Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A need for women's security awareness

Last week, I was very fortunate to attend a one-day UNICEF "Women's Security Awareness Training " workshop conducted by Nancy Osborne - a workshop designed by women for women that explores and addresses security concerns and threats specifically as they relate to women. It was an opportunity for women to share experiences and fears and explore mitigating measures to address their unique concerns. 

It was a group of about 25 women, and the workshop started with a question, "What is your greatest fear, as a woman living in New York city?" It could have been any city, and what Nancy revealed, much to my dismay, was that women across the world feel that getting raped (or being sexually assaulted) was their greatest fear. It did not matter what country women are born into, or how old they are, the answer remains the same! 

The next question was, "what is it about being a woman that you love the most?" The answers ranged from fun to extremely heartwarming; wearing dresses in summers, being able to wear many hats, having more compassion, integrity and empathy for fellow human beings, being able to give birth, and not being ashamed of asking for directions. Personally, I feel that women have much higher resilience and grit when dealing with everyday life, and that makes me extremely grateful of who I am.

The workshop then moved on to discussing security concerns during travel, and it was interesting to note that women in the UN, not unlike most other organizations, have to put up with accommodations that are not particularly safe, for the sake of saving a few dollars. Sometimes it is a matter of a conflict region, or an emergency, and in this case, there are very few options. However, in certain cases, it is just a matter of one cheaper accommodation over another, and the UN Women’s Security Section is working extremely hard to have a more concrete method in place for ensuring safe and secure traveling options for women.

Some of the tips shared for safe travels (especially traveling alone internationally) included extensive research of a country before you go, including cultural norms, language, appropriate gestures, etc.; planning the "what ifs" (what if there is no pre-booked taxi to take me to my hotel, what if the hotel is full upon arrival, etc.); having some local contacts for emergency; knowing the route from the airport to the hotel; ensuring that your phone works in the new location; and finally trusting your instincts. 

The next exercise was the most interesting (and, albeit, a little scary); we were given a handout with sentences, and were asked to fill in the blanks. These were facts provided by convicted rapists, on their modus operandi when selecting a victim. We were all very astonished to learn that these men preferred to select women with long hair (ponytails, buns, braids, etc) rather than short hair, because it was much easier to grab and force a woman into submission. Likewise, women with clothes that could be easily torn (or torn with scissors) as opposed to very tight outfits that take longer to get rid of, were preferred victims. 

Women who were distracted (talking on a cellphone, searching through a purse, etc.) were easier targets, while women who carried things that could be used as a weapon (like an umbrella) were not picked. In general, parking lots and specifically, grocery store parking lots, were the first place to look for victims, because most women were often very distracted after buying groceries. Women who put up a fight, of any kind, were not worth going after, and most often it was easier to grab a woman and move her to another location in a car (or car trunk) to have more control over the scenario.  The bottom line of this exercise was to be calm in such situations, and find a momentary lapse of self-guard of the assailant to get away from the scene, and as much as possible to not give up without a fight!

We finally moved to practicing some actual self-defense moves that might make a genuine difference. Having participated in a self-defense course in graduate school, it was great to go over all the techniques again. And to end the workshop, we discussed the most important aspect of security training: WEALTH (weapon, escape routes, accomplices, (body) language, terrain and hands). All the tools one should always be aware of when walking/traveling alone; being simply aware of what can be used to save oneself if the situation so arose.

It was a fantastic workshop, and I believe that women of all ages should be taught some form of basic self-defense. Unlike men, many of us don't participate in contact sports, have martial arts training, or have been in a bar fight, which makes us uneasy with the thought of hurting another person. However, what we learned that day was that when it comes to the question of saving our life, a little grit definitely goes a long way.

Monday, July 30, 2012

UNICEF - An intern's perspective

When I got my placement at UNICEF after interviewing with CWWL, I was thrilled beyond belief - everyone at some point in their lives has dreamed of working at a UN agency. Just before I finally joined the organization, however, I was very apprehensive about my value as an intern. I had heard several stories about people complaining that all they did during their internship was carry mail from one department to another! (I am serious!) 

My first day at UNICEF was pretty uneventful, most people treated me like a 20-something intern (which I should probably take as a compliment, since I was 20 a long time ago ;)) and paid little attention. However, as the days went by, and under the mentorship of the Secretariat, I was able to start contributing to several key issues. One of the things that really worked in my favor was the fact that the Secretariat was planning to be on vacation for 3 weeks soon after I had joined. For this reason, my training period was fast-tracked, as this would enable me to take over some of her responsibilities in her absence!

These included overseeing the activities/meetings for MoRES - Monitoring Results for Equity System - a key initiative that has evolved at UNICEF in the past year. This program encourages all countries to monitor sectors (Health, Education, Sanitation, etc) in a decentralized manner, and report results every quarter/mid-year for continual feedback and assessment. Currently 27 countries have started the implementation of this program for all their sectors, and this initiative is leading to a change in the way UNICEF does work.

These also included some IT related work for the Executive Office, such as complete overhaul of the MoRES intranet website; creation of a new MoRES collaborative portal based on SharePoint, which required the combined input and specific requirements documentation of several programmatic departments; as well as innovative ideas on the implementation of "A Promise Renewed" - UNICEF's renewed promise to end child mortality across the world.

Finally my responsibilities also included working closely with the Deputy Executive Director, Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta and the Executive Manager, Kate Rogers. An interesting incident that took place the first time I met Geeta, was that we realized we were from the same part of India, and spoke the same regional language! For anyone who knows the number of languages that currently exist in India (about 30 or so "official" and a total of approx. 1,652) this is not a very common occurrence. Needless the say, I was thrilled :-)

Another extremely fortunate incident was that I ran into the UNICEF Executive Director, Mr. Anthony Lake, in the basement gym of our building. After chatting and introductions, he asked me which team I was working with and invited me as his guest to a high-level strategic meeting with the Head of UNDP, Ms. Helen Clark (ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand). Not only did I get to participate in the pre-briefing with Mr. Lake, Dr. Gupta and a couple of key advisers, the actual meeting with the UNDP Head (and her key advisers) was extremely successful!

Now that I am in my final two weeks of the internship, I reflect on all the amazing experiences I have had so far, whether it was setting up of the entire MoRES collaborative portal, or attending some of the meetings with the Regional Directors. What I loved most, however, was that while every task was a new learning experience, and I felt that I could contribute in a significant way to a key UNICEF initiative, the passion and zeal of everyone I encountered/worked with was heartwarming. All these efforts are towards the betterment of the lives of millions of children across the world, and while I only played a short part in a whole milieu of programmatic activities, I do believe that it was a summer well spent!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hello Graduate Fellows of 2012 from DC!

Greetings fellow fellows! My name is Rehana and I’m currently a MPP student at American University.  I am conducting my fellowship here in DC at the Council of Women World Leaders, which has been a fantastic experience so far! The Council is currently still in the transitioning process from the Aspen Institute to the Wilson Center.  It’s a really great time to be here, with so many great plans and events on the horizon. I also have the added perk of being able to attend events all around DC that concern women’s leadership issues, as well as other events that are of particular interest to me. Needless to say, as a Chicago native, I’m definitely enjoying my first full summer in the District.

There have definitely been some highlights in just my first month. During a book launch co-sponsored by the Council and the Africa Program, I got to meet and listen to Liberia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Olubanke King-Akerele speak about her new book, Women’s Leadership in Post-Conflict Liberia: My Journey, which is now on my reading list (and should be on yours, too!). The special keynote address was given by the ever inspirational President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf via live videoconferencing (cheers to technology!).  A lot of what King-Akerele spoke to was capacity building and succession planning, where she placed a heavy emphasis on preparing the next generation of public servants.  It feels good to know that current leaders recognize the importance of teaching and empowering our generation to continue great work as women leaders in our respective fields. 

Other highlights include meeting President of Kosovo Atifete Jahjaga when she stopped in to speak with our Director, Congresswoman Jane Harman.  I also just met with Rangita de Silva-de Alwis who hails from Wellesley College’s Centers for Women and is taking on a leading role here at the Wilson Center as Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Council, which encompasses both the Council of Women World Leaders and the Center’s new Women in Public Service Project.  So yes, there is a lot going on here and I’m excited to be a part of it!

I hope you all are doing well around the world and am very excited to read about your fellowship experiences this summer!

Friday, December 9, 2011

16 Days: A Dangerous Climate for Women

Hi All,

I just want to share the following article on gender and climate change:

16 Days: A Dangerous Climate for Women

This week, events are taking place across the globe to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a campaign to end violence against women, which, according to the UN, 70 percent of women will experience in their lifetime.

Before we can effectively address sexual and gender-based violence, we have to identify the factors and conditions that perpetuate it. This year’s 16 Days theme, “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World,” focuses on the role of militarism, and highlights how “war, internal conflict, and violent repression have a particular and often disproportionate impact on women and the violence they experience.”

But in many parts of the world, another factor is at play – one that’s increasingly undermining women’s security and putting more and more women and girls at risk: climate change.

Extreme weather and climate change have disproportionate effects on women, especially those from poor, rural communities. Simply because of their roles in society, women and girls are more vulnerable to these events to begin with. For example, during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, four times more women than men reportedly drowned, many because they couldn’t swim or were trying to save their children. Decreasing access to water and growing food insecurity force women to wander ever farther from their homes, putting them at greater risk of violence and abuse.

Likewise, women and girls stuck in overcrowded and poorly-managed shelters or camps face an increased risk of violence, rape, separation from their families, and other hardships (as has been the case for Somali women fleeing drought and famine). Displaced Pakistani women who were interviewed after the 2010 floods said that the demands of purdah (the cultural practice of separating women from men) made it difficult for them to access showers, latrines, emergency supplies, and doctors – with obvious implications for their health and hygiene.

The threat climate change poses to women’s security is likely to grow dramatically in the coming years. Just last week, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change, and concluded that it’s “virtually certain” (90-100% probability) there will be more frequent and more extreme hot weather this century.

The report also states that we are likely (66-100% probability) to see more frequent intense rainfall, as well as more powerful tropical cyclones. The severity of the impacts of climate extremes was also found to be highly dependent on the level of vulnerability to those extremes – in other words, more women and girls will face greater risks.

More and more, governments and humanitarians will have to respond to extreme weather events and the displacement crises they cause. In doing so, they’ll have to take into account the unique protection needs of women and girls. They will also need to recognize that when preparing communities for natural disasters, or helping them adapt to a changing climate, women must be given a central role.

No one will be spared the consequences of climate change, so we must be ready to respond to women’s needs. Even more importantly, if we’re going to tackle climate change head-on, we’ll have to harness the power of each and every woman. But for that to happen, we must first succeed in making women everywhere more secure, allowing them to realize their potential, and giving them a seat at the table.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Climate Change is Not Gender-Neutral

Unlike most of you, my internship is in the Fall semester. I have been in Geneva Switzerland for a little more than 1 month now, working for IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). My routine job includes providing the Secretariat, IPCC Bureau, and interested focal points (government members) with a daily media review on IPCC. IPCC assessment report on climate change is released every 6/7 years or so, with the next one due in 2014. Sometimes the news and blogs on IPCC could be controversial as there are many climate change skeptics disproving the research included in the reports or questioning the credibility of the authors and of IPCC itself. It is thus very useful for many IPCC members to be aware of what is being said about the organization., both in bad and good lights, and to give an approriate response when necessary.

The issue of climate change and gender has not been deeply discussed in the climate change debates. However, I read an article today that gives a good glimpse on how events caused by climate change are affecting women more than men.

The article talks about how generally in disasters, the death toll of women is disproportionately higher than that of men. This is proven by the death count in the 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami, 1995 Kobe earthquake, 1991 floods in Bangladesh, where the number for women could be as higher by as high as 5 times. Arguably, many extreme weather patterns, such as more tornados, flooding, freak snow, that we are seeing lately are due to climate change. In these circumstances, women are less likely to survive as they have weaker upper body strength to climb or cling on to trees, run slower, are less likely to know how to swim, and tend to stay back to look for and protect the children before fleeing. But, much more than that, increasing spread of diseases due to climate change also target women and children the most. In food scarcity conditions, women often get less portion within the family and have to work harder to provide the food, which means going to further places to fetch water and toil the soil. The article also talks about how in acute disasters and social economic disruption, violence and sex trafficking tend to increase, again, with a tendency towards women and girls.

I also attended a movie screening titled "Carbon for Water", a documentary campaigning for the use of LifeStraw, a water filter provided for families in Kenya. In the movie, it is shown that girls as young as 6 years old already have to assume the role of providing food and water for the household. As the draught season becomes more extreme, girls and women have to walk further to find water. Not only, for water, they also have to fetch firewood as fuel to boil the water. Diarrhea and dysentry could be prevalent when unclean water is consumed. These journeys taken daily for water and wood are dangerous as they are susceptible to raping or being attacked by wild animals. The documentary shows how LifeStraws are provided for free to families, with the whole project funded through carbon credit as without cutting trees for firewood and using the for fuel, the carbon print is reduced.

The article and the documentary give a good background and information for me to understand more how climate change effects can be more detrimental to women. I do not, however, believe in striving for gender equality. In its basics, men and women are created differently with different general aptitude and skills. What I do believe in is gender neutrality, that there should be equal opportunity of survival and no difference in honor and respect. Achieving this at the public policy level is still a very blurry subject to me, so I welcome comments from anyone who might know more. But, I'll share more as I learn.

