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'Inspiring Change' Is Theme of International Women's Day Observance in London

London, UK - "Inspiring Change" was the theme of the UPF-United Kingdom observance of International Women's Day that took place in London on March 12, 2014, in the House of Lords. As the mistress of ceremonies, Baroness Sandip Verma, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for energy and climate change, lightheartedly opened the evening in a room where every possible place to sit or stand was filled.

“Key and simple points to strive to change are the dynamics of conversation away from the struggles of women’s equality and start to look at the very clear benefits of having a female child in your home,” said Baroness Verma, a member of the Conservative Party. “Look at the benefit of giving economic independence to girls and women to be able to contribute to the wider society. What a tragedy it is that, instead of these conversations, in the UK alone one in four women have been or are still the victims of some sort of abuse in the home because of their gender.

“Wherever we are, in all environments we find ourselves in—at work, at home—there are chances to think, ‘What can I do to make that difference to someone else?’ It is like a spoonful in an ocean: If we all put something, we can make something we can all benefit from. With a collective, collaborative goal all around the world, our combined efforts really can eliminate this issue for good worldwide. We have already made a lot of progress in many countries worldwide.”

Baroness Verma then introduced the panel of seven speakers.

Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, the gender and equalities spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and the only parliamentarian from a Turkish background, spoke on “Women in the Political Environment”:

“Although we have come a long way, it puts the issue into perspective when we realize that 369 women have been elected into a political seat worldwide and those women currently in position are 8 percent of all the women there have ever been in political positions since women’s suffrage in 1918,” Baroness Hussein-Ece said.

“Why is this the case? The reason that is commonly bounced around is that there is a lack of interest among the female population about politics. But through speaking to hundreds of politically minded women, I realized that this is not the case. Even if the women and girls themselves think they have no interest, they are invested in the constituent parts of politics, education, social issues and welfare, to name a few examples.

“It is not the people that block themselves but the system that puts up the barriers they face.
Women are excellent at seeing what services are needed in a community and seeing where the gaps lie. A male-dominated cabinet can’t always cater to the issues surrounding women, who make up over 50 percent of the population. How dismaying it is when we turn on [the BBC Television current affairs program] ‘Newsnight’ and we see a full panel of only men discussing and debating maternity.

“We have a job to do: remind the media and politicians to see diversity and the morality in it.”

Sir Anand Satyanand, chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation and the former governor general of New Zealand, spoke on “Women of the Commonwealth in the Advance of Civil Society”:

“Let us first acknowledge the historic room we are in. A room which reflects the ideals of parliamentary democracy that have characterized this country and the many other countries that have followed it. If we look at the UN Millennium Development Goals, many countries have not made the progress we have hoped for. This is not a problem unique to women’s rights but one shared with poverty, health and violence.

“There is a tradition in Sri Lanka that heads of government meet with an associated people’s forum that precedes. This people’s forum produces an outcome that is presented to ministers. The debates of the people will animate the government’s discussions. This format has been copied, and women’s rights were at the center of the discussion. Issues surrounding social and economic equality created a stand-alone goal for after 2015 to eliminate these issues and enforce sexual and reproductive rights. ‘Speak voices, not positions,’” Sir Anand said.

Ms. Anjum Anwar, MBE, the chair of Women's Voice and interfaith officer for Blackburn Cathedral, spoke on “Inspiring Change: Can There Be Peace Without Women?” (She is the only Muslim woman to be employed in an Anglican cathedral to promote conversation and dialogue.)

“Why do we want to empower women and what is the reason we fight for the end of all the things we have discussed today?” Ms. Anwar asked. “To quote Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, ‘I believe that women are naturally inclined to be more compassionate.’ This is not a comment of disrespect, but one celebrating diversity. Women are the givers of new life. Whilst we have come a long way, there are still women around the world who don’t have a platform, such as the one we are using now, and suffer in silence. There are hundreds of thousands in this country.

“How do we help these people? It is not easy to challenge your suffering if you believe that your faith and culture don’t allow your freedom and equality. I am not a very politically correct person and rarely get invited to the same event twice in a row, but if we are not challenging, if we don’t have those hard conversations, we can’t create any relationships of cohesion.
Where do women get the idea that it is OK for their husbands to hit them? It is from educational and religious illiteracy. People put trust and faith in their religious leaders. The vast majority of these leaders are men. Women need help, not just from religious leaders and the Lords and Commons, but also from the grass-roots level.

“I am a better Muslim today than when I was working for a solely Muslim organization,” Ms. Anwar said. “My values are clear and they demand justice. Not because women can’t speak, but there are often not the right conditions for them to be heard. We have the power to inspire change for others, but before we do that, we need to demand justice for ourselves so we can establish an overarching justice for all. I am seeing it starting here.”

