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I recently caught up with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world medallist, Jess Fraser, ahead of an exciting event she’s hosting in Canberra this weekend. Here’s what she had to say about life, both on and off the mats.

Founder and organiser Jess Fraser is the woman behind Australian Girls in Gi (AGIG), a community of women and girls dedicated to empowering women to participate in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

A Canberran at heart, but currently Melbourne-based, Jess is back this weekend to host the exclusive AGIG women’s only “Open Mat” at Elements Fitness and Martial Arts.

Many of us have preconceived notions of what kind of women practice martial arts. They must be aggressive, masculine, or angry at the world, right?

Well, not exactly. Jess’ foray into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu came about primarily because she wanted to get fit, and brag about her skills to guys.

“The reality is that I was motivated mainly because I wanted to be a badass, to look buff and to impress boys at the pub with a rockin’ body, and tales of how ninja I was,” says the 27 year old.

“My priorities have changed since then. But the badass thing is still appealing!”

Having medalled at the Abu Dhabi World Pro Championships and won multiple state, national & pan-pacific championships here in Australia these days Jess is one of Australia’s most decorated BJJ practitioners and says that training is more than just her mediation.

Jess in action.jpg

Jess in action on the mats.

“It’s my personal development, routine and the most challenging and rewarding pursuit of my life to date,” she says.

“I also found the love of my life through this sport, and a community that is now my second family, and a team that I would do anything for. I get a lot out of it. I guess that’s why I want to give back as much as I do.”

One of the many ways that Jess gives back is through AGIG, which she says is having a positive effect on retaining women in BJJ clubs throughout the country. With a focus on women’s personal and physical development, AGIG comprises an inclusive and vibrant online community, and runs events and activities for women at all stages of their BJJ journey.

AGIG started in 2010 as a way to connect with other females that train. I was one of three girls that trained at my first gym, which, at the time that was seen as a large female team,” says the founder of the empowering female movement.

“I figured if there were more girls at the gym, there would be higher odds that I could find an exact clone of me to roll with. A luxury our male training partners can take for granted every day. Imagine!”

“I felt there must be more girls out there as crazy in love with fighting sports as me. Though they might be few and far between, I figured there should be a way to bring like-minded chicks together for all sorts of benefits: friendship, support, training, inspiration, competition, ideas, advice, guidance – all the things that contribute to AGIG’s most important goal: retention.”

Jess clarifies that AGIG was formed not out of necessity, but as a way to add value to women’s training experiences.

“Don’t get me wrong, we can also find all of the above in our relationships with male training partners and coaches, but all too rarely it comes from other females,” she adds.

“It wasn’t so much that I felt something was lacking on the mats training with guys, but that we could add more to how great this sport is for ourselves.”

Jess-kids.jpg

Jess is passionate about inspiring both women and young girls to take part in the martial arts sport.

While Jess regularly trains with men and women, she sees female-only training spaces as most valuable for both emotional and mental reasons. However, she also recognises that these spaces are the only way for some women to get their foot in the gym door.

“Plenty of my friends chose to train in women-only environments for reasons ranging from religion to simply feeling more comfortable, to working through trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” she shares.

“Anything that allows ladies to train that otherwise might not, is a good thing.”

While BJJ continues to grow in popularity, and AGIG’s one thousand-plus following continues to expand, the BJJ practitioner acknowledges that there are still significant barriers for some women who are thinking about stepping onto the mats.

“I believe the biggest barriers are front doors and the fear of the unknown. The guts that it takes to go up to a gym and check it out, when it’s something you’ve never done before, is absolutely huge,” she says.

“If only girls knew that this sport is almost more suited to them physically, than men. Flexibility, speed, strength, hip movement! These are absolutely the assets I value in my game. Girls be rocking that!”

Beyond her AGIG network, it is Jess’ family that provides unwavering support for her career development.

“My nephew thinks I’m pretty much the champion of the universe due to the medals on my wall. My sister is a powerlifter, and has made it to national level so far. She’s me, but a lifter. We inspire each other a great deal,” says Jess proudly.

“My brother is an epic skateboarder, field and ice hockey player and now coaches soccer. He leads a group called Thirroul Needs A Skatepark; a sports-focused community group trying to raise funds and approval from the local council for a skatepark in the area for the kids.

“They also follow my competitive career pretty closely. Three medals in three years internationally—it’s been a good run and there’s always cake waiting for me on homecoming.”

