If ever there was a confirmation that violence against women is not confined to a particular culture, nationality, ethnic group or socio-economic status, it was during the side-event presentation of the Hyattsville-based Shina, Inc. and the Panamerican-Panafrican Association, Inc. (the PaPa) during the United Nations 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City.
Addressing the Session’s 2013 theme on the Elimination and Prevention of All forms of Violence Against Women and Girls, the March 6 side-event, entitled “Violence Against Women: Influences of Culture and Abuse,” raised awareness on how cultural morays can set the stage for tolerance of violence against women.
It was the passionate testimonials of the various panel members which vividly described the unimaginable pain, suffering and degradation inflicted upon each of them, not only by men but also by other women and their societies as a whole in order to maintain a system of control and subservience over women. While longstanding customs often put considerable pressure on women to accept abuse, it is the awareness raising efforts of the thousands of women who attended the 57th Session of the CSW, that bring hope for change around the world.
In her introductory remarks, the PaPa’s Associate Director and Shina Board Member, Lisa McFarren-Polgar, referred to the United Nations’ findings: “Women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture.” Lisa Polgar praised the US Congress’ recent extension of the Violence Against Women Act as an acknowledgment that protecting women against violence can also serve, as President Obama so well articulated, to increase “broader economic prosperity, as well as political stability and security.”
The event’s moderator, Jessica Kamala-Mushala, President of Shina, and a native of Tanzania, gave a very personal account of her mother’s insistence that all 5 of her sisters receive an education, despite the overwhelming pressure of her culture that only boys should go to school. It was her mother’s vision that made it possible for Jessica Mushala to be standing before the United Nations this week to tell her story.
Jessica Mushala led the discussion on the meaning of culture as that which defines a group’s shared attitudes, feelings, values, ideas and traditions that are transmitted from generation to generation and are reinforced by members of that group. While culture establishes the bonds that we feel with other members of our society, at the same time in many societies it gives explicit or tacit acceptance of violent behavior against women.
Shina Board Member, Rose Woodruff, gave an engaging explanation of emotional intelligence which can be used as a tool to empower women to set boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable. Also a victim of emotional abuse for many years, she explained that women’s natural disposition to be nurturers is often abused by members of society which teaches them to accept mistreatment. She emphasized that it is okay to “say no.”
One of the panelists, Patience Akenji, a Georgetown University postgraduate in international human rights law and native of Cameroon, described the fate of many widows in her country who, upon the death of their husbands, are pressured by other widows to perform demeaning rituals to atone for their husbands’ death. They are ostracized by their community and suffer great emotional distress if they refuse to accept their society’s customs of abuse against women.
Adrianne Smith, Shina’s Public Relations Director and member of the Women’s Support Group for Domestic Violence, is a survivor of numerous hospitalizations after being brutally beaten by her former husband. Her account of her experience with domestic violence touched the hearts of audience members as she appealed to them that greater empathy in counseling victimized women is more important than being critical of their decision not to leave their abusive partners. What women in those situations require is understanding by others of the dynamics that lead a woman to accept violence and abuse.
In offering the younger generation’s perspective on violence against women, Priscilla Akoya Muhanji, an intern with Shina, gave her account of her best friend’s abuse at the hands of her boyfriend who continually beat her despite pleadings by her family and friends to leave him. Similar to Adrianne Smith, Priscilla called for greater understanding and refraining from making judgments to allow the victim to come to a decision for survival through positive feedback.
Giving the male perspective, Mohamed S. Bah, Shina Advisory Board Member, shared his 22 year experience working with UNICEF in worn torn countries in West Africa. Originally from Sierra Leone, Mr. Bah recounted how it was necessary to come to the aid of women who are often victims of rape by rebel fighters. He emphasized the need to provide safe-harbor to women who have become pawns in the battlefield in many places throughout the world and to encourage men and boys to become part of the solution in bringing an end to violence against women.
Making final remarks, the Pa/Pa’s Executive Director, Mr. Henri Polgar, summed up the work of the PaPa in promoting cultural exchange and understanding since its founding in 1968 by concert pianist Dr. Robert Pritchard. He added that the treasures inherent in culture as a progenitor of great art, music and inspiring traditions can serve as a vehicle for people of different cultural backgrounds to celebrate the best in one’s culture whilst evaluating negative aspects of culture that tolerate violence and abuse.
The UN 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women gave individuals throughout the world the opportunity to cooperate and exchange ideas on how to address the issue of violence against women. Amongst those in attendance at the Shina/PaPa side event, were members of the New Zealand based women’s refuge organziation, “Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin.” In a spirit of cooperation, members of the organization, Karen Taui and Caroline Herwim (seen in photo above) will be visiting Shina in Maryland to share their experiences on methods they have implemented in New Zealand to protect women affected by violence. They will be visiting the Good Samaritan Lutheran Church on Greenbelt Rd in Lanham, MD, on March 23 between 11:00 am and 12;30 am.
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