Hope everybody who have been back to the US had a great experience from the internship. Stay safe and stay warm!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Greetings from Reykjavik!

Hi all!

As many of you are finishing (or have finished) your fellowships, mine is just beginning. I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland on Saturday, and I've almost finished my first week at the Ministry for the Environment. I haven't gotten a chance to see too much yet, but Reykjavik seems like a nice small city, in fact it hardly seems like a city at all. Very few large buildings and no big crowds of people. Everyone seems friendly and everyone speaks English quite well, so the adjustment is not too difficult.

My project here will be on organization of environmental data reporting for Iceland. This is obviously a HUGE project so I will just be taking some preliminary steps to gather some metadata on current information flows, and what kinds of reporting are required by the European Environment Agency. As far as the project goes I have been mainly doing background reading and developing a questionnaire that will help me amass this data from the different environmental organizations here.

In more exciting news, I was invited to accompany the Minister for the Environment to Gullfoss and Geysir yesterday for the opening of a new trail. I was also the unofficial photographer for the trip, so the picture you see above is myself and the Minister at Gulfoss. It was a very nice time, and it was very exciting for me to see these geological phenomena for the first time and see the process of protecting them and making them accessible in action!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ramadan Mubarak... Eid Mubarak

I recently asked a cab driver to take me to the post office (it always seems to start with a cab story, huh?). He asked me what I planned to purchase, as I may be able to get postal things at other locations. I told him stamps and postcards. He really wasn’t familiar with the concept of a postcard. I think he thought I meant a regular greeting card. “Are you sending your family members a card because you are away for Ramadan?”
“Oh no, I’m not Muslim.”
“Oh, ok.”
I stare into his rear view mirror trying to figure out his body language. Did I make him uncomfortable?
The driver then went on to share a story of cards he’s purchased since the holiday began.

I surely felt awkward that the driver would default to Ramadan greeting cards. But then I wondered how many times I must have done the same thing in the US. I can hear myself now: “Oh, are you done your Christmas shopping?”

The driver was able to help me find a gift shop closer than driving to town. They had a lot of great things, even postcards!

Being a minority is nothing new to me. Black, immigrant, female. Yes, in many circles, I’m used to being the minority. But for the first time, in a very long time, I’ve felt marginalized for my religion.

I identify as Christian, and like many other Americans, have had the pleasure of not thinking twice about being bombarded with media ads regarding Christmas & Easter. Guyana has given me a different experience. Having friends of different faiths has contributed to my being culturally sensitive and aware of different faiths. I’m going to suggest that awareness and empathy will only take you so far in understanding others.

The Muslim and Hindu communities represent a heavy number of the population. Christians are very much present, however, I’ve had the pleasure of gaining understanding about a culture I know little about. Although I have Muslim friends in the US, it has been an amazing experience to live in a country while so many communities are acknowledging such an important holiday.

One day while listening to a local radio station, I heard an advertisement about preparing for Ramadan. I don’t remember where exactly this place was located, I just remember they claimed to be my “one stop shop” in getting ready Ramadan. It reminded me of the taxi driver. When have I ever heard an ad on the radio for Ramadan? Or seen a greeting card in a store that read “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan). Not to say they don’t exist in specialty shops, but it’s really eye opening and thought changing to think about. A ‘minority’ culture in America is a majority culture in Guyana, and now I’m living here.

I have a new found appreciation for my classmates who practice the Muslim faith. Classmate who would have to use the restrooms as an area to pray throughout the day, because there were no appropriate spaces for their needs. Appreciation for my hairdresser who stays committed to her beliefs and would have to take a break while doing my hair so she could wash up and pray; even though this meant some clients getting upset about the waiting time. Appreciation for my friends, here and at home, who would have to go to class during or after a long day of fasting during Ramadan while everyone ate their lunches and dinners during lecture (especially because fasting lasts a whole month).

Yesterday was Eid ul Fitr, the end of Ramadan. The day is often referred to as Eid for short. Eid, means festivity, and Fitr means to break the fast. While I didn’t celebrate Eid with any locals, I definitely felt its presence.

The holiday of Ramadan, marked by month long sun-up to sun-down fasting, is a time of forgiveness, making amends, and growing spiritually closer to God. What a wonderful purpose. It’s also a time where I’ve learned a lot about my self-awareness and another culture.