Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which this year will focus on the discrimination against women in countries marred by authoritarian repression and armed conflict.
In recognition of the occasion, the second panel of the Geneva Summit featured Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP and international human rights lawyer, who as Justice Minister was instrumental in making Canada the most gender-equal Supreme Court in the world, and Massouda Jalal, women’s rights advocate and the first female presidential candidate in Afghanistan.
“If you want to pursue justice, you must feel the injustice around you,” said Cotler. “Otherwise justice is an abstract idea. Acting on justice is what the pursuit of justice is all about. It’s tragic to note that women’s rights are still not seen as human rights. Discrimination of women remains, as UNESCO characterizes it, as a form of gender apartheid.”
“There is a saying that sisterhood is global,” said Jalal. “Everywhere you go, women are disadvantaged. You cannot say you have improved the status of women until the lives of women in Afghanistan are improved.”
Professor Cotler discussed several important areas of gender inequality, namely “the absence of equal voice in our parliaments, governments and public decision-making arenas.” He cited the case of Canada, where women hold only one-fifth of parliamentary seats though they make up half of all civil service positions.
“Evidence shows that decisions of government improve with the participation of women. When discrimination is institutionalized as a matter of law, it is the legal regime that ends up mandating that discrimination.” The wide disparity between men and women in power, influence and wealth perpetuates systemic inequalities. Women own less than 1% of the world’s property and have less than 10% of the world’s wealth. He also condemned sex trafficking, a $12 billion industry, as the “commodification of human beings.”
Massouda Jalal shared her personal experience of running for the Presidency in Afghanistan. “Let us pay tribute to the women in the fields, in the classrooms, in the streets. For the life they lead forms part of our quest for liberation and equality. In 2004, I stepped out of my ordinary life to become the first female presidential candidate in the history of my country, Afghanistan.
The ousting of the Taliban was a golden moment in the life of Afghanistan. I dreamed of transforming my country and liberating my country from poverty. I dreamed of instant changes in the lives of Afghan women.
All the perceptual barriers about women participation and leadership would be instantly demolished, and if I did not succeed, I would have lead the way for women to do so in the future. My difficulties were many but I did not talk about them publicly because I did not want to discourage women from running for office. I had a slim chance to win as president but I had a big chance to demonstrate that the era of women’s confinement is over.
Women can be stronger if they stand together in solidarity. We have been through the worst situation, it could not be as bad as it was under the Taliban regime. They can vote, they can enter the mosques, they go to school, they can run for office, meaning they are beginning to become human beings again.”
Among the conference participants was Ambassador Betty E. King, the newly-named Permanent Representative of the United States to Geneva. “As I sat and listened to those comments, I remembered just a few years ago that our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared that women’s rights were global rights. The United Nations should be a forum where all points of view are heard. Unfortunately that is not the case.”
The U.N. Human Rights Council is holding its 13th regular session across the street from the Geneva Summit, at its U.N. European headquarters.
Ambassador King called for “dialogue rather than confrontation” and expressed the United States’ “commitment to human rights at all levels of government.”
In her remarks, Jalal offered specific policy recommendations for the international community, including speaking out against abuses and developing a mass of female leaders in Afghanistan and in other developing countries.
Professor Cotler called for improving specific title enhancements for women. “To respect the world, you have to respect women.”