for the creation well informed policy based on moral and democratic ground, rather than the self-interests of the strong and wealthy countries.

Up Next: Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Wangari Maathai, coming March 9th

 

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