In honor of International Women’s Day, experts gathered to discuss the state of women’s rights around the world in the face of global injustices at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum on Tuesday.
The panel featured Sima Samar, Carr Center Fellow and former Minister of Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan; Zoe Marks, a lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School; and Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan civil rights lawyer.
Sushma Raman —executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, which co-sponsored the event — moderated the conversation.
Drawing on their international experiences, the panelists emphasized how global conflict and crises affect women and girls.
Marks began the conversation by highlighting the importance of intersectionality in discussions of gender equality.
“What's important for me is really thinking about intersectionality as the place that gender hierarchies and gender inequalities intersect with other forms of inequality in our society, and the way that it demands solidarity and coordination by women from all walks of life,” Marks said.
Samar emphasized the role of education in advancing equality for all individuals, referencing her experiences both in the United Nations and as Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan.
“One of the problems that we face, and the current situation again, is the issue of education. We ignore education in conversations about equality,” Samar said.
“Access to education is key,” she added.
Opiyo raised the question of to what extent formal representation in political and legal systems makes a difference in the everyday life of the average woman, calling on states to take action beyond performative measures.
“You must have so many women as members of parliament,” he said. “In the election office, we don't pause to think about whether this is having an impact on the ordinary woman.”
“There is a very big difference between the rights provided in the law and the legalization of the law,” Opiyo added. “The problem is not the absence of laws, but rather the commitment of the states to enforce these laws.”
Samar and Marks echoed Opiyo’s emphasis on the importance of representation in all aspects of civil society.
The panelists also examined the need for an effective framework to fight increasingly complex systems of misogynistic oppression. In particular, Marks highlighted the success of the #MeToo movement.
“What was particularly powerful about #MeToo is that it doesn't require women to have the same experiences in order to see commonality,” she said. “It gives us a language and a framework for fighting against the same systems of power and patterns of inequality, despite being affected in very different ways by them.”
In fighting against those systems of oppression, Samar portrayed women’s rights advocacy as a fight for human rights.
“Our existence is a right,” Samar said. “Access to education, access to food, access to a particular list of values is a human right. We have to promote that seamless approach for everyone, everywhere. Otherwise, the problem will continue happening.”
—Staff Writer Darley A. C. Boit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.