On the mats, Jess cites both men and women as her mentors and role models.

“Dave Hart is my mentor, coach, boss, closest friend. He is vitally important to me. Martin Gonzalez is my partner and long time coach. He is the most brutally honest person I know,” she reveals.

“I think in this sport, honest feedback is the greatest gift you can receive. The trick is being able to hear it.”

Jess also finds inspiration in her other role models including Sophia McDermott Drysdale and Luanna Alzuguir, for more reasons than she can even begin to list. But says that are definitely worth Googling.

Jess and Sophia McDermott Drysdale.jpg

Jess (right) with her fellow fighter and role model, Sophie McDermott Drysdale

With a cool year planned for 2015, one that will involve a lot of travel with AGIG and More Grappling, new competitions for people of all ages throughout Australia and lots more community events (especially for girls), Jess says her journey will take a slightly different direction with a renewed focus on refining her BJJ game.

“I no longer want to prove myself to anyone,” she says.

” I just want to develop and diversify. I think you can kick ass without necessarily taking down names.

The essentials

What: AGIG Open Mat for Women – Canberra
When: 11am, Sunday 5 October 2014
Where: Elements Fitness and Martial Arts – 15 Moore St, Canberra City
What: Fun and safe warm up, followed by just over an hour of timed BJJ rounds in a safe and supportive environment.The day will finish with a closed-door Q&A session focused on unique issues for women within the world of grappling. All levels and experiences welcome. Children also welcome to sit mat-side. More info here.
Cost: Donate a note of any amount.

This article was originally published in Her Canberra

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Better Boards Conference, and co-present with the talented Ruth Pitt on the YWCA of Canberra’s long-term strategic plan. This week the Better Boards team sent me the video of our presentation, so here it is – enjoy!

You can read my original post covering the conference here

Note: I’ve since resigned from the YWCA of Canberra board to take up an exciting role within the staff team, and I love it!

Progress-program

I was recently asking my NGO communications buddies if they knew of any courses that focused on digital campaigning and community mobilisation. The responses I received were largely along the lines of “I don’t think anything like that exists in Australia”, and “hey you should run a course on that”, so I was starting to get a little disheartened.

That was, until Sarah Stokely suggested I grab a ticket to Progress 2013 – and man I’m glad that I did!

In this post I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights of the last two days, and will no doubt add to it as my brain digests the smorgasbord of ideas, critiques, and strategic thinking I was lucky enough to learn about at this landmark event.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson, social determinants of health guru and expert on the societal effects of inequality framed our thinking as the morning keynote speaker on day one.

His opening slide encouraged us to consider the question, why are we so miserable?

He explained that at a global level (comparing country-to-country), life expectancy is unrelated to economic growth, happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, when we look at the population within countries, health and social problems are more prominent in countries where there is an inequitable distribution of wealth. That is, the larger the income gap, the worse off countries are across a range of areas including: homicide, mental illness, imprisonment, life expectancy, high school drop-outs, maths and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births, social capital, and the prevalence of trust between citizens.

Research shows that people who live in unequal countries actually trust each other less. Only 15-20% of people living in unequal countries feel they can trust each other, compared to more equal countries, where it’s about 60%.

Richard explained that a naive view of inequality only looks at one end of the spectrum that focuses on poverty and income differences. Whereas a more informed view examines the layers of all the subtlety destructive tendencies that humans possess, ie the psycho-social effects.

Fundamentally it’s about a response to social hierarchy and ranking, and whether people feel valued or devalued.

Richard Wilkinson-Public health slide
Research tells us that friendship is a protective factor of health

We then had a look at the “U shape of inequality” from the 1930’s to the present day. It bottomed out in the 70s (thank you feminism) and is now sadly on the rise again. Richard says we’ve lost any vision of what a society that serves us all might look like – a thought for us to keep in mind throughout the conference.

So what might this more equal world look like, and how do we get there?

Richard challenged us to consider what would happen if we extend the idea of democracy into the economic world, and transform big business and corporate control into democratic spaces.

His talk convinced me that in many respects, some of us have reached the end of the benefits of economic growth, and that now we need to think about how to create a better quality of life for everyone, beyond consumerism.

Tim Costello on the narrative of progress

Tim says that the notion of progress needs to be unpicked. He says it can’t be a narrative about material goods, and that we need to understand its limits. The economic rationalism storyline should have already been unpicked, but it still dominates our public debate and policy making.

