Education, a Powerful Channel for Social Change

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Report on the UN Commission on the Status of Women

The SNJM representatives of Development and Peace, an NGO (non-governmental organization) to which the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary of Canada (SNJM) are affiliated, asked Hanane Hakkou * and Kim Piché * to be the SNJM delegates to the 63rd edition of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. These two women came back encouraged by their experience, despite the sometimes disturbing findings on the situation of women throughout the world.

Under the theme “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”, the Commission hosted numerous conferences at which groups were formed with the intention of including people from diverse countries. This formula had the advantage of highlighting the progress made in the various countries, even if the progress was sometimes very modest.  Besides this, it also illustrated the amount of work that still needs to be done in many areas.

Major challenges

Even countries, such as Norway and New Zealand, which are recognized for their laws favoring gender equality, face universal barriers:

  • Inability to count on a system that can measure and track progress in women’s empowerment in a comparable way across countries. Many examples were given to illustrate that economic and social indicators tell only part of the story.
  •  The difficulty of changing mentalities formed by family, as well as cultural and social traditions.

The two Quebec SNJM delegates noted that the weight of stereotypes is more powerful than we might think.  In Africa, a woman may stay at home because her mother-in-law firmly believes that, if the woman works outside the home, her children will be neglected. In developed countries with a parental leave program, this program is used almost exclusively by women. The popular belief, that the presence of women is of paramount importance to infants, seems to overshadow the results of studies highlighting the real benefits of a father’s presence.

Education, an impetus for social change

Faced with the enormous challenge of counterbalancing social prejudices and perceptions, the speakers constantly proposed one solution: education! In developed countries such as Sweden, social media awareness campaigns are increasing.

 “I realize that education is THE factor of change in order to alter mentalities, foster a more open society, provide better conditions for all, consider the contribution of women to the evolution of society, and better respect women’s rights, “says Hanane Hakkou.

She adds, “I can’t help but marvel at Mother Marie-Rose’s vision and the tremendous work that SNJM Sisters have done in support of education for all, especially poor and disadvantaged girls. I am very proud to see that SNJM insights and achievements over 175 years have paved the way and continue to be relevant, as seen in the deliberations of this Commission, “she said.

Activists described as “terrorists”

Many topics were discussed at this 63rd Commission:  violence against women during wars, genital mutilation, early marriage, prostitution and violence against migrants, as well as human trafficking. These topics highlighted the gap between countries, especially because of cultural traditions and characteristics, but also because of political will.

It certainly causes one to wonder when, in some countries, the president himself qualifies women as “terrorists” for the sole reason that they advocate for the rights of women who are victims of rape or ill-treatment by soldiers and combatants. This state of affairs is all the more alarming since it seems to extend from Chechnya to countries in Latin America. Indeed, about 60 women are currently imprisoned because they promote the rights of women.

Hanane and Kim agree that much could still be said about their enriching experience. As they mentioned during their presentation at the Congregational House this past March, there are several reasons for hope. And there is also a need to remain vigilant, as Simone de Beauvoir so aptly said: 

“Never forget that a political, economic or religious crisis is enough to have women’s rights challenged. These rights are never acquired. You need to remain vigilant your whole life long.”

*Hanane Hakkou, a Moroccan Muslim woman, has lived in Quebec for 19 years. She is Financial Controller for the General Administration of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM).

*Kim Piché works in the Office of Social Pastoral Ministry of the Diocese of Montreal as assistant and coordinator for the English-speaking network.