Election Day is weeks away. The tension mounts as the candidates and their surrogates make their last efforts to reach into the heart of America to attract voters. Polls change daily. Candidates jab home their messages and the election frenzy reaches a new pitch with each passing day.
Everyone everywhere seems to have an opinion. At the market the other day I overheard a woman say she was not likely to vote because she disliked both presidential candidates. I hesitated confronting her for a moment but it turns out, I too, have an opinion that I needed to communicate.
I shared with her my experience last year at the United Nations as we carted our groceries to our cars…
The commute on the express bus that snowy Monday morning was painfully slow. I asked the driver to stop as close as possible to the United Nations.
“Why are you going to the United Nations?” asked a woman who was making her way down the aisle to the front of the bus.
I told her I was attending the World Conference on Women.
“The United Nations is useless... And do those women really want you in their business?”
I was struck by her unsolicited opinion but thought her question was fair. It was one that I considered several times during the long grueling commute. Why did I accept the invitation? What could I do to be of any value?
The facility was bustling with women. They traveled from all corners of the globe to a safe haven -- our backyard -- to use their voice, free of retribution. Some spoke without restraint while most whispered or struggled to project. They spoke about themselves and those who don't have the opportunity or a platform to fight for their freedom. As I listened to their personals accounts, one after another, it became apparent that their stories collectively are evidence that girls and women worldwide suffer a disproportionate impact from violence and oppression.
An Egyptian woman shared her struggles of existing within a society that pegs her as second class and of the necessity to obtain a ‘license’ from the government to publish. Another woman who describes herself as “ordinary” receives rousing applause after giving testimony of her struggle in India to free herself of an abusive relationship while caring for her young son and developmentally challenged daughter in a society that recognizes her husband as a “God.” And another tells of work being done in Ireland to address the burgeoning suicide rate of girls and young women.
One by one, advocates for those who face hardships, victors of unthinkable acts, and brave human rights defenders took to the United Nations podium to elevate issues to a world stage. For many at this conference the journey to New York is an epic feat of survival and a fight for freedom, a saga fit for a nail biting box office thriller. Many are here to say what they cannot in their homeland and to put a face on the statistics of global abuse: Sixty-one million children, mostly girls, have no access to education; as many as four million girls and women are trafficked across international borders each year; forced marriages of girls in the developing world – one in three are married by age 18; 35 per cent experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence, and in parts of the world women are property or a liability.
Many of the women left the United Nations conference and returned to parts of the world where abuse is widespread. Their dream of the right to speak freely and to be able to initiate change in government and education was left on our shores. One of those women turned to me as she grabbed her coat and reminded me that she and many women at the conference are unable to speak out for fear of violence and death. She asked me to be a voice for women. “Use your power as an American woman,” she said.
The faces of the women who risked so much to come to New York to address issues important to them dominated my thoughts during the bus ride home. Their courage to travel to the other side of the world underscores their determination to overcome their struggles for basic human rights.
The woman in the grocery store listened to my story. She said she would reconsider using her voice on November 8.
Women throughout the world are looking to us now and praying that we will use the right to vote given to us by our birthright. They are counting on us to use our voice to improve the lives of women and their families in the United States and abroad.
NYS Women-Staten Island