Australia ranks number one in the world in terms of medium per capita wealth, and number two for wellbeing. We are healthy and wealthy, but are we wise?

The story of “the wealthier I am, the happier I’ll be” doesn’t necessarily work out the way we think it will when we’re ultimately faced with greed, stress,  and fragmentation of communities.

Working out the narrative of progress was one of the challenges Tim put to the conference attendees. This was particularly important given that the NGO sector is largely written out of the progress story.

His take-home points for us:

  • If we can understand our size and our muscle, we can change this place
  • We need to empower people to define what “the good life” means for them
  • There are a lot of people in Australia who should be having a voice, and they need to be connected

Limited news: a future for media in Australia?

Future-of-media

Panelists:

Tim started out talking about how he often sees journos dealing with Twitter followers like they are some kind of pest. He said journos don’t like being publicly held to account, they don’t like being questioned, and they still resist engaging in meaningful dialogic communication.

This got me thinking about how we can break down the barriers to social media use, how we can bridge the digital divide, and how we can empower citizen journalists to deliver quality, yet independent content. I’m yet to come across a better example than the PakVotes project that I came across in Geneva earlier this year.

We then moved on to discussing the Murdoch press, and how we break down the empire and it’s constraints. The general consensus was that monetising free-to-access media is still very difficult, and the publications that have opted for the paywall option are finding it problematic.

Jamila thinks that by 2020 we’ll have online media accounts where we pay very little (eg half a cent) per article read, but that it will take a while for us to get to the point where culturally we’re ready for that to happen on a large-scale.

She flagged that sponsored content is one of the more promising ways that we can monetise online media. I saw a couple of examples of this when Mamamia ran its “Most Clickable Women” awards, and invited female bloggers to engage in the creation of branded or sponsored content.

Digital Campaigning: going well beyond clicktavism

Panelists:

This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending, and it delivered! It was a real honour to hear some of the world’s leading campaigners share their approaches to strategy, implementation and evaluation.

Some tips from the gurus:

  • Technology is just an enabler, it’s how we use it that’s important
  • Seize the moment – when something happens in the real world, leverage it!
  • When people see real action in the world it galvanises support in the online environment
  • By challenging politicians to do something about an issue (by collecting signatures for an online petition, for example), you present not only a big stick, but also a very big carrot
  • It’s important to agitate around issues that “no one cares about”, but recognise this will often require a much more long-term strategy
  • Many people fail because their target audience can’t see how it will lead them to success, and they can’t see their role in the journey
  • When people take action you need to celebrate little victories along the way

Moving beyond the “gender card” – opportunities for the Australian women’s movement.

Y women

Josie Swords of Feminaust, Krista Seddon of the YWCA Victoria, Michelle Deshong of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, myself representing the YWCA of Canberra, and Nina O’Brien of Kindling.

Panelists:

Jane began the discussion by saying that she doesn’t see feminism as a movement. She sees feminism as a way of seeing the world, where women are at the centre of their own lives, rather that at the periphery of someone else’s. Jane noted that one of the things that we (women) consistently deal with is a trivialisation of our thoughts, feelings and desires, and that this needs to change.

Rebecca however, was more interested in talking about how we as a collective can move our agenda forward faster. She said the average GetUp member is a 55 year-old woman, and that one of the reasons women make excellent campaigners is that we’re comfortable with emotion, and the vulnerability that leads to connection.

Michelle challenged the position that Jane presented, because she feels like she has only just had the opportunity to start participating in feminism. She sees her race as the first thing that has prevented her participation, and then her gender, which is why she calls herself an Indigenous Feminist.

Michelle believes that gender equity is a conversation for everyone, and that Indigenous women want to participate in feminism while bringing their men along with them.

There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal women who are participating in the “feminist debate”, because they are more comfortable participating in the “Indigenous conversation”. The overlay of cultural context for Aboriginal peoples is very important, and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to participation in feminist debates.

Jane sees social media as one of the biggest ways that we can move feminism forward faster. The fact that we can have a public conversation without being mediated is unprecedented, and is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

Using the Destroy The Joint campaign as a case study, Jane passed on a few words of wisdom about progressing the feminist agenda:

  • Mock stupidity – it’s the best defence!
  • You have to fight mockery and insults with the same thing!
  • We need to make all progressive movements FUN!
  • Start with a group of people who are like-minded, and want the same outcome. You will have a much better chance of making your campaigns fun and engaging.

Finally, Michelle encouraged us to think about what the world will look like when gender equity exists, and stressed the fact that for us to get there, women’s rights first need to be accepted as human rights.

RamyaJ-video

I spent the morning filming interviews with Kgothatso and Ramya about their long-term internship experiences thus far. It was hard to pin these two down even for 15 minutes, they are very busy ladies! Here’s Ramya’s interview, Kgothatso’s coming soon:

We then headed down to the Palais Des Nations to attend the NGO wrap-up session of the Human Rights Council.

This year there were over 100 written submissions from NGOs, and many more that took up the opportunity to engage by submitting video statements.

At side events NGOs have started to take advantage of Skype, and had panelists participate remotely, while others shared content with their communities by live Tweeting from events, and posting stories on Facebook.

While these are encouraging trends, there is still no mechanism by which NGOs can participate remotely in side events, which limits participation to those who can afford to send delegates to Geneva.

I asked the panelists whether they saw digital communication playing a greater role in NGO participation in the future – this seemed to stump them.

Of course there are formal registration processes and security checks which should apply to anyone participating in the HRC, be it in person or remotely. But we’re solving some of the world’s biggest problems here, so I’m not sure why the administration here seems so concerned about evolving admin processes to allow for more robust online engagement.

A simple example would be to integrate a chat facility within the same location as the live video stream. This would need to be moderated, and would allow for NGOs to participate in Q&As at side events.

We then got into the themes and topics covered at this HRC. There seems to be greater attention on societies in transition this year, as well as how human rights defenders are being protected, and the human rights of migrants. The hope is that the focus on these important issues will continue.

On the flip-side there’s an unfortunate trend of states co-sponsoring or signing onto a resolution, but then rejecting the inclusion of specific language to strengthen these statements.

Others are backing away from driving action on important issues. For example, South Africa has been leading the way on issues of sexual identity and gender, but has recently backed off in actually introducing a specific resolution. This is looks like more than non-participation, it is a deliberate backwards step.

Then there’s examples of countries not showing up for their review as part of the UPR process. This year it was Isreal, and there’s no indication as to whether they will do the same next year, when the review has been rescheduled to take place.

Some states have successfully moved recommendations into footnotes in important documentation, which means that NGOs and human rights defenders can’t hold them to account on those issues.

But while there are ways that states can attempt to distract from their true motives with carefully crafted and constructed language, there will always be another state, or NGO that will hold them to account.

Luminarium meeting

This morning Jenna and I had the pleasure of escorting two of the lovely ladies from the YWCA of Finland around the Palais Des Nations.

It was a nice reminder of how much we’ve learnt in the last couple of weeks. It seems like only days ago that we were waiting to register for our name badges at the front desk, bamboozled by the winding corridors and the odd room layout.

After our final group debriefing meeting with Marie-Claude and the internship and volunteer team, we headed off to a side event entitled “women in conflict, a close look at Syria”, hosted by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands.

The session was moderated by Madeleine Rees, Secretary General, WILPF, and joined by panelists from the Syrian Women’s League, Syria, ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality, Lebanon, and AWO – Arab Women Organisation of Jordan, Jordan.

The event explored three key questions:

1. What are the major gendered consequences of the civil war, and what are the immediate priorities of women inside Syria and in refugee settings that will prevent further gendered violence?

2. How can women’s political participation be strengthened inside Syria and in the refugee settings in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Jordan?

3. What measures should immediately be put in place to ensure that women participate in defining peace and security in the long term?

Afterwards we went straight down to the Luminarium for a discussion on sexual violence against women – a very different kind of meeting space!

Luminarium-Jo-Jenna-Marie-Claude

Finland-group-shot

Today we had the privilege of meeting board and staff members from the YWCA of Finland! This delegation of wonderful Y women had made a trip to Geneva to connect with the World YWCA office and other key stakeholders in the area, as well as attend some sessions at the Human Rights Council.

For me it was the first time that I’ve really been able to see first hand the relationships between YWCAs from different countries, and get a real sense of the global movement that I’m a part of!

We gathered in the salon, and a quick head count made more than 25 women in the room (too many to capture in a single photo frame).

Finland-meeting

First up was Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda who provided a very warm welcome and song. Love starting the day with a bit of music!

Michelle then talked us through the World YWCA Strategic Plan, and senior team members from the two associations provided a brief update on their key priority areas of work.

