Focus on the empowerment of girls at 2007 UN meeting on women's status

In Brief: 

“There is no other cause that we can commit ourselves to that can have as much an impact on the lives of so many. We all stand to gain from women and men having equal opportunities.”

—Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain, UN General Assembly President

UNITED NATIONS — Last autumn, Anisa Fadaei started a discussion group on women’s issues at her high school. Meeting every two weeks at lunch, about a dozen girls examined issues like domestic violence, unequal pay rates, and trafficking in girls.

The topics were unfamiliar to most of the participants — which is the point. “Before we started, most of the others didn’t have a clue about gender equality issues or violence against women,” said Anisa, who is 17 and lives in the town of Stroud, in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom. “We live in quite a nice area and so most of my friends didn’t realize that such problems with inequality were going on around the world.”

Though young, Anisa is committed to raising awareness about gender issues. She is involved in the youth caucus of the UK National Alliance of Women’s Organizations, and she has been the featured speaker at several schoolwide assemblies on women’s topics. She was recently profiled in a UNICEF newsletter that focuses on how young people can get involved with global issues.

Anisa was one of at least 12 girls and 36 women and men from 27 countries who came to represent their national Bahá’í communities at the 51st UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held 26 February–9 March 2007. The group represented the largest delegation of Bahá’ís ever at the annual meeting of the Commission, which has in recent years become a global rallying point for activists on women’s issues.

An examination of the Bahá’í delegation offers a snapshot of how Bahá’ís around the world are striving in their local and national communities to promote the equality of women and men, which is a basic principle of the Bahá’í Faith.

Among those attending the Commission this year, for example, were:

• Ahenleima Koijam, a 16-year-old student from Imphal, India, who has been working with children and youth groups since 2003, and has also participated in a public hearing on human rights, where she talked about problems facing girls in the province of Manipur.

  • Mitra Deliri, a 48-year-old teacher who recently founded a school for underprivileged girls in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The school, the Chipua Institute for Social Transformation, tutors some 70 girls in English, math, and science, and also vocational skills.
  • Ruth Montgomery-Anderson, a 49-year-old midwife from Greenland, who has recently completed several films for the Ministry of Health on issues that touch the lives of women in Greenland. One film, for example, explores family life in Greenland, while another discusses issues of rape and sexual abuse.
  • Jutta Bayani, a 52-year-old businesswoman from Mamer, Luxembourg, who was recently appointed by her city’s mayor to a consultative commission on gender issues. “The appointment came, I believe, as a result of my longstanding involvement in women’s activities, especially at the national level,” said Ms. Bayani.

“The United Nations is looking for models about how to implement its various programs, and in the case of these Bahá’í women from around the world you have some concrete examples of effective activities at the local and national levels to promote the advancement of women,” said Fulya Vekiloglu, a representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations.

This year’s Commission meeting drew nearly 2,000 people, representing some 334 organizations. Among them were some 200 girls from around the world, a response to the theme of this year’s Commission, which was “The elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child.”

In its final statement, the 45-member Commission reaffirmed that the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child is “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“[T]he empowerment of girls is key to breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and to promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of all their human rights,” said the Commission in its outcome document. “[E]mpowering girls requires the active support and engagement of their parents, legal guardians, families, boys and men, as well as the wider community.”

The 51st session of the Commission was also marked by a special meeting of the UN General Assembly to discuss women’s empowerment and equality.

“There is no other cause that we can commit ourselves to that can have as much an impact on the lives of so many,” said General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain. “We all stand to gain from women and men having equal opportunities... we must move beyond words and deliver on the promises that we have made.”

In addition to the main meeting by governments to discuss that theme and other issues, the UN, government missions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sponsored more than 170 “parallel events” — panel discussions, workshops, briefings and other activities aimed at exploring issues facing women and girls around the globe.

The Bahá’í delegation participated in virtually all aspects of the Commission’s program, said Ms. Vekiloglu, focusing this year especially on the theme of eliminating discrimination against girls.

Ahenleima Koijam, the girl from India, for example, was a featured panelist at a workshop titled “Gender-Based Violence: Consequences Across the Life Span,” held on 1 March at the UN Church Center.

“Many girls are forced to get married at an early age,” said Ahenleima, saying that girls face various forms of violence, both physical and psychological, even from before birth. “Early marriage often results in the birth of a low-weight child. Fifty-six percent of girls suffer from anemia, and 40 percent suffer from stunted growth.”

Ahenleima’s answer to this and other problems was to increase support for education, especially for girls. “A girl’s most important influence is on her family,” noting that even when young girls have children, their role in raising the next generation is nevertheless powerful. “The mothers need to be educated properly, as they are the first line of educators.”

Other activities that featured specific involvement by Bahá’ís included a 2 March panel discussion on “Ethical Perspectives on Transitional Justice and the Girl Child,” which was sponsored by the UN office of the Bahá’í community of the United States; a 25 February workshop on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Kinds of Discrimination Against Women) and the CRC (Child Rights Convention), which was moderated by Ms. Vekiloglu; and a 2 March “Girls’ Perspective” meeting with Yakin Erturk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, which was held at the Bahá’í International Community’s offices.

Anisa Fadaei, the Bahá’í girl from the UK, participated in a panel discussion on 1 March titled “Eliminating Violence across Generations.” Held in the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium at the UN building, the discussion featured not only Anisa but also her mother, Zarin Hainsworth Fadaei, and her grandmother, Lois Hainsworth. The event was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the UN and the Bahá’í International Community, and also featured a performance of the Children’s Theater Company.

In her presentation, Anisa stressed the need for young women to educate their male peers about the equality of women and men.

“We need to tell more boys what is going on,” said Anisa, when asked by someone in the audience about how to end violence against women and to promote their advancement. “For me, personally, we need to raise awareness.”