Human rights education must be compulsory for school children if we are to address violence against women throughout the world. “Physics, chemistry, literature… these are not enough, otherwise professors would not molest their students,” Talat Fasha emphasized on the panel, “Girl Child to Mature Woman, eradicating violence against women” sponsored by the Soroptimist International World Young Women’s Christian Association. In the pews of the Salvation Army 52nd Street auditorium, this is just one of the nearly three hundred and sixty Parallel Events put on by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the 57th gathering of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Kate Brady Kean of New Zealand placed a chair in front of the all-women audience of nearly eighty: “We know the concept of ‘chair’ contextually, based on our particular space, time, place; we know when to sit, when to offer our chair to another person based on learned customs.” Just as one knows ‘chair,’ Kean points out, “we grow up being told what “woman” is: “This language has been given to us,” she said, “based on tradition, culture, and family.” So it is the work of those who hope to eradicate violence against women to provide more information, to add dimension and dignity to what “woman” is and can be.
Women’s empowerment through education includes making violence against women a public and visible issue, with more visible resources. Often women recognize the violence and injustice but do not know where to go for help. The panel urged the women in the audience to keep the pressure on and talk loudly in the face of violence and the systems that allow violence. “We are organized and we are angry” felt true in that moment, knowing just how many women’s groups and interests were represented in lower Manhattan that morning. Fasha left us with sense of solidarity so desperately needed in this work: “Courage is contagious.” With social media resources, “citizen media” and “citizen reporting” have given louder voices, and most importantly, community to those who do speak out.
Representing St. Joan’s International Alliance, a sister organization of WOC, working for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, I couldn’t help but relate these words to the education of the Catholic hierarchy, a traditionally educated and privileged group of men who exploit gaps in their own education to abuse children and the people of God. The learning and un-learning of the Catholic hierarchy on sexual abuse, women’s rights, and the proper resources for those suffering from pedophilia presents an opportunity for great humbleness. While I pray courage is contagious, Catholics especially know that courage to speak out against injustice (both within and outside their official Ranks) is less than prized in the eyes of the Vatican, often grounds for excommunication or dismissal. A chair is a chair is a chair, is a hard lesson to unlearn that threatens so-called divine structures and tradition.