We then broke into groups. I was fortunate enough to join the communications professionals to chat and share knowledge and experiences.

It was great to hear from a national association about some the challenges they face and their successful communications efforts, as well as hearing from Sylvie and Ramya about their priority work areas and plans for the future.

After our meetings we came together for another wonderful home-cooked lunch prepared by Anna, and discussed outcomes from key events such as the International Training Institute, the Human Rights Council, and the Commission on the Status of Women.

Tomorrow we’re back at the Palais for a session with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and we’ll also scope out the much anticipated Luminarium exhibition.

View-from-Palais-to-Lake-Geneva

Looking towards Lake Geneva from the Serpentine Bar, Palais Des Nations

Today we attended an event on on the human rights of children during conflict, sponsored by The Worldwide Movement for Children’s Rights.

His Excellency Jean-Marc Hoscheit, Permanent Representative of Luxembourg opened by saying that without the very real possiblity of punishment, there is no way of preventing children’s rights from being violated during conflict situations.

He said that in terms of doing justice for children who’s rights have been violated during conflict, punishing the perpetrator is but a fragment of the picture.

More importantly it’s about acknowledging that their childhood has been completely destroyed, and that they require ongoing support to be able to reintegrate back into the community. They need physical rehabilitation, psychological support, and education.

More than 3 million children in Syria suffer from the consequences of the ongoing conflict. Many  have died trying to find hospitals or shelter.

A whole generation of Syrian children have been traumatised, raped, mutilated, and murdered. There are frequent reports of them being used as human shields, as well as trained as combatants and messengers during armed conflict.

Mr Hoscheit reiterated Luxembourg’s commitment to ending the bloodshed in Syria, and called on the international community to respect international agreements and honour their duties.

Mr Victor Ullom, International Commission of Inquiry on Syria shared with us some horrendous statistics from his most recent report on kidnapping, torture, children being killed due to being suspected combatants or spies, and children being forced to watch their parents being killed. In 2013 alone, over 40 child combatants have been killed according to his reports.

However, it’s highly likely that these numbers are underrepresented due to the difficulties of accessing data and reporting of such incidences. The Syrian Government doesn’t let the Committee conduct any investigations inside the country which definitely restricts their efforts. They do the best they can by talking to NGOs, people exiting the country, and they use Skype to interview people inside the country.

Next on the panel was powerful and passionate Justice Renate Winter from the CRC Committee, who began with another heart-breaking statistic: there are more than 380 thousand child soldiers around the world.

Child&ForcedMarriage

Justice Winter recounted how she has seen many child soldiers in her life as a judge, and not one of them isn’t traumatised.

She talked about many children between the ages of 4 and 10 years of age who know nothing but war and violence. Sadly, she said that she sees that the average age of child soldiers aren’t increasing, they’re decreasing.

When chatting with a war lord in Sierra Leone, he told her that the problem is that there’s no cheaper weapon than a child – they don’t eat much, they are “stupid” and will do things that an adult soldier would never do, they are readily available, and they are easy to intimidate.

He told her that when she came to him with an equal alternative that he would stop.

And then another harrowing story. A war lord had sent 200 children to cross a field that he knew was littered with land mines. Once the children had crossed (there were few left at the end), the war lord then sent his precious adult soldiers safely across the field.

She said one of the major problems with the international justice system is that there isn’t a single government in the world that would pay for the years of rehabilitation needed to provide the victims and witnesses of these crimes with the kind of care that they need in order to heal and reintegrate into the community.

There was some discussion with panelists and delegates about prevention – how can you stop this from happening? While there are some efforts to educate and work with some military groups regarding the use of child soldiers and the impact of conflict on children, the outlook is pretty bleak.

According to Justice Winter, there is no way of stopping it, and that the best we can do is better deal with adult perpetrators and children (be they victims, witnesses or perpetrators) in international and national courts. Her belief is that no child should be convicted of war crimes, and that adults should feel the full force of the law.

I left this session with a heavy heart.

I’m glad it’s Friday so I have time to digest all of this, and reflect on another intense week of learning.

Kgothatso

In action: Kgothatso Ekisa Mokoena, World YWCA long-term intern

Today the Sexual Rights Initiative and the World YWCA co-hosted a side event on sexual and reproductive health rights and the post 2015 agenda.

