Bozena Benton, member of SI Sutton Coldfield and Communications Officer for our Region, reports on her packed three days at the SI convention held in Dublin last month…
SI Convention Dublin – Day One
Our Soroptimist International Flag ceremony opened our convention which only occurs every 4 years. Seeing the flags reminds us from how far and wide our 1700 members have travelled and just how much of the world Soroptimist Membership covers. A packed auditorium listened to International President Maureen Maguire remind us of our aims and our SIgnificance as we work with the UN, how we unite as one to improve the lives of women and girls.
Roderic O’Gorman TD Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of Ireland was our first keynote speaker outlining the steps government is taking to address the inequalities women and girls face in education, violence against women and the pay gap for women (20%). He has also been working to: improve the gender balance in decision making; 400 million euros has been invested in improving childcare along with the introduction of a variety of parental leave; Zero tolerance policies to eliminate violence against women with the introduction of 5 days paid domestic violence leave for victims. He spoke of the Italian soroptimist project to teach and train vulnerable women in sewing skills enabling them to work and provide for their families. He looked forward to learning and sharing more projects and the possibility of working together.
Immediate Past President Sharon Fisher spoke of how we progressed during her 2-year term, beat COVID by quickly moving online, created our Foundation for our Advocacy and Programme work and gained Charitable status. We remembered those we have lost including Johanna Raffen our first Convention Chair who passed away in 2021.
Mary Robinson, first woman President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner and founding member of The Elders spoke of the reality of our current crisis in climate change and the transition process needed to protect those working in non-green energy production. She spoke about Climate justice and the disproportionate affect on women and different generations. Meeting Connected Women (digital influencers) after discussion came ‘Project Dandelion’ which is found on every continent. The dandelion is resilient, regenerates the soil and spreads widely and easily. Likewise, the project looks at reality of change and action necessary. Mary challenged us and women leaders to step up and lead as never before. With temperatures this year exceeding the hottest year on record 2016 our planet is burning. We must become dandelionesses and challenge politicians to act now. Checkout Project Dandelion
Suba Umathevan our second keynote speaker spoke about Breaking Boundaries, Inspiring change. She spoke about her aspirations and her work at the office of Soroptimist International of Europe (SIE) as Advocacy Director and possibly joining our organisation. Encouraged to be herself by SIE she believed this shaped her career and helped her accept her culture. She spoke of DROSOS Foundation projects such as retraining fishermen to fish for plastic and train women to Upcycle plastic bottles. She also spoke of social norms which create barriers for women. A project to train women as plumbers. Women in Jordan are not allowed to greet men during the day but now with training they earn more than their husbands. While her teachers in Switzerland didn’t have any impact on her career she believed that teachers should encourage their students in many ways.
Our final speaker was Sean Wensley, a veterinarian who seeks securing wellbeing for animals, people and planet for the benefit of both animals and people. Many women chose not to leave a violent household where there is a threat or violence against the family’s pet.
Animals retain evolved behaviour and when not allowed to nest or express behaviour for their betterment are prevent from so doing when living with people. He spoke of caustic substances applied to horses hooves which causes pain, illegal trafficking of animals, keeping them in small cages, deliberate burn wounds when cows stray onto neighbouring land, animals kept in isolation against their natural habitat.
We were asked ‘Should we challenge World views that a humane death is justifiable to satisfy human benefits such as sport, food, companionship or entertainment?’ Examples such as Lambs castrated at less than a week old (with or without anaesthetic) mutilation such as dog’s ears clipped or cropped and tail docking in pigs. Studies have also shown that abuse of animals leads to domestic violence or perpetrators threatening to abuse pets as part of a violent or controlling behaviour.
The day finished with a chance to catch up with friends and make new ones at a Friendship Evening.
SI Convention Dublin – Day 2
The day started with our first speaker Mr Ma Ying-Jesu former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) who was raised in a family of females which gave him the foundation for his work to bring equality for women. The government signed CEDAW securing legislation to protect women. He also spoke of the support he had given to those who suffered during WW2 by the Japanese and still fights for an apology and compensation. Women in politics and decision making has significantly risen in Taiwan. He believes perpetrators of violence against women and harassment should be dealt with severely and said that recent incidents of misogyny and harassment by politicians and government staff have been vilified and severely dealt with.
Our next speaker Jim Gamble a former Police officer with a wide range of positions including counter terrorism and now an internationally recognised specialist in child protection explained that it’s not about technology but people, because content is created by people. Jim spoke of a photographer in 1874 who when raided had 137,000 pornographic images on glass of children. Images are not just found on the internet but on posters, in taxis, in magazines – as sex sells.
Groomers give lonely and isolated children the attention they crave. During COVID lockdown use of the internet and access increased and predators welcomed and took every moment to exploit it.
Viewers are not deemed dangerous and are not treated as those who assault or rape so are not given custodial sentences. We saw in text exchanges just how rapidly messages escalate to ascertaining personal details to asking for virtual sex of explicit photos (within 6 messages).
Well intentioned warnings ‘what goes online stays online’ can give children lack of hope and possibly lead to self-harm. Encourage them to come forward. Encourage safe-texting. Content and impact matter.
The game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ promotes abuse, misogyny and violence, a game brought into homes by parents not perpetrators. Be aware of your digital collateral. Remember – Offenders minimise their actions, justify them and and blame others.
Nicole Ameline former chair of CEDAW, lawyer and politician our next speaker spoke about the UN’s SDGs and their impact on equality of women. Without progress of women’s rights SDGs are ineffective. Women are the first victims in war and violence whether as collateral damage or with intention.. The first violation of inequality is the lack of women in decision making positions.
Parity must be the norm. We as women must be more active and assertive and ensure we are not ignored or neglected. We were encouraged to give our comments at the UN at every opportunity and work with them. Take the power and change it.
