"Learning to be a Girl" strikes a chord at UN women's conference

In Brief: 
  • Annual UN Commission on the Status of Women focused on HIV/AIDs caregiving
  • "Learning to be a Girl" workshop looked at role men and boys can play
  • BIC statement emphasized justice, "equal sharing of responsibilities between men and women"

UNITED NATIONS - Addressing the main theme of this year's Commission on the Status of Women, the workshop "Learning to be a Girl" focused on how cultural norms, social roles, and the gender stereotypes associated with them determine household roles for women and men and girls and boys - especially in relation to the worldwide HIV/AIDS crisis.

The discussion focused specifically on the caregiving responsibilities of women and girls, who provide the majority of care when families and individuals are affected by HIV/AIDS.

Engaging boys and men

"Men and boys need to be engaged," said Dan Seymour of the Gender and Rights Unit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), explaining that girls and women bear disproportionate responsibility for care-giving.

That causes girls and women to miss school, face stigma and discrimination, and to be at increased risk of sexual exploitation.

So engaging boys and men "are a crucial part of the response," he said.

The workshop was one of nearly 300 parallel events sponsored by non-governmental organizations, missions, and UN agencies. They addressed a wide range of topics affecting women and girls, from reproductive health to peacebuilding, but most focused on this year's theme: "Equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS."

Held 2-13 March 2009, this year's annual meeting drew thousands of representatives of non-governmental organizations, the news media, and UN agencies - along with participation by 45 member states.

The "Learning to be a Girl" workshop, held on 3 March in UN Conference Room C, was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, along with the Working Group on Girls of the NGO Committee on UNICEF, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Bahá'í International Community.

In addition to Mr. Seymour of UNICEF, panelists for the discussion included: Nell Stewart, First Secretary for Human Rights and Social Affairs, Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN; Jacqueline Eccles of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan; Mitra Deliri, Director of the Chipua Institute for Girls in Tanzania; Shufaa Hussein Masanja of the Chipua Institute for Girls; and Christine Ricardo, Co-Director of Promundo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Mr. Seymour of UNICEF said there are more than 15 million children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, of which some 12 million are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to greater engagement with men and boys, community-based homecare is another part of the response, he said. As well, social welfare ministries need to be adequately resourced.

"Promoting universal education for girls is essential," said Mr. Seymour. "These are all things that are at the heart of partnership."

Dr. Eccles said gender stereotypes tend to force girls into such caregiving. She said girls need to be provided with an expanded view of what a woman can be and offered greater opportunities, and communities need programs which challenge gender attitudes and include vocational training.

Mitra Deliri of the Bahá'í-inspired Chipua Institute for Girls offered the experience of one such program. Chipua, she said, is a training center for disadvantaged youth in Tanzania which offers access to education, economic empowerment, information on health including HIV/AIDS, business training and credit, character building and moral education.

Moral education essential

The moral component is fundamental, Ms. Deliri said. It gives youth a new way to view themselves, and to envision their future.

"They learn that people in the community are connected, and in order to improve their own lives, they need to be of service to the community," she said. "They learn that service is not demeaning; it is an honor."

Shufaa Masanja was present to offer a living illustration of the program's success. Ms. Masanja, 21, lost both parents to AIDS when she was five years old. She and her five siblings were raised by their grandmother alone. The skills Shufaa learned at Chipua have helped her discover her rights and her talents and she has started a small restaurant business with some friends and family members. The moral training she received affected her deeply.

"Before joining Chipua, I thought to survive was to abandon all principles and get your way in any way possible. So lying or cheating was not considered shameful to me," said Shufaa, who was invited by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women to participate in this year's CSW. "It was only after I had gone through the training that I realized empowerment means applying the principles of ethics and living with conviction."

For its part, the Bahá'í International Community also presented a statement to this year's Commission. Titled "Striving Towards Justice: Transforming the Dynamics of Human Interaction," the statement emphasized that the importance of "equal sharing of responsibilities between men and women is an integral component of the establishment of relationships rooted in justice - relationships which underlie the well-being and development of individuals, families and communities."

The full statement can be read at http://bic.org/statements-and-reports/bic-statements/09-0228.htm