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Celebrating Differences

The most inspiring thing about my week at the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women hasn’t necessarily been the events, or the fact that it’s being held in a dazzling city. The most inspiring thing has been seeing women from all over the world come together for a common purpose: to advance the empowerment of women. If you were already under the impression that women’s empowerment was a broad issue, you’d be surprised at just how much more broad the issue becomes when you’re taking into account the personal and varying experiences of billions of women worldwide.

Often, when I talk to people about women’s empowerment, the immediate response is something along the lines of “Yeah, yeah, sure. Women should be treated like men. You’re right. I get it.” But it is infinitely more complicated than that. Women don’t want to be treated like men – we want to be treated like autonomous human beings, whose thoughts and feelings are respected, and whose individual needs are met. I’ve been to events that have covered a range of topics - from mental health to violence, from why race matters to making sure that girls have equal access to education - and in each one of these sessions, the same message comes through: Women cannot be empowered by using men as models for what we deserve in life. Rather, women must be empowered by creating our own models for what empowerment means to each of us. What empowers a white woman in America most likely won’t be what empowers a Black woman in America, let alone a young girl from Uganda or a mother in Portugal, and that’s okay. It is our responsibility to name what we are lacking and what we need so that we can create a world in which those needs are met.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Audre Lorde. She writes “Divide and conquer must become define and empower.” To me, this quote means that our differences shouldn’t be something that causes us fear; rather, our differences are cause for celebration! Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexities that each of us embody, and instead of trying to create a universal form of empowerment, we should recognize that just as people are different from each other, what empowers us and leads us to be self-actualized can and should be different too. If there is one thing to be learned from the United Nations, it is that our diversity is integral to building a world worth living in. 

Review of CSW58 session: Implementing Women and Girl's Circles: A tool to vitalize progress with the Millennium Development Goals

Today I listened to a girl speak. She was a high school student, like me, but just a bit older. She said she was a girl advocate, by which she meant she takes stories of girls she loves and gives them a voice. The story she gave voice to today was that of a young girl in Bangladesh. She met this girl while part of a program that let her spend a month in Bangladesh. This young girl, who was in the eighth grade, was so beaten down by the oppressive culture towards women in her country, including her home, that she took on manly attributes because she wanted to be strong. In her eyes, she could only be strong if she were manly, women were weak, or fragile as her parents told her.

How sad that women are seen as weak in so many cultures, and by so many. Women are strong. We bear children, we raise them, and too often, we bury them. We are the glue that holds families together. But we are so much more than just our maternal roles. We invent and discover like Grace Hopper or Madame Curry. We lead, like Wilma Mankiller, or even women who make their mark in culture like Lupita Nyong'o or Meryl Streep. We can do so much as women, without having to be. You don't have to be manly to be strong, but to be a woman it helps to be strong.

Policies and gender exclusion

While attending the side event The role of Men and Boys in Contributing to the Achievement of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment, one of the panelists, Hakima Abbas, had a thinly veiled criticism of "people centered" policies.

"People centered policies often means male centered, while women are almost always added by extension.

The evidence supporting her statement is painfully obvious. Every American is familiar with the following phrase. "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

While I understand that we colloquially use terms such as "Men" and "Mankind" to refer to humanity as a whole (including women), the founding fathers of the United States were not referring to all of humanity when writing the Declaration of Independence. They were referring to white, land-owning, males.

In fact, more than ten years later when writing the Constitution, they not only failed to secure the protection and respect of the rights of all human beings living in their newly formed country, they also concluded that certain humans were only 3/5 human. Much has changed since the document was signed and ratified over 200 years ago, but Ms. Abbas is right in the sense that women (as well as other disenfranchised groups) were an afterthought.

Ms. Abbas's statement proves true on the international level as well. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948, women are only briefly mentioned. It wasn't until 1979 (35 years ago) that a more comprehensive treaty promoting women's rights, The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), was ratified.

While the old phrase "better late than never" does hold true here, women will not have full equality until their concerns are brought to the forefront rather than being added on as an afterthought.