Ms. Justina Mutale, who was named African Woman of the Year for 2012 and serves as an ambassador for gender equality at the International Women's Think Tank and International Women's Center, spoke on “Daring the Difference to Bridge the Gender Gap: Enabling Women to Participate”:

“It was said that when Napoleon was inspired by his wife, he was irresistible and invincible. History has shown that when great men and women come together, their greatness is multiplied,” Ms. Mutale said. “We have gender equality at the center of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and it is the priority in the post-2015 development agenda. This year, the UN theme is equality with real progress for all. In order to aim for this, we need to be creative and proactive. Although we see many inspiring gains in the realm of women’s equality, they are too few and far between. We still have a huge gap to cross, and it is heartbreaking that, after 200 years of fighting, there are still too few women who have held prominent and visible positions of power and influence.

“Women’s rights are still violated, and I believe, to stop this, we need to take the bull by the horns in order to usher in the much-needed change for all genders to be equal.”

Ms. Lee Traversof theKezi Silverstone Foundation and Hope for Teenage Mothers, and the author of the book Inspiring Women Leaders, said:

“I was asked to speak because of the research for my book that I have done in the last year about inspiring change. The book contains real, raw stories where women share their vulnerabilities and triumphs. Inspiring change in women needs one fundamental component. Without encouraging and inspiring the leadership of this world and community leaders, through great media coverage and generating a lot of noise in the system, women’s issues will stay women’s issues. They should be gender issues. Issues for all.” (Ms. Travers’ book can be purchased through amazon.com; all profits from the sales of this book go to relevant charitable causes.)

Ms. Marsha Thompson, a youth liaison officer for the Web site Shout Out UK, spoke on “Message to Our Daughters”:

"I am 22 years old and I have a 3-year-old daughter. Yes, I am a young mother. Yes, I am considered by society a stereotype and, YES, I hear the whispers and I feel the disapproving, judgmental eyes, but in the words of Maya Angelou, ‘You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, but still like air I'll rise!’

“I went to university when my daughter was 9 months old, and in two months I will be graduating with my 3-year-old. I am not just a young mother but I am a young woman, a daughter, a sister and a friend. I have ambition, dreams, direction and a future, but, most importantly, I have a voice! There are only a few women leaders, but yet we scrutinize, belittle and judge young girls, forgetting that one day these young girls will grow up to become women. 

“So let’s write a letter to all our daughters: ‘Dear Daughters: You are beautiful, you are strong, you are gifted and you belong. You carry the life's weight on your shoulders, but still you stand strong. Don't be afraid to walk in the dark; just as long as you are following your heart, the ignorance of others won't pierce like a dart! Demand respect and take every step to become the queens that you are! Break boundaries, go for what you want and let your voice echo for centuries. No matter your age, no matter your race, no matter your circumstances—you are beautiful, you are strong, you are gifted and, YES, women, you do belong.’"

Baroness Susan Garden, Liberal Democrat, spokesperson for the Department for Culture Media and Sport, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education, spoke on “Women Representation in Parliament”:

“Even when I attended Oxford [University], the careers office gave me three recommendations as an engaged woman finishing university education: teacher, secretary or unemployed. Although I did do all these types of jobs throughout the course of my career, there is so much more that can be done as a young woman. Women are achieving in all areas, and it is now unimaginable that a woman would get that advice from the educational institutions,” Baroness Garden said.

“The City [London’s financial district] is traditionally a male-dominated society, and in the 800 years of the institution, this year the second woman to ever be mayor is taking that role. We shouldn’t be thinking, ‘There have been only two in 800 years.’ We should be thinking, ‘Wow, we have made progress; we have a woman mayor in the City.’ We should know what to focus on. We will know we have got to the finish line when we can see a woman take a leading role in position and cease to remark on it,” Baroness Garden said.

Among the reflections written at the close of the program was this one: “It is so rare to attend a meeting in UK Parliament and leave with a real sense of inspiration rather than frustration. But this time, attending the International Women’s Day 2014 ‘Inspiring Changes’ event hosted by Baroness Verma and organized by Universal Peace Federation (UPF) really did inspire me … so I hope others can also be inspired and pass it on.”

Note: International Women's Day celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action. The recession since 2008 has focused attention on the benefits that could accrue if the roles of women and men were in a better balance. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report shows that where the gender gap is smaller in a range of areas-including access to education, health survivability, economic participation, and political participation-countries and economies are more competitive and prosperous. A Goldman Sachs paper notes that a reduction in barriers to female labor force participation would increase the size of America's gross domestic product (GDP) by 9 percent, the Euro Zone's by 13 percent, and Japan's by 16 percent. 

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