Conference on Women & Social Change in Emerging Democracies Promotes Peace, Change

By Pamela Appea

A conference on Women & Social Change in Emerging Democracies was held in New York on March 29th at the Beekman Towers in Manhattan. Sponsored by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA); Eng. Aja Eze Foundation; and the Center for Media & Peace Initiatives, the event was attended by more than 150 dignitaries, religious leaders, representatives from the United Nations (UN), and various NGOs as well as people from various backgrounds.

“Women are essential to building peace … The empowerment of women is essential” said Dr. Uchenna A. Ekwo, Executive Director at the Center for Media & Peace Initiatives, in his opening speech. “Including women is an act that will lead to sustainable peace in war and conflict zones and in other situations. Dr. Ekwo noted that several women have recently been recognized for their work by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. “This trend will surely continue as more and more women are recognized for their role in peacemaking and peacekeeping. We strongly believe that democracy can provide an effective mechanism for sustaining social change and managing conflict. Our conference aims to reach a broad spectrum of women who are interested in building and sustaining stable democratic process,” he added.

Ms. Mouna Rihani of the International Women’s Forum, New York served as the morning keynote speaker. Ms. Daisy Khan, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the public face of Park 51, the controversial mosque and community center near the World Trade Center and wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf also participated in the morning panel. Ugoji Eze, Esq., served as moderator for the conference.

Other panelists included Ms. Raja Jandhyala, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Africa, USAID and Ms. Aisha Al Adawiya Executive Director, Women In Islam; Dr. Uchenna Ekwo; Special guest was H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nassar, President of the Sixty-Sixth Session of the U.N. General Assembly. Panelists for the afternoon session included Sheikh Omar S. Abu Namous, Imam, The Islamic Cultural Center, New York, Zeinab Boumallessa, Head, Le Tunisia; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman, Cordoba Initiative, New York and Permanent Representative Centre du Development Rural du Congo, Ms. Aena Louise-Kone and Dr. Josephine Ojiambo, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kenya to the U.N.

The lively conversation included a debate about the personal, political, secular and the religious lives of women and the expectations of the new generation as compared with older generations.

Speaking on women and ambitions, Raja Jandhayala, an expert in peacekeeping missions said “I go to campuses all over the United States and find that the word “ambition” is a dirty word. It’s not only in developing nations that we have an ambition gap; it’s an opportunity gap, she said, recalling a conversation she had with Angelique Kidjo, a popular singer from Benin. “Her father was pressured to marry her at a young age. He had 10 children, but he decided against it. ‘My children are not property,’ Kidjo’s father said. They should pursue an education,” Ms. Jandhyala noted of Ms. Kidjo’s early years and the choices that she was afforded. Wherever women live they should take advantage of opportunities and work to be part of the public discourse, said Ms. Jandhyala. Education, access to health, property rights are key but not the only factors that hold women back in both the developing and developed world. Many women are expected to always have a deference; people counsel them to wait, to be patient. “It’s not the right time. It’s not the way we do things. Your thoughts and opinions are not convenient … There must be a demand for change,” she asserted referencing her peacekeeping work in Liberia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

In relating her experiences as a lawyer who had been previously unversed in sharia law in Northern Nigeria, Ms. Ugoji Eze noted, “People do not like change. I went to Northern Nigeria as a young lawyer to make a difference. I didn’t speak Arabic or Hausa. I didn’t have a set plan. But these women sought me out since they didn’t have anyone to represent them. And so it was a happy accident to fall into sharia law and to help discrimination and representation gaps in that area,” she said.

Many participants and speakers wondered about the Arab Spring in the next few years and how it would change the face of the entire African and Middle Eastern region. Many were optimistic.

Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Adviser for Culture, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said, “We shouldn’t be surprised about how some men, including religious men, are interested in working together with women for change. We’ve got to strategically work together in countries and communities that have high levels of unemployed youth, poverty, and social troubles that could lead to increased terrorism and instability.



Posted by on Apr 19 2012. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply