Address delivered by Ambassador Andrea Bowman to Kaohsiung Senior Girls’ High School December 14, 2020
THE TOPIC which we will discuss today has been framed in the following manner: ‘Achieve Gender Equality And Empower Women’. However, I will explain to you why I have adjusted the manner in which I will address this topic.
The expression “empower women” places women in a position where they are being acted for, where they are being acted on, rather than where they are doing their own actions. In other words, women are presented as the objects of received actions rather than the subjects who are doing or effecting actions. This type of expression, “empower women”, emerges from a traditional patriarchal construct which disempowers women and automatically reduces women to the status where they are regarded as having to be acted for, where things have to be done for them.
This status takes women’s agency away from them and places this agency in the hands of men.
Therefore we must begin our discussion today by realizing that the empowerment of women is a process which has to be effected by women, where women recognize their own intrinsic power and not see empowerment as something being bestowed on them through a male construct.
However, you may practically respond that men do hold the power in the contexts that matter, and in most cases this is still the truth. We will get to this reality in our discussion today, but what I am focussing on now, at this initial stage, is the need to dismantle this fundamental/ basic expression which may seem benign when it is not. So I repeat: the expression “empower women” comes from a construct that subordinates women and takes their own ability to empower themselves away from them. You may argue that “empower women” could refer to self-empowerment and once you take it this way you are in sync with the argument which I am presenting.
We have to accept that most societies and most religions have placed women in positions where they themselves regard themselves as subordinate to men and do not recognize that they have to determine their own sense of being. If women continue to frame and see themselves through the eyes of men, their own internal self-worth would not be achieved. As women we have to realize the power of our own strengths. The female perspective is multifocal and multitasked. Women are more given to caring, nurturing and demonstrating empathy. These qualities strengthen all facets of society: the home, the school, the community; all areas of socio-political engagement.
In all of these areas, women are the recognized organizing agents. They are relied upon for the functioning of all of the aforementioned organizations. In the recently held elections in the United States, women’s organizations provided the bedrock for the mobilization of both of the major political parties, and the women’s vote was crucial in determining the winner. There is a clear reason why women political leaders have dealt far better with this global pandemic than have men. Our areas of strength are more instinctive and we have more emotional intelligence. We must claim and utilize these strengths for ourselves and know that they are not dependent on men.
In addition to this, the notion as expressed in the wording of today’s topic, that “gender equality” is the aim and the objective which will achieve the empowerment of women is another notion with which I disagree. I feel that gender equity rather than equality should be the objective. ‘Equity” in this context may be defined as ensuring that women have access to ways and means of adjusting imbalances which create unfairness and disproportionate as well as inappropriate value in the livelihoods of women. From a very simplistic perspective we may say that equality may be achieved if or when women and men receive the same wages for doing the same job. But equivalent wages may not achieve equity for women if there are already built in assumptions and constructs which favour a man in that particular field of work. For example, let us look at a male and a female teacher of Math at a High School.
Both persons have exactly the same academic and professional training; they are exactly the same age; they are both unmarried and the both live at equal distances away from their High School. However, the female teacher has a chronic gynecological challenge which causes her to be unable to attend work for two days per month. She attempts to make up for these two days by doing extra classes at the students’ convenience. Yet, she is faced with the threat of dismissal because her monthly absences are deemed too disruptive to the school’s scheduling. I once worked at an all-boy school in St Vincent and the Grenadines where the Headmaster had stated openly that if he had his way he would not hire female teachers because of their “monthly problems and pregnancy”, as he had stated it. Now this is a situation of inequity, because no constructive adjustment is being made for the peculiar needs of the woman. Although we share similarities, the needs of women are sometimes different from the needs of men. So even though there may be equality in wages, equity goes beyond this, for it challenges the status quo and demands that changes are made so that the real differences between the sexes are accommodated in a manner which promotes fairness.
So this then is how I will frame today’s topic: Achieve Gender Equity And Achieve The Empowerment Of Women.
Notice, my framing is neutral and presents the quest to achieve as an abstract which is not concretized for achievement by either sex. The quest for this achievement has to be collective and global, because no woman is empowered once any woman is disempowered in any corner of the world. Indeed, no human being is strengthened once any human being is dehumanized anywhere in the world.
Since 1945, a founding principle of the United Nations Charter has been “equal rights of men and women” and protecting and promoting women’s human rights is the responsibility of all States. From its inception, the United Nations has recognized that women the world over are being denied their sexual and reproductive health rights.
A series of U.N Conventions, including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, have advocated for measures towards what I prefer to refer to as equity for women. Yet this advocacy and heightened global awareness have not achieved their objectives. Yes, there have been improvements in many spheres, but as I mentioned earlier in this discussion, men still hold the reins of power in the contexts that matter most. Reins of power in the sense that men still are the major decision makers in the homes, in the religious organizations, in the schools, in the community groups and in the corridors of political power throughout the world. As a result of this, the notion is held that men have to give power to women in order for women to in turn be empowered. From a legislative perspective this may obtain where men have to frame legislation which would change the status quo in order to achieve equity. But the male power base is even more deep-seated and insidious than this. We have settings where women are seated at the tables of principal decision-making; women themselves may even be the principal decision makers, but the traditions and precedents on which the decisions taken are made may echo long-held paternalistic, male agenda which ultimately work against the best interest of women.
Merely having a woman in a position of authority does not guarantee positive female-friendly decisions and initiatives. The networking of the tentacles of power is crucial and more than anything else women have to be aware of the subtleties in constructs which undermine their development.
This is why I began this discussion today in the manner in which I did.
Women’s awareness and empowerment must come from within.
I was married in a Christian ceremony in a church in London. However, I asked the officiating minister to remove from my marriage vows the requirement that I obey my husband. Why must I obey my husband when we are both capable decision makers? There are times when we agree and there are times when we disagree. So in order to come to a decision, we both find means of accommodation and/or compromise. This type of negotiation is necessary in most human societal settings. Why should the setting of the marriage between a man and a woman give automatic privilege to a man? And this rhetorical question allows me to segue to the T.A.B.L.E principles of Happy Home World Alliance International (HHWAI). The letter ‘A’ in T.A.B.L.E represents the need for acceptance and affirmation in the context of the family. HHWAI places the family at the centre of the strength of any society. One of HHWAI’s principles is that a strong family nurtures confident, focussed young leaders who would have the wherewithal to enhance our world.
Therefore, once a family accepts and affirms the beings and the personhoods of its family members, these family members would in turn be able to affirm and accept other members of society. The ripple effect here is obvious. HHWAI also advocates ‘T’ for talking and ‘L’ for listening in the nurturing context of the family. These vital and positive principles must ultimately foster gender equity and the ultimate empowerment of women.
This is the vision which HHWAI would like to take to the United Nations in its 60-Country U. N. Youth Forum in August, 2021.
You are all invited to become a part of this forum which would be a celebration of the strength of a simple vision being placed in the global context of the United Nations. Happy Home World Alliance International hopes that its message would lead to the necessary awarenesses, changes and healing. Thank You.