On February 27, 2021, young women from over 41 countries all over the world tuned in to codeHER’s virtual Women’s Independence Conference. It was the fourth part of a series for young women worldwide to discuss how they can overcome the social and economic pressures in their communities. The conference focused on a panel of inspiring women, inclusive of a leader in the global development sector and a human rights activist, that tackled the issues of gender inequality and its negative effects on women during the global pandemic. From the pressure on young women to enter motherhood and early marriage to the importance of women’s education and involvement in the workforce, the subjects addressed served to instigate further discussions among the participants.
About the Panelists
Anne Firth Murray was born in New Zealand, one of the first countries where women could vote. Her birth country was an essential factor in her life and interest in women’s rights. She is currently a consulting professor at Stanford University and is the founding president of the Global Fund for Women Fighting for Gender Justice. She was a writer for the United Nations, was involved in editing for prestigious universities such as Oxford, Stanford, and Yale, and in 2005, was one of 1000 women to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, just to name a few of her accomplishments. She studied economics and political science at Berkeley but has primarily worked with non-profits in her professional life.
Anne’s interest in women’s equality began when she was a young girl, when her brother got a job delivering newspapers, but she was not allowed to do the same simply because she was a girl. One of the thought-provoking questions Anne brought up as an overarching question for the conference was “What can we do about some of the difficult problems women face, pretty much in every country in the world?”
Fatima-Zahra Aboukir is the Youth Engagement Specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco. She has a business management degree from Agadir, Morocco, and she currently designs and implements youth empowerment programs. She grew up in a small town in Morocco where there were very few opportunities for young girls. However, when she was a teenager, a youth center opened, and Fatima-Zahra became interested in activism. She noted that it was more challenging as a girl to have access to space in the youth center than the boys in her community. The youth center was stigmatized because the community thought it was a place for boys to meet girls, overlooking the center’s importance. Fatima-Zahra’s parents were both teachers and well-respected in her community, which allowed other girls in her community to have access to the youth center since she was allowed to go. She was, and currently is, a leader of change in her community for women. In talking about her experiences, Fatima-Zahra said, “I felt that I was born to do more than just become a wife or [generally] stick to my community’s social norms.”
Defying the pressure for marriage
During the conference, Saniya Vashist, the CEO and Founder of codeHER, led the conversation with these two incredible women panelists about women’s progress and independence worldwide. She also introduced the audience to the harsh effects of the COVID-19 crisis on women. It is estimated that there will be 61 million child marriages by 2025 due to the pandemic, which is the most significant surge in 25 years. The pressure on girls and women to marry early is still prevalent in many countries around the world.
“Some societal norms define the role of girls and women in my community, and I think that [socially], the ultimate goal of a girl is to get married,” said panelist Fatima-Zahra Aboukir. During the panel discussion, Aboukir put forward the idea that girls and women need to believe they can have a role in society as mothers and wives, get educated, join the workforce, and define their own goals.
Empowerment starts with a vision
Anne Firth Murray pointed out that when women are empowered and when they can make their own choices on who they want to become, it also brings health and education benefits to the community. According to Murray, women’s empowerment has to start with a vision, followed by a clear plan of executing that vision.
During the discussion, both panelists pointed out the importance of community: women coming together and supporting each other. This is especially crucial for women who do not receive support from their families, as this makes it more challenging for them to find the courage to stand up for themselves.
However, changes in communities require time. “Nobody should expect that you can make a big shift in the mindset of your community overnight. It’s a long process,” pointed out Aboukir. She highlighted the importance of small steps and of appreciating the gradual progress of women’s education, as it slowly opens doors to them. Murray agreed, saying that change starts from within, from one’s home, and from each girl and boy around the world. Nevertheless, the next step is spreading the word to others: educating and sharing knowledge.
It was amazing to hear these women talk about kindness and love as being a part of social justice, since this is a perspective that most discussions on politics do not address. They have always stressed the importance of grassroots activism around the world, but never the importance of the intent behind it.
The discussion was eventually followed by audience Q&A. Audiences from Morocco, Uganda, the USA, Germany, and more expressed their opinions, feelings, and impressions on the topics tackled during the conference. Participants shared how the shared stories and experiences broadened their worldview and how they fostered new connections through the conference. One of the participants, 28 year-old Adama Sesay from Sierra Leone, said she was touched when listening to stories in the break out rooms. “I learned a lot about life and to never give up.” Sylvia F. Kironde, 25, from Uganda added that her takeaway from the conference was “to always involve men in different project implementations to reduce the rates of gender-based violence.” This is how one panel built a support network and community for women one story at a time. Don’t forget to be a part of the next one.