From the “Declaration of Sentiments” to the “Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women”: Towards Expanding Global Women’s Movement.

By Fidèle Menavanza

This article is about honoring those individuals and organizations who fought, or are still fighting, for women’s rights. It is about raising awareness of violence against women that remains an epidemic found across all cultures, religions, and ethnicities in every region of the world.

On July 18, 2015, I had the privilege to represent our agency, The Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of WNY, to the Convention Days 2015 at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls.

With many activities, more than 200 people gathered. Not only did I witness the reading, signing and recognition of the “Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women” initiated by Nadia Shahram (A Buffalo-based Attorney and Activist), that will be forever displayed on permanent exhibit at the Museum, but I also had the great opportunity to talk briefly about mass rape happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hearing and reading the stories of those who fought or are still fighting for women’s rights left me feeling grateful and humbled. No doubt, what they accomplished or are accomplishing to promote respect and equality of women deserves more than a nod and lip service.

  1. Seneca Falls NY, critical touchpoint in America’s struggle for civil rights.

On July 19 and 20, 1848, more than 300 people attended the first Women’s Rights Convention in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY. As a surprise it may come to many, there are no falls in Seneca Falls!

There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) read, and the delegates adopted, the “Declaration of Sentiments”, modeled on the Declaration of Independence and making the radical assertion that “all men and women are created equal.” Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration, and the women’s rights movement was born.

Let us remember that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the most influential public figures in nineteenth-century America. She was one of the nation’s first feminist theorists and certainly one of its most productive activists.

For Dorothy Rogers, along with Susan B. Anthony, Stanton fueled the movement for women’s suffrage. She advocated for change in both the public and private lives of women- regarding property rights, equal education, employment opportunity, more liberal divorce provisions, and child custody rights. She addressed such a wide range of women’s issues, and laid down the foundation for the women’s rights movement that is in existence today.

According to the National Park Services, for different people and at different times, Stanton was multifaceted. The fruits of her long life are still under scrutiny and up for debate. One thing is sure: she attracted attention and used it to push her ideas about women’s rights and families.

Despite the hard work of many individuals and organizations, human right’s abuse against women still exist on a massive scale, such as gender-related issues including violence, education, and economic equality.

  1. New challenges, new issues

Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse. Worldwide, about one in three women are victims of gender-related violence. From military sexual assault, to domestic violence, to rape, we must do more to prevent violence against women.

Since, it is impossible to be indifferent to the cry of distress and oppression raised by millions of people, victims of violence and abuse, as Nadia Shahram who was shocked a few years ago to hear about a case of modern day slavery in Buffalo, NY.

It was difficult to believe that human trafficking could be happening so close to her home. The true reality is it could touch several cities, several counties, even other states. Needless to say, there are more victims out there that we don’t even know about.

In the months following, presented by the Coalition for the Advancement of Moslem Women in conjunction with the University at Buffalo School of Law, the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, The Coordinated Refugee Legal Services Project, The International Institute, The Family Justice Center, Buffalo Public Schools, and others, a conference was organized in March 2015 designed to examine some of the injustices and violence perpetrated on women globally and to explore resources and remedies.

These illegal human rights violations include, honor killings, sex trafficking, child and slave brides, female genital mutilation, stoning of women, domestic violence, acid pouring, forced suicide, discrimination, lack of access to education and employment opportunities, lack of autonomy, unjust social and cultural restraints, unjust family laws and child custody, and many other atrocities.

Whether in Iran, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, India, Ukraine, Somalia, Nigeria or Congo to cite a few countries, every day we hear about women’s rights abuse, brutality, radicalization and their devastating impact.

  1. Mass rape as weapon of war in Congo

The use of sexual violence in war is one of the great injustices of our lifetime. It is hard to document, let alone investigate. Perpetrators do not discriminate, because it’s not about sex, but violence, terror, power and control. Recently described rape capital of the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of those countries with hellish landscape for women where the use of rape as a weapon of war has blighted thousands of lives.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dr. Mukwege, who treats rape victims, pointed out that systemic rapes by armed groups have international dimensions, and pleaded for a cleanup of the conflict-minerals industry.

Several Reports recorded systematic rape by armed groups fighting for control in the eastern DRC.  A 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that 12 percent of the DRC’s female population reported being raped at least once (this included domestic violence). At the height of the conflict in the DRC, 48 Congolese women were raped every hour. In light of this, we must challenge our traditionally accepted ways of addressing women’s rights abuse.

  1. Possible resources and remedies

The world could not turn a blind eye on what was happening to women worldwide. Helping women help men, children, families and communities. There are many more wonderful examples of individuals and organizations who are leading the way to ensure we shift from incremental steps to real changes in fighting for women’s rights.

Prevention, protection and prosecution are tools that should ensure that remedies are there at the most important time when a woman cries for help.

Raising awareness remains a critical point in the battle against the brutality suffered by women and families. Surely, awareness is globally growing, especially in the developing world, but it is not enough.

Social media has proven a valuable tool for raising the public profile of the atrocities committed against women around the world. Again, it’s just a tool, not a substitute for action, which remains the real challenge today.

Many women’s rights advocates point to a plethora of existing laws and encourage focus on their implementation, such as the Convention to the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) signed in 1979 at the UN, The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998, or the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) originally passed in the US in 1994 and recently reauthorized in 2013.

Still, the ongoing legal discrepancies between member states remain. If implementation is key, it requires international cooperation to solve this pressing and complex issue. Thus, it is time to advocate for hard law on violence against women.

Finally, including men in the discussion is critical to stopping the cycle of violence, but also to reaffirm that violence is not only a women’s issue. It is a human rights issue that impacts both genders and lies at the heart of injustice.

To the question, “What will it be like when men and women are truly equal?”, “It will be like nothing we have ever experienced,” one answered on the bulletin board at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls.

Until women receive the necessary support, violence will continue to be a reality for many of the world’s women. Deeds, not words, are needed now more than ever!

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