Civil Society, Gender, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

OP-ED: Nobel Laureates and Students Discuss Role of Women in Human Rights

CHICAGO, Illinois, U.S., May 3 2012 (IPS) - Last week, in a lecture hall at the University of Illinois Chicago, 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi took a reality many of us working in human rights know well, and drove it home with a story from her own nation, a land her government says she is no longer allowed to call home.

She reminded us that women’s rights are a gateway to democracy and to prosperity across society. She spoke about the strength of the feminist movement in Iran, a nation where more than 60 percent of college students are women, and where both men and women understand that by building women’s rights, they strike a blow against government oppression everywhere.

On Day 2 of the 12th Annual Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, at the Women Forging Peace panel, we had the honour of hearing five leaders in human rights talk about the role of women in peace-building, including Ms. Ebadi. Together they spoke about the impact women’s groups have already had on the fight for universal freedom.

Caryl Stern, president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, told us about a meeting she held in a refugee camp in Darfur. A group of women had requested the meeting, she was told, to talk about building their camp’s first-ever childcare centre, a solution to a string of infant injuries at the camp wells where so many mothers must spend their day pumping fresh water.

The women arrived, and she readied herself to explain that, unfortunately, the recovery mission might not have the resources to provide the bricks, build a facility, and staff the daycare.

She was shocked when the women waved her concerns aside – they had already gathered the bricks for the facility. They had already worked out a staffing schedule between themselves. And they had already calculated the resources -water in particular – that each family would have to sacrifice to create this safe refuge for their children.

All that these refugee women needed from UNICEF, it turned out, was a bit of cement to lay between the bricks of a women’s centre they had already founded.

At that moment, Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, spoke about the experience of being a female Nobel Peace Laureate. She said that in more than 110 years, only 15 women have won the award, but that they were all united around a common goal, and all eager to combine one another’s successes and lessons to build a greater movement.

These Laureates, together with leaders like those joining Ms. Williams and Ms. Ebadi during the Nobel Summit panel, are spreading a message of collaboration and achievement that every young person needs to hear.

Toward the end of our session, a teenage student from the Chicago Public Schools who studied the RFK Center‘s Speak Truth to Power curriculum had the opportunity to pose a question to the panel. She asked Ms. Ebadi her advice on balancing a desire to raise a family with the drive to change the world.

And Ms. Ebadi shared an experience that, as a mother of daughters, I understood firsthand. She said that, far from being a deterrent against action, the birth of her daughter was a driving force behind her decision to keep fighting for the future of women and for the human rights of everyone around us.

And that struck me as a message that runs throughout our events in Chicago this week. Women’s rights are not separate from human rights. Refugee rights are not separate from human rights. LGBTI rights – like the ones our Human Rights Laureate from Uganda, Frank Mugisha, is in Chicago to speak about – are not separate from human rights.

All of us are here willing to do the work to build a more equal world, one that lives up to the vision my father Robert Kennedy was speaking about when he said, “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.”

More than ever before, women and young people are part of building that future we hope to achieve, and as Day 2 of our Summit drew to a close, I was more eager than ever to hear what we all think of next.

*Today’s post is one in a series of dispatches from Kerry Kennedy during the 12th Annual World Summit of Nobel Laureates in Chicago, Illinois.

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