Panellists included:

  • Dianela Pi, Ministro Conserjero, Mission of Uruguay
  • Alanna Armitage, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
  • Sandeep Prasad, Sexual Rights Initiative and High Level Task Force for ICPD
  • Kgothatso Ekisa Mokoena, World YWCA

Ms Armitage spoke about the recent global survey that was conducted in 176 member states, providing data on what states are doing to combat gender equality and to support women’s empowerment. Some of the key findings from the report included that:

  • 85% of all countries reported commitments to increase women’s participation in the formal and informal economy
  • 70% are committed to improving the welfare of the girl child
  • 8 of 10 countries are committed to increase women’s accessibility to information and counselling on sexual and reproductive health
  • 50.4% are committed to providing access to safe abortion services
  • 158 countries have implemented laws to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 years

However, 3 of 4 countries with the highest rates of child marriage don’t show commitment to ending it as a practice.

Ms Mokoena from the World YWCA did a great job of providing a grass-roots perspective on sexual and reproductive health, highlighting the gap between service provision and education as a major issue.

She spoke about the importance of implementing both service provision and education at a community level, to ensure that women, young women and girls are well informed of the options available to them.

For me, the biggest take-home messages from this session were:

  • sexual and health rights are human rights. We must defend the gains we’ve already achieved, and continue to push forward where there is resistance
  • the 2015 millenium development agenda isn’t being adequately monitored and reviewed, and this needs to be addressed
  • education is crucial – we need to ensure that women, young women and girls can make informed decisions about their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health rights
  • cultural practices, tradition and religion are never reasons to prevent women from accessing reproductive and sexual health care, including safe abortion
  • we’ll never transform gender relations unless men and boys are part of the solution
  • There’s a lot of work to do!

After the session we attended the premiere screening of Girl Rising, hosted by Plan International.

Girl-Rising-Screening

The film spotlights the personal journeys of nine unforgettable girls born in unforgiving circumstances and their empowerment. The film aims to raise awareness that education and empowering girls can break the cycle of poverty in just one generation. You can read more about their work here.

UN HRC - main room

On Wednesday we were back in the main room (the one with the funky ceiling) for the Annual Day of Discussion on Women’s Rights – great to see a whole day dedicated to this subject at the Human Rights Council (HRC).

It was an important day for the World YWCA and the Y movement, because we had prepared a statement that focused on child, early and forced marriages that Jenna read out to the assembly in the afternoon.

There’s no guarantee for NGOs as to whether they’ll actually have an opportunity to speak, because it all depends on what states have to say (they are given priority) and how much time remains after they have all spoken.

Here’s a video we made in the lunch break that explains what the statement is all about:

The first panel discussion of the morning focused on reflecting on efforts to eliminate violence against women, from the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action to the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

The opening statement  was made by Ms Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the discussion moderated by Ms Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Panellists included:

  • Ms Patricia Schulz, member of the CEDAW Committee
  • Ms Florence Butegwa, Representative to Ethiopia (OIC), and Representative to the African Union and UNECA, UN Women
  • Dr Fatma Khafagy, Ombudsperson of Gender Equality, Egypt
  • Ms. Simone Cusack, Senior Policy and Research Officer, Australian Human Rights Commission; Author and Expert on Gender Stereotyping; and
  • Juan Carlos Areán, Member of the Secretary-General’s Network of Men Leaders senior program director at the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF)

Ms Pillay provided an overview of the recent history of women’s human rights, highlighting CEDAW and the Vienna Declaration as milestones in reframing the debate on women’s human rights.

Ms Schulz spoke on behalf of the CEDAW committee and how it worked to frame violence against women as a form of discrimination. She also noted the importance of the contribution that NGOs make on informing this issue, and that the Committee has institutionalised the participation of NGOs and civil society in its work.

She said the influence of the Committee is growing despite the fact that some states don’t implement its recommendations. However, she also acknowledged that
violence against women continues all over the world and that dealing with it is not just the job of the Committee alone.

While the Committee has no legal power to enforce its recommendations and many states are slow and irregular in their reporting, the CEDAW convention provides a holistic legal framework to be able to effectively tackle this issue in an international setting like the HRC.

Ms Butegwa then shared some positive trends regarding violence against women, noting that 34 African countries now have legislation to eliminate violence against women. She thanked the participation of the CEDAW committee and supportive states in making this a reality.

We then heard from states on the issue, what their country had done to address the issue, and their suggestions for next steps to eliminate gender discrimination and violence against women. States who were particularly strong in their positions included: Brazil, Estonia, Canada, Lithuania, Chile, South Africa, Norway, USA, and Greece, as well as the European Union.

