Reflection on Women's Rights

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

Originally published in the Fall 2000 issue of Stritch Magazine

By Linda Steiner

When Sister Florence Deacon, a professor in Stritch’s History Department, attended the United Nation’s special session on women in June, she experienced an array of emotions, from elation to emotional pain, to frustration.

“Sometimes it would take 10 hours to work out a paragraph,” she said. “They were dealing, for instance, with the trafficking in women. Well, no one is in favor of it, but they just couldn’t agree on the wording. I thought, ‘Why are you arguing over the placement of a verb or an adjective!’”

But in the end, she was very pleased to find that the so-called Outcome Document made great strides in promoting women’s rights worldwide and went farther than many of the delegates had expected.

This special session of the UN General Assembly formally titled “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century,” is not the first foray into international politics for Sister Florence. In 1985, she attended a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, that was a follow-up to the1975 UN Conference on Women in Mexico. The Mexico meeting led to a declaration of an “International Decade of Women,” from 1975-85. Sister Florence also attended the world conference held in Beijing, China, in 1995 as an outgrowth of the earlier session.

In Beijing, a new international commitment was created to gender equality, peace, and economic and social development. Strategic objectives were defined and actions to be taken by the year 2000 were detailed in 12 critical areas. Those areas include women and poverty, education, health, violence, women and armed conflict, and the human rights of women, among others. The session this June, informally called “Beijing + 5” looked at practices that have worked and obstacles that remain. Delegates formulated recommendations for further action needed to achieve full gender equality in the new millennium.

Sister Florence was among about 2,000 people at the UN session, including First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services. Sister Florence attended as an accredited observer, representing Franciscans International, a consortium of lay and religious Franciscans from around the world. Groups such as the Franciscans were called NGOs or Non-Government Organizations.

“The NGOs have become more involved each time,” Sister Florence said about the series of conferences. “A lot of governmental delegations this time actually had NGO representatives on their delegations. The U.S. delegation had daily briefings for NGOs – one of the few who did. They met with us every day, we could ask questions, ask them to push certain agendas…. They listened and they tried to implement what we asked.”

But getting there was not easy. In addition to the haggling over language – each part of the Outcome Document had to be agreed upon by all the delegations – group  representation was uneven, she said. In some instances, the NGOs were tied to their governments, thus were more conservative than women from everyday circumstances, or were able to attend the session in New York simply because they were wealthy and could afford to be there.

“In some cases, there was a lot of blaming, rather than helping the cause of women,” she said. “I had the impression that women’s rights were such a new concept to some of the delegations that they had a hard time understanding the issues involved, let alone nuances. … At times, the special session seemed ready to self-destruct, and it was the most chaotic some diplomats had ever experienced.”

Then there were the horrific stories. They were important, but they were hard to listen to. Attendees heard about how women from Nairobi are lured into Europe and end up in underground sex trades, how acid is thrown on women in Bangladesh by jilted suitors to disfigure them for anyone else, how women in India are burned for the lack of a sufficient dowry.

“Every six hours a woman is killed in India for her dowry,” Sister Florence said. “They say, a woman dies for (the lack of) a television set.

“The most poignant story I heard was the testimony of Grace, a girl from Uganda, who was kidnapped by rebel soldiers. She gave several examples of how she was brutalized. She said that, soon after she was captured, ‘They gave us a boy soldier to kill, and we killed him.’”

Sister Florence said the story was chilling, and that she, with most other observers in the balcony where she sat, wept.

“But Grace concluded, ‘I have been trained to kill. Now I want to be trained to be a doctor.’’

It was statements such as this that gave – and continue to give – Sister Florence hope. And the Outcome Document went further on the area of violence against women, an area of particular interest to Sister Florence, than expected. For instance, honor killing by a male relative who perceives a woman has some how besmirched the family’s honor, was condemned soundly; proscriptions were strengthened against domestic violence, dowry burning and forced marriage.

“This will not be easy,” she said. “The language of human rights is becoming more acceptable. To get practices into the culture is another issue… And it’s not just the governments that have to take a stance. These documents call on schools, police, the whole community to work together.”

But conferences such as “Beijing +5” and the others do much to make the world aware “and they get people to come together to try to find a solution."

Will women ever achieve full equality?

“I think so; I have hope,” Sister Florence said. “What’s really important is that women have to constantly be on guard…. I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. For example, sexual harassment just being identified as a problem is a big step forward. Here, as kids, we thought it was just things boys did.”

At Stritch, she said, women’s studies courses have increased over the years, and women’s rights and feminist issues are beginning to be incorporated into more and more subjects. She said that, as professors have taught women’s studies classes, they have told her they have had their eyes opened and subsequently bring such themes into other courses they teach.

But she experienced a jarring reminder of sexual inequality and brutality shortly after leaving New York, where, for the most part it seemed, the real horror stories came out of developing countries in Africa or in India or Bangladesh.

“I walked through Central Park on the way back from a session. A week after the conference ended, there was that ‘wilding’ there,” in which almost 50 women were sexually abused by a mob. The attack was videotaped and played repeatedly on TV news, with men shouting, “Get them! Get the bitches!”

“With a lot of people, they think in America we don’t have a problem, or the problem is out there, in the rest of the world. This illustrates it’s here.”

But she said people who believe in equality and women’s rights cannot let incidents such as the Central Park wilding, or genital mutilation in Africa, or bride burnings in India make them feel defeated. And in her role as a professor at Stritch, and in the aftermath of attending conferences such as “Beijing + 5,” Sister Florence said she seeks to “spread the word,” and she stresses openness and awareness.

“It has to happen in homes, in day-to-day activities, in relationships, business relationships. People have to call their elected representatives to account. No one gives up power easily, and it will take a strong, concentrated pressure for things to really change…. Most of us don’t have the energy, personality or ego to work on a state or a national level. But we can make a difference where we are ….

“When I started talking about these things more than 30 years ago,” she said with a warm smile, “people thought I was crazy. People didn’t understand. Now, I think a lot do, and that gives me hope.”