Morgan State University welcomed Dr. Patience Stephens, Senior Advisor on Education at UN Women on Thursday, March 10, 2016 to give the Women's History Month Convocation Lecture on "The United Nations" pursuit of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: What have we learned?". Over 100 students attended the lecture under the auspices of the Humpty Dumpty Institute and the Clara I. Adams Honors College at Morgan State. The lecture was supplemented by a working luncheon where International Relations students had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Stephens in a more informal setting and ask questions regarding her work and at the United Nations.
Dr. Stephens began with a review of the statements issued by world leaders around International Women's Day on March 8, 2016. A good portion of these statements treat women as equals, such as in President Obama"s statement: "Today, on International Women's Day, we recommit ourselves to achieving a world in which every woman and girl enjoys the full range of rights and freedoms that is her birthright... A future in which all women and girls around the world are allowed to rise and achieve their full potential will be a brighter, more peaceful, and more prosperous future for us all." Or the statement of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, who said "To arrive at the future we want, we cannot leave anyone behind. We have to start with those who are the least regarded. These are largely women and girls, although in poor and troubled areas, they can also include boys and men".
Others have also made their voices heard: Others have also made their voices heard somewhat more controversially such as Vladimir Putin's "Ode to Women" in which he poetically states: "...Dear women, you possess a mysterious power: you keep up with everything, juggle a myriad of tasks, and yet remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm." Turkish President Reycip Erdogan, stated: "I know there will be some who will be annoyed, but for me a woman is above all a mother". While perhaps laudable, these statements seem to miss the point of International Women's Day and other celebrations such as Women's History Month. The United Nations General Assembly has said that the purpose of these commemorations at the UN and around the world are to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. There are those that insist that commemorations are not the answer, and that by claiming special status, women perpetuate the very attitudes they are battling against.
Dr. Stephens then went into a historical review of international women's commemorations, stating that the first International Women's Day was in 1911 in several European countries. Official commemorations at the United Nations begin in 1975 with a specific theme each year. In 2016 the theme is "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality" which speaks to Goal #5, achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. She then put it to the audience, the question "To celebrate or not to celebrate". In the end, international women's commemorations are important for many reasons, to acknowledge how far the world has come, to honor those who sacrificed for the freedoms women enjoy today, to take stock of how far we are from where we want to be, and to galvanize momentum for future action.
In measuring how far the United Nations has come in addressing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, Dr. Stephens began with the immediate post- World War II period when women demanded a larger role as compensation for taking over many factory and other manual labor jobs during the war when men were in the trenches. The extensive challenges faced by women and girls then are very similar in many ways to those faced today, employment, education, voting rights and assumption of political office, restrictive customs and stereotypical expectations, marriage, fertility, and widowhood. Dr. Stephen"s lecture then went into the time period of 1946 to 1974 which saw the United Nations establish legal foundations for much of the work that came after. The UN Charter of 1945 established "the equal rights of men and women", and the next year the establishment of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The 1950s and 1960s the UN adopted several conventions and declarations on and concerning women, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, and the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. All of these put pressure on national governments to develop laws to address injustices against the political and legal status of women, backed up by the enormous volume of data collected by the UN.
The period of 1975 to 1995 saw major United Nations conferences designed to spur governments to advocacy and action. The UN World Conferences on Women in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985), culminated in the 1995 conference in Beijing which adopted the Platform for Action on several critical areas of concern, including women and poverty, education and training, women and health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women and the economy, women and power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, human rights of women, women and the media, women and the environment, and girl children. The ensuing 15 years from 1995 to 2010 saw the United Nations put the Platform for Action to test on several issues and in several forums. Ninety ninety-seven saw the establishment of the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues (OSAGI) and the promotion of gender mainstreaming in all sectors of the UN's work.
Responding to the abuses of and sexual violence against women and girls in war and conflict (as espoused by Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889) was hailed as a major victory at this time, in addition to addressing the challenges of HIV/AIDS, and the needs of girl children especially in education. This intergovernmental action has resulted in a plethora if "international days" sanctioned by the UN including the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (February 6), the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula (May 23), and the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict (June 18), to name but a few. In creating UN Women in 2011, the UN combined four previous institutions to focus on greater country support, stronger emphasis on ending violence against women, better emphasis on youth empowerment and on education as the "silver bullet for achieving gender equality and women's economic empowerment. The launch of the "HeforShe" campaign as a solidarity movement to bring men on board in the fight for equality has been seen as a social media triumph, and hopefully these actions will have real world impact. The creation of UN Women also spurred the 5th Sustainable Development Goal: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and the various sub-goals such as the end of discrimination, the elimination of violence, the recognition and value of unpaid work, full political participation, universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, using technology to promote the empowerment of women and reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources.
Dr. Stephens concluded that in order to move forward there are several important lessons which must be heeded and worked on. Women's and girl’s education must be at the core of development work and must be comprehensive, taking other development challenges into consideration. In this work, civil society is essential in positioning political and socio-cultural influences to make a difference. As the challenges are ever more complex and evolving, so must be the manner of how we meet these challenges. Men and boys must be brought in as allies and their support leveraged. In short, there is much more work to be done to bring attention to the fight for equality and achieving gender equity.
Dr. Patience Stephens is currently the Director/Special Advisor on Education at UN Women. Previously she held the office of Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division of UN-Women working to support the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the UN-Women Executive Board, both of which provide policy and operational guidance to UN-Women. Dr. Stephens has worked in international development for over 23 years. In the UN Secretariat between 1994 and 2010, she provided technical and substantive support to countries in addressing challenges associated with population and development, including those associated with data collection and analysis. She conducted research and analysis on a range of issues, including health and mortality, population policy, youth development, poverty and inequality -- contributing to many United Nations reports and publications. As part of UN Secretariat's Division for Social Policy and Development, she served as the head of the United Nations Programme on Youth from 2006 to 2008, leading the preparation of the flagship World Youth Report - 2007 on "Young People"s Transition to Adulthood: Progress and Challenges." As the Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women between 2008 and 2010, Dr. Stephens played a major role in preparing and presenting analysis and justification to UN Member States, leading to their decision to establish a new entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women – UN-Women. Prior to her work at the UN, Dr. Stephens worked in various capacities at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC and in the Field, including in demographic estimation and projections and family planning programme evaluation. At the Bank"s resident Mission in Ghana, she managed several multi-million dollar education and health projects. Dr. Stephens received her doctoral degree in demography from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, followed by a one year post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton University.