I noticed a common theme emerging, that was first noted by Ms Pillay in her opening address, and that is that implementation of resolutions is still a big problem.

Sierra Leone suggested that we need detailed action plans that are country-specific, include targeted strategies for different population groups, and media strategies and effective message dissemination for public education and awareness-raising campaigns.

The second session of the day focused on strengthening the work of the HRC and other inter-governmental bodies and processes in the area of violence against women.

Ms Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights provided the opening statement, and the discussion was moderated by Ms Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Panellists included:

  • Ms Zainab Bangura, SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict
  • Mr Sandeep Chawla, Deputy Executive Director, UNODC
  • Ms Patience Stephens, Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division, UN Women
  • Prof Marilou McPhedran, Institute for International Women’s Rights at The University of Winnipeg Global College, Canada

Ms Pansieri made some practical recommendations for steps that could be taken to address violence against women in the work of the HRC at state level:

  • integrating violence against women in country-specific sessions and resolutions
  • making specific reference to violence against women in mandates of enquiry
  • introducing mandates to make special mention of violence against women during country missions
  • paying attention to other forms of discrimination that impact on violence against women, as it leads to a greater risk to exposure to gender-based violence
  • avoiding duplication of work and recommendations
  • developing strategies to implement the recommendations of the resolution on violence against women

Ms Bangura’s address brought us all back down to earth by sharing horrific stories from women and girls in her country, particularly relating to sexual violence and rape of babies, girls, and young women. The statistics are truly sickening.

She talked about how when someone in her country is raped, it’s commonplace for the family of the victim to disown them, or worse, kill them because of the apparent shame that it brings to the family.

She strongly pointed out that the shame and the stigma should be that of the perpetrators, not of the victim. And that it’s up to everyone to condemn the scourge of violence against women, something she calls history’s greatest silence.

She said that includes teachers, journalists, political and religious leaders, those involved in the judicial system, health professionals, and social commentators, can all make a difference in changing attitudes towards these crimes. Not to mention folk at the international level including treaty bodies, specil rapporteurs, and experts that are engaged in HRC processes.

States then took to the floor to reiterate the importance of the issue, it’s complexities within their cultural context, and the impact it has on their states socially, politically, and economically. They also spoke about the work that their governments are doing at a national level in prevention, treatment, persecution of perpetrators, and ongoing support to victims of violence.

I’ve been here long enough now to read the subtext of these statements, to understand the intentions and implications of certain language that states use, and the alliances that are formed to either block or promote the passage of UN resolutions and other actions.

For example, states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have all taken a position to reject suggestions to include language from agreed conclusions from CSW57 in the draft resolution on the elimination of violence against women that is being lead by Canada. The language they most object to is about women’s right to have an abortion, and also protecting the human rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and intersex people.

It’s clear that behind-the-scenes collaboration takes place so they can support eachother’s positions in consultations and events where official documents are being drafted and discussed.

On the flipside there’s Norway and the group of Nordic countries, who make a point of using specific language (rather than implicit) in their statements and contributions to ensure that their governments can’t sit on their hands when it comes to championing women’s human rights.

Then there’s a group who sit on the fence, or make statements that appear to support the positions of states like Canada and Norway, but BEWARE!  You have to “read the fine print” in order to not be mislead.

On the surface they seem supportive, but they often conclude their seemingly supportive statements with disclaimers that nullify the essential content of documents like the resolution on violence against women.

A classic example would be a line like “we support the elimination of all forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, and acknowledge women’s right to access health services, in the cultural and religious context of the state.” Ie, if a religious or political leader says that a woman should be imprisoned for seeking an abortion because she was raped and fell pregnant, then so be it.

So why do we spend days and sometimes weeks negotiating over one or two words? Wouldn’t it just be easier to make generalised statements so that everyone agrees and gets on with the job?

When language is diluted it allows states to abrogate their responsibilities to take meaningful action on these issues, and to ignore critical areas that need urgent attention in relation to women’s human rights.

That’s why it was important for the World YWCA to make the oral statement. It sends a strong message to the HRC and states that we know what work needs to be done, and we’ll keep pushing for meaningful action until we see all women and girls enjoying their human rights.

Jenna-in-action

Jenna in action, making the oral statement on behalf of the World YWCA.

