From Tragedy to Courage to Empowerment - by Kelsey Leck

Since 1946, the United Nations (UN) annual session on the Commission on the Status of

Women (CSW) has worked towards promoting women’s rights through comprehensive

dialogue highlighting the nuance and complexity of issues women face globally in the

effort to achieve gender equality, which is the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

(SDG). The landmark 60 th CSW two-week session at UN Headquarters drew leaders from

around the world to present in the panel discussions on various aspects of gender

equality. Lehigh students, faculty, and staff attended the session on Thursday, March 17.

The first panel that morning, “Women and Girls: From Adversity to Hope,” confronted

the simultaneously personal and collective challenge of overcoming violence and

discrimination against women. The panelists stood before the audience as survivors of

acid attack, genocide, child marriage, and terrorism as they courageously shared their

stories of survival poignantly imbued with mantras of hope.

One of the panelists, Monica Singh, the founder of the Mahendra Singh Foundation, had

46 reconstructive surgeries in the span of ten years after withstanding major wounds

inflicted by a disgruntled suitor who violently demonstrated his anger in the form of a

bucket brimming with acid. She described the intensity of the attack, saying, “I had no

idea how acid could burn, going through my skin. It wasn’t me screaming, it was my

soul.” For 25 minutes, she writhed in pain, calling for help as people streamed past her in

the middle of the surging, Indian street, before someone intervened. Singh explained that

after the challenging process of coming to terms with the trauma she experienced and the

scars it left, she realized that she was deeply affected by the attack but that her core

identity still remained. She now advocates to women overcoming similar acts of violence

that “Life hasn’t ended—life has just begun.”

“After hearing Monica’s story, I feel honored to sit here,” began another panelist,

Consolee Nishimwe. “Today is an important day, because we’re talking about issues that

are important to women,” she said. Nishimwe then shared her own story, encapsulated in

more depth in her award-winning memoir, Tested to the Limit: A Genocide Survivor’s

Story of Pain, Resilience and Hope. “22 years ago, I was 14 years old. I was a happy

child with my family; it was a beautiful thing,” she said. Within that same year, 1994, the

Rwandan Genocide began, targeting the population’s Tutsi ethnic minority.

She described the danger of her family’s Tutsi ethnicity within the context of the

genocide—leading them to seek refuge by going into hiding after witnessing how Hutu

combatants patrolled with machetes to “hunt” their neighbors and the widespread use of

sexual violence as a weapon of war. By the time the genocide ended, Nishimwe’s father

and all of her brothers had been killed, and she herself was a survivor of rape. “Added to

the trauma of being raped, I found out I had HIV,” she said. Pointing out that many other

women and girls who were survivors also had contracted HIV, became pregnant, and

suffered other forms of violence in addition to rape, she said, “Thank God I had my

mother when so many survivors didn’t have anyone to lean on.” Nishimwe turned then

towards the importance of providing support for women in current humanitarian crisis,

such as in Iraq and Syria, saying, “As we speak right now, women are suffering.” She

continued resolutely, “I will never stop speaking.” Ending with her own mantra, she said,

“Never lose hope, no matter what horrible circumstances you face in life, because that’s

the true defeat.”

Her experience and words left many in the audience engulfed in speechlessness. Gael

Boucka, a Lehigh Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative and International Education, was

moved by her open discourse. “We all knew about the genocide. But it’s something else

to actually see the victim and hear the story from the victim,” he later said. “At the end of

the day, you cannot be indifferent.”

The other panelists accentuated the need to bring about global change regarding how

people view women and gender equality. Naila Amin, a 26-year- old activist, survived a

forced marriage to her cousin in Pakistan when she was a 13-year- old child. “If my father

had an education, he wouldn’t have done this,” she said. “It’s ok to give up certain

cultural norms. We have to teach men and boys to stop violence against women and

girls,” she urged.

Wrapping up the panel, the moderator and president of the Muslim American Leadership

Alliance (MALA), Zainab Zeb Khan, said, “I don’t see a single person here who wasn’t

moved by these stories today. Let’s take these stories outside of these four walls and

advocate the lessons in our daily lives.” Hawa Diallo, a UN Public Information Officer

who welcomed the panel with her opening remarks, added that it was essential to focus

on the “emotion of feeling the strength, not the sadness, of their stories.”

Her advice did not go unheeded by Tanairy Ortiz ’19, who had been anticipating the

panel for days. At Lehigh, Ortiz leads a Women’s Center discussion series called,

“Gender in a Global Context,” with recent discussion topics ranging from the Zika virus

and the threat it poses to motherhood, to child brides and teenage pregnancies in

Guatemala. Since she considers herself an intersectional feminist, she said she valued

being able to gain a new perspective from women with diverse backgrounds. “I think this

has helped me develop a broader view of what I can also bring,” she said, adding that she

now plans on discussing acid attacks during her next meeting.

The second panel, “Happiness and Gender Equality in the Sustainable Development

Goals,” switched topics to focus on the goals of SDG number three, good health and well

being, and UN Resolution 66/128, which designated March 20 the International Day of

Happiness, in relation to gender equality. The main takeaway from the panel was that if

governments, NGOs, and members of civil society want to promote happiness, than

working towards gender equality and advancing the overall health of their respective

communities will be integral to their success.

Three of the panelists are Permanent Representatives to the UN, representing three

countries that have taken incredible measures to encourage the happiness of their citizens:

Bhutan, Iceland, and the United Arab Emirates.

The article, “The UN and Happiness,” explains the origins of the UN’s efforts towards

global happiness, saying, “As with many a good fairy tale, the whole thing started with a

king wanting the best for his country.” The country was Bhutan, a tiny South Asian

country that was internationally recognized as an extremely happy population despite its

relatively low level of national wealth. In 1972, its King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

pioneered the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which measures a country’s

overall happiness, to shift attention away from ranking countries solely on their Gross

Domestic Product (GDP), which measures a country’s wealth. His groundbreaking

reconception of how to evaluate a country’s progress laid the foundation of success for

Bhutan’s later efforts to put happiness on the official UN agenda. Panelist and Permanent

Representative of Bhutan to the UN, H.E. Mrs. Kunzang C. Namgyel, remarked that the

International Day of Happiness itself represents a “renaissance of the idea that happiness

is the meaning of life and recognizing that happiness is fundamental to human existence.”

This idea that it is the responsibility of governments to form policies that facilitate their

citizens’ happiness has led to new measures all over the world. For example, the

Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the UN, H.E. Mrs. Lana

Zaki Nusseibeh, specified how this year, the UAE designated an entirely new position

within its government to researching and developing policies to foster happiness: the

Minister of State for Happiness. 22-year- old Ohood Al Roumi, who was included on the

World Economic Forum’s 2012 compilation of Young Global Leaders, was selected for

the position, making her the eighth female minister out of 29 total members currently

serving on the UAE Cabinet. Reiterating the connection between gender equality and a

happy society, Ambassador Nusseibeh said, “We believe society can’t function if half of

the population isn’t empowered.”

Correspondingly, the Permanent Representative of Iceland to the UN, H.E. Mr. Einar

Gunnarsson, emphasized how Iceland’s efforts towards gender equality, such as paid

paternity leave, have benefited its society and helped stabilize conditions during the 2008

financial crisis. During the question and answer session, a student asked what men could

do to help achieve gender equality, and Ambassador Gunnarsson pointed to his “He for

She” pin on his blazer, saying how crucial it was to be informed about gender issues and

then visibly and actively speak up. However, he cautioned, “We want to bring men into

the room-- but we don’t want to take over the room.”

Afterward, Zach Brown, an Assistant Director of Office of Student Leadership

Development at Lehigh, observed, “What I continue to relearn is that I have so much

privilege as a cis-male identifying person. And so, I have a responsibility to advocate for

women but not take up too much space.”

Epitomizing the disparities between different countries and the obstacles their citizens

face in their path to happiness, Jennifer Omsted, a professor at Drew University with

expertise in economics, gender, and globalization, asked, “How do you have happiness

when there are bombs being dropped around you?” As exemplified by her question,

reaching a minimum threshold of physical and psychological security preempts most

possibilities of happiness. Concluding the panel, she stated, “Happiness itself is the

embodiment of all the SDGs.”

Comparing the two panels, Christina Jordan, an Assistant Director of Office of Student

Leadership Development at Lehigh, noticed, “The first session was obviously much more

emotional and struck a deeper impact with me, because it was very anecdotal, and I liked

hearing their stories. Whereas the second one was more tangible, in terms of steps you

can work towards if you have the resources, if you have enough privilege that you aren’t

worried about your basic needs. So, to me, the first session was kind of like why should

we care-- here’s the passion, here’s the inspiration-- and the second session was here are

some ways to work towards that. It was a very interesting back to back.”