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Women across the globe unite

Despite our differences, there are some issues that almost all women are in agreement over, writes Dr Vanessa Neumann.

13 March 2011

This March marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a day of celebration for which everyone has to find her own meaning: what it is to be a woman, what there is to celebrate about womanhood, what women have been the greatest influence on other women or what women want or still seek to achieve.

Perhaps because of my own experience and interests, my approach is always the socio-political one, how the personal ties into the political and our similarities across time and across cultures. I would have to say this is what has struck me most in my travels, whether for work, charity or pleasure.

My clearest epiphany of this was on a trip to Tanzania for UNICEF in 2002. I was spearheading their tetanus immunization campaign, both in the press and with corporate donors, and had to go see the program in action in order to go back to London and persuade those donors to give more.

We were in a UNICEF health care center that operated about a day or two a week and ran its vaccine refrigerators off kerosene tanks, as we were several hours’ drive from electricity or plumbing.

Some women had walked for days to get themselves and their children immunized against tetanus, an all-too-common and highly-preventable disease that often causes lockjaw (so you can’t eat) and other forms of paralysis before resulting in death. This was a world away from my London life and I had to communicate through a Swahili interpreter.

And yet, we understood each other and laughed together. Why?

Despite all the gaping differences, we still had all the same concerns. They too loved their babies and wanted better futures for them; they too liked pretty clothes and admired my bag or each other’s sarongs; they too were jealous of other women flirting with their men; they too missed loved ones who had passed away.

What they wanted, what they needed, was better healthcare, better education and to be counted politically. These were other UNICEF initiatives: to make sure the births are registered with the government to give them a key to political rights, to teach them better hygiene and basic healthcare to prevent the spread of diseases ravaging their communities, to help them gain access to education.

Isn’t that what we all want?

But to stand up and be counted has been a global struggle and one that women have undertaken with particular eloquence -- a prime example: the weekly marches of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who since 1977 have walked around that square in Buenos Aires every Thursday wearing white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children who “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War of 1976-1983.

But I’ve met women all over, who exhibit bravery in the most extraordinary circumstances, yet the most ordinary ways. South America is full of those stories.

In Colombia, driving through regions that had been destroyed by terrorist and paramilitary violence, I met women who had come through unimaginable suffering with astounding grace. One woman stood out, but I was told her story was not rare.

Her son had been killed by the Marxist terrorist group FARC, and then some time later her husband was hacked to death little-by-little with a chainsaw by a member of the paramilitary group fighting the FARC in that region.

As time went by, and the government started negotiating the peaceful reintegration of former combatants into society, she ended up healing the wounds of the FARC soldier who killed her son and then picking coffee beans next to the paramilitary who murdered her husband.

How could she find such divine forgiveness within her heart?

“I just want peace. I want the violence to end and I want a brighter future. If I hang onto the rage of the past, they win and we all lose. We need to live as one community.”

Trying to unite a divided community is what a friend of mine is trying to do in my home country of Venezuela.

Maria Corina Machado was elected last September into Venezuela’s National Assembly by the biggest margin in the country, overcoming huge political and social divides stoked by a repressive and dictatorial President Hugo Chávez.

Raised in a wealthy family whose business was seized by Chávez, she nevertheless garnered her greatest support in the poorest areas of Caracas.


She connected as a single mother with other mothers, who want what we all want: physical safety (for the violence to stop), better healthcare, better education for our children and more economic opportunity (jobs) for us and for our children.

And these are the things she fights for every day when she tries to reform and strengthen the country’s institutions to protect and advance individual rights: social, economic, political.

I’m proud to call her a friend.

And I was proud to be with her when she went to the offices of UN Women this past February 18th to present to them a report on the deplorable state of women’s rights in Venezuela. The head of UN Women is of course Michelle Bachelet, former (enormously popular) President of Chile and also a single mother.

Now, while the US remains entirely unable to elect a woman to the presidency, women are taking over vast swathes of Latin America, a reputedly macho region. There are currently women presidents in: Argentina (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner), Brazil (Dilma Roussef, also a single mother and a former political prisoner and torture victim) and Costa Rica (Laura Chinchilla Miranda).

Other countries where women are the heads of state include: Ireland (Pres. Mary McAleese), Finland (Pres. Tarja Halonen AND PM Mari Kiviniemi -- a double whammy), Germany (Chancellor Angela Merkel), Liberia (Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), India (Pres. Pratibha Patil), Bangladesh (PM Sheikh Haina Wajed), Iceland (PM Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir), Croatia (PM Jadranka Kosor), Lithuania (Pres. Dalia Grybauskaite), Kyrgyzstan (Pres. Rosa Otunbayeva), Trinidad and Tobago (PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar), Australia (PM Julia Gillard) and Slovakia (Iveta Radicová).

To say “You’ve come a long way, baby!” is an understatement.

Dr Vanessa Neumann is a political commentator specializing in Latin America. She is an Associate of the University Seminar on Latin America at Columbia University and writes for The Weekly Standard. Dr Neumann has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Columbia University,  and has been interviewed in The New York Times and on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Caracol radio. She’s written for all the major broadsheets in the UK.



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