Flags

It was refreshing to start the day with some good news. The European Union and the African Group delivered a cross-regional statement on child, early and forced marriages yesterday afternoon at the HRC, and it was supported by over 100 states.

This is particularly important for the World YWCA, as it followed the side event that it co-hosted with Plan International last Friday. It also demonstrates that the advocacy of the World YWCA and its members at The Commission on the Status of Women, Session 57 (CSW 57) has influenced the framing of the issue and subsequent debate.

The language about “child, early and forced marriages” that was part of the agreed conclusions at CSW 57 has featured prominently in discussions at the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council. A great win! The World YWCA will continue to work with its allies to push for a resolution at the Human Rights Council in September.

While Jenna covered the third informal consultation on the draft resolution on the elimination of violence against women, I headed off to a session on freedom of expression.

While waiting for the session to start, a mysterious Kashmiri NGO representative introduced himself and insisted on reading my palm (not the kind of offer one expects in the halls of the Palais Des Nations)!

Palmistry

The conversation went a little like this:

He said: I can see you recently bought an apartment, you’ll buy another one soon.
Me: Wow, looks like I’m going to win the lottery then.
He said: you do things well when you’re going 100%, don’t slow down because you won’t be as effective.
Me: yep, that’s generally how I roll.
He said: you have a queen’s heart.
Me: sweet.
He said: nice to meet you, you can go now.
Me: ok…

People that know me well will be able to make up their own minds about how accurate his reading was!

ICTs

Now, back to business!

Shahzad Ahmad is a development communications expert and is at the forefront of the internet rights movement in Pakistan. He’s the country coordinator for an organisation called Bytes for All, which focuses on building the capacity of human rights defenders through the strategic use of digital communication (wow + awesome).

Bytes for All’s focus areas include:

  • Strategic use of ICTs for women’s empowerment and combating violence against women
  • Youth & peace building in the South Asia region
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Privacy Rights in Pakistan
  • Digital Security for Human Rights Defenders
  • Open Governance
  • Open Net Initiative
  • Greening IT
  • The Internet & human rights
  • Global information society watch
  • Innovation for development
  • Internet governance

He opened by talking about major human rights issues in Pakistan that came about during the last election.

There were violent acts that attempted to prevent certain parties from campaigning, refusing women of their right to vote in certain regions, and curbing of people’s freedom of speech in both online and offline environments. For example, YouTube was blocked by the government apparently due to its widespread blasphemous content. However it was clearly about muzzling the voices that posed a threat to the government of the day.

The Pakistani code of conduct states that religion can’t be used to promote the platforms of political parties. But this is being breached left, right and centre. It also prohibits the display of arms during promotions, yet there are many examples of political parties parading the streets with weapons, aiming to intimidate anyone who opposes them.

Mr Ahmad then introduced the PakVotes project, which is all about empowering ordinary citizens to participate in the electoral process in Pakistan. Essentially, it’s a platform for people who would otherwise be voiceless throughout the election process. The main way they do this is by highlighting people’s stories, and bringing human rights abuses (such as pre-poll rigging, violence at polling stations or issues in voter mobilisation or discrimination) to the attention of the global public sphere.

So one of the first things they did was go out into communities, and train people in the use of smart phone technologies and social media so that they could:

  • report in real time from the field with “just a smartphone”
  • be able to use a variety of social media tools for reporting
  • understand the essence of honest, safe and accurate journalism
  • be able to unearth stories which may otherwise be overlooked by mainstream media

Some key points about their approach:

  • the online platform, www.pakvotesmap.pk monitored and documented violations in different regions
  • citizen journalists reported back on what was happening in their region
  • stories were then picked up by mainstream media, bloggers, and political activists as a source of new and fresh content, who would then report to their own networks about what was happening during the election
  • Storify was used to document their discussions with different minorities and make them publicly available
  • Twitter and Facebook were used to facilitate instant, dialogic communication with citizens and social influencers to raise awareness about the unfolding issues

They had some fantastic outcomes, with thousands of people engaging in the Twitter and Facebook discussions, hundreds of stories being submitted and verified for the website, and gaining significant national and international media coverage on the issue.

Mr Ahmad closed by saying that when you engage the citizen you can promote openness and participation to influence political processes, and that new technologies provide us with a unique opportunity to amplify the voices who otherwise have no voice, and no agency.

Rock!

One of Her Canberra’s 15 Women to Watch in 2015

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Nominated for Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women of 2013

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