We had a choice of workshops from each Federation as well as a genealogy workshop for those interested in tracing their Irish roots. The African Federation workshop (our newest Federation) on the topic of health was extremely popular.
Cervical cancer is a major killer and prevalent in Africa, the highest occurrences globally. SI Africa launched their latest project in May to prevent cervical cancer (77,000 women in Africa each year). 62 million cases of cervical cancer can be avoided if girls are vaccinated. Working with Health4Life fund (UN) Soroptimists from SIGBI and Europe are supporting them.
Using multi-stakeholder collaboration, advocacy and fundraising campaigns Soroptimists will engage at country level with the most vulnerable women and girls. Soroptimists are encouraged to fundraise for the campaign.
We heard about what is the Human Papilloma virus and how it causes cancer, who it affects, the symptoms and how it can be prevented. We heard about common myths. Soroptimists can and will accelerate elimination by advocacy, raise the profile and encourage cervical smear tests, promote HPV vaccination.
When attending the Joint Irish Conferences I always look forward to hearing the winners of the Public Speaking Awards from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and it was a joy to see it included in the Convention programme. I was as always uplifted by both. These have been going for over 40 years.
Siofra Corrugan spoke of ‘Peace or democracy’ the advantages and benefits and also their disadvantages and challenges. ‘Peace’ in Afghanistan has resulted in women not being heard, ignored, the loss of all their rights, safety and freedom. Finally, democracy gives choice and a voice keeping power to the people.
Alicia Mitchell spoke on ‘Worsening mental health, is this a new thing?’ definitely a topical subject. Many blame COVID for the significant increase in cases but this was only a catalyst. The number of related hashtags on TikTok count billions including self-harm. Don’t let mental health define ‘our’ generation. Live your life. Both Sioifra and Alicia were very worthy winners.
Our last keynote speaker Felisa Tibbitts UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Higher Education spoke about SDG4 (Education). SDG4.7 gives flexibility in education in value-based approaches. UNESCO is reimagining the futures of education as there is a need to adapt education when teaching and setting learning processes with regard to climate change. The elements of transformative education include critical analysis of one’s environment, new knowledge, discussion and debate.
A youth-centred perspective was considered with the increase of youth activists with youths being influenced by teachers, clubs, friends, or a particular class rather than leadership experiences gained in school. Opportunities to explore or express their own thinking (more so out of the classroom) was a major influence. They enjoyed exploring and the opportunity to share and discuss their own ideas. There is obviously a need for schools to take cues from the youth about what they want and need.
SI Convention Dublin – Day 3
Our third and final day at Convention.
Working in conflict areas Haiti, Liberia, Afghanistan and Congo she felt there was little knowledge of how the conflict affected women especially from rape and sexual assault. Over 85,000 women have been treated at Pansi hospital from rape and violence. One woman was holding her son and as the soldier went to rape her snatched her son from her arms and threw him onto a fire.
Life of women during conflict zones continues as usual, they make dinner, raise children, get married. The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) now links conflict to women and their safety. Currently there has been no progress of the agenda 13 years on including a block from the US re reproductive rights.
Renata spoke of the pushback of women’s rights in many countries. She gave 3 challenges. Firstly challenge that women will not be in decision making forums. What are our country’s agenda, funding on Women’s Peace Security. Secondly, how are women going to face conflict? Women have less access to technology, mobile phones and the internet. Significantly more women face online violence. 78% of AI professionals are men. Finally, how are we going to encourage and get women in decision making roles, politics and government? The more women in government the greater spending on social agenda.
The future is women. Iceland was given as an example of good practice, Namibia and their work with guns and Ireland and their work on discrimination of women. It is critical to not let Afghanistan fall off the agenda and consider women’s needs and opinions of those still living in Afghanistan.
During a Q&A Renata gave some excellent ways we could engage with the UN.
We heard from our UN representatives from the UN offices across the world; New York, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi, Paris, Rome and last but not least Bangkok. We are only one of four NGOs that have consultative status that work solely at the UN.
The areas they cover are vast. When do women become ‘old women’, when do they cease to need sexual and reproductive rights?
- We have consultative status with the UN and take every opportunity to be a voice for women. Our reps work together with CEDAW writing shadow reports on proposals or current wording to ensure inclusivity of all women. Only a few member countries have ratified CEDAW and written it into domestic law.
- Nairobi reps are concentrating on issues of environment including climate change, resource erosion and destruction.
- In Paris our reps work with UNESCO themes including education and digital skills. Are we ready, are our daughters ready for the future?
- Rome reps work with the FAO working on agricultural issues. Seeking consultative status with the FAO, passes and a place at the regional conference.
- Our Bangkok office rep concentrates on Asian countries.
The SI Global Impact Report for the work we are doing is now available.
The Soroptimist International Foundation was launched. This replaces the International President’s Appeal and will support short (up to 2 years), medium (2-6years) and long-term projects (10 years and longer). Having secured charitable status we will have many ways to receive donations and receive legacies.
Educate, empower and enable will be our purpose. We will initially be supporting 2 projects:
Project 1 is started with a $100,000 USD donation from SI Taiwan. Educating women and children from war-torn countries. It includes a hands-on element.
Project 2 is for girls 8-11. A speaking competition working with Commonwealth Business Women.
Our incoming International President (taking office January 2024) Siew Yong Gnanalingam was unable to be with us in person but sent a recorded presentation looking forward to her two years in office which will be focused on the environment and climate change which have a disproportionate negative affect on women and girls. We look forward to working with Siew Yong during her presidency.
And finally, we were invited to our next International Convention in 2027, an adventure which will incorporate an Alaskan Cruise, a chance to explore the wonders of Alaska and a convention.