Women’s Seminar Addresses Violence, Encourages Empowerment

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June 12, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

Vienna, VA – Manifesting strong support and encouragement for women and girls worldwide, an influential State Department official has made it clear that their progress is a priority for the US government.

June 12, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

Vienna, VA – Manifesting strong support and encouragement for women and girls worldwide, an influential State Department official has made it clear that their progress is a priority for the US government.

At the NFIA women’s seminar are seated from left to right: Satheesan Nair, Secretary of NFIA; Dr. Islam Siddiqui, Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the US Trade Representative; Maureen Greenwood-Basken, Executive Director of the Women, Girls and Population Program, United Nations Foundation (UNF); Denise Rollins, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, US Agency for International Development (USAID); Mrs. Angela Anand, Vice President of NFIA; Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US State Department; Mr. Lal Motwani, Chairman of the NFIA Foundation; Mr. Sohan Joshi, President of NFIA; Saba Ghori, Advisor for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat), District 15, Montgomery County; and Dr. Riju Srimal, Women’s Issues Advisor in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US State Department.  Photo credit: Bavi Saini

“The Obama administration has put advancing the status of women and girls at the center of America’s national security strategy and foreign policy”, said Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, in a keynote address to a women’s seminar organized by the National Federation of Indian-American Associations (NFIA) on Friday, June 7.  In this regard, she pointed out that “President Obama has launched comprehensive efforts for gender equality and to empower women and girls, domestically and worldwide, including strategies to combat human trafficking, prevent and respond to gender-based violence and expand economic opportunities for women”.

Quoting President Obama who said, “When women succeed, nations are more safe, more secure and more prosperous”, Zeya noted, “When we invest in women’s education and give them the opportunity to access credit to start a small business, the economic, political and social benefits ripple out far beyond the home”.

The seminar on Friday evening was among the most meaningful events in the Washington area, focusing on the pervading violence against women and strategies to empower women and girls.  It is the brainchild of NFIA Vice President Mrs. Angela Anand, a feather in her cap, an event which she has spearheaded for the third consecutive year, held at the Diya banquet facility in Tysons Corner.

Medha Swaminathan, a student of the Natananjali School of Dance, is flanked by Soma Kalb (left) and Jeannie Baumann of Doonya Dance, at a women’s seminar organized by NFIA at Diya in Tysons Corner, VA

The program was part of the annual NFIA conference in the nation’s capital, spanning two days, June 6-7.  The conference included a Congressional luncheon, White House briefing, reception at the Embassy of India, the women’s seminar and an Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage celebration.  Given the nature of the women’s seminar – the gravity of theme, the level of commitment and the amount of interest generated – it would be fair to say it was the crowning glory of NFIA’s annual event in Washington.

It drew such distinguished speakers, the list reads like a Who’s Who in their respective fields: Uzra Zeya; Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat), District 15, Montgomery County; Denise Rollins, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, US Agency for International Development (USAID); Saba Ghori, Advisor for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; Dr. Riju Srimal, Women’s Issues Advisor in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US State Department; and Maureen Greenwood-Basken, Executive Director of the Women, Girls and Population Program, United Nations Foundation (UNF).

At the NFIA women’s seminar are seated from left to right: Mrs. Angela Anand, Vice President of NFIA; Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US State Department; Mr. Lal Motwani, Chairman of the NFIA Foundation; Mr. Sohan Joshi, President of NFIA; Saba Ghori, Advisor for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; and Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat), District 15, Montgomery County

Zeya told the gathering, “From the White House to State Department to Congress, women and girls across the world have more champions in American government than ever before”.  She quoted Secretary of State John Kerry who said: “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.  This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing US foreign policy”.

It is noteworthy that Nirbhaya, the brave 23-year-old student who was gang-raped in Delhi, last December, was mentioned a number of times and by various speakers at the seminar.  Zeya commended Nirbhaya for defying the culture of silence, for speaking up and giving detailed accounts of her attack, and for starting a movement in India.  She recalled that, in March, Secretary Kerry, with First Lady Michelle Obama, honored Nirbhaya with the first posthumous ‘International Woman of Courage’ award in a very emotional ceremony at the US State Department.  Zeya pointed out that the award was given to the brave-heart “for inspiring millions of people with her simple message: no more looking the other way when gender-based violence happens, no more stigma against survivors of this violence”.

Another recurring subject at the seminar was that of ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’.  Curently, women earn an average of just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  At the time of going to press, the disparity was in the headlines as diverse leaders from around the country joined President Obama at the White House, on Monday, to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act.

Zeya emphasized, “Women’s issues are more than just women’s issues.  These are family issues, economic issues, security issues and, ultimately, justice issues.  Securing equal opportunity and rights for women and girls is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do”!

She thanked the NFIA for asking her “to speak on such an important topic, a topic that is of utmost priority to me, both professionally and personally”.  To the gathering, she said: “In my experience as an American diplomat at our Embassy in Delhi, I truly relish opportunities to reconnect with the Indian diaspora.  Like many of you, I have learnt a lesson of women’s empowerment at home because I am the daughter of an Indian mother”.

Citing statistics which tell a story of their own, Delegate Aruna Miller pointed out that the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq is 6,648, while the number of women killed from domestic violence in the US during the same period is 11,800, and the percentage of homeless women with children reporting domestic abuse is 92.  She mentioned, there are 1,500 shelters for battered women in the US and 3,800 shelters for animals.

“Violence against women and girls is the most widespread violation of human rights”, she said.  “Ending it needs a cultural change and that cultural shift can only occur if each of us takes responsibility for our own attitudes towards women, when gender equality moves beyond the level of talk and rhetoric”.

To her credit, Miller will be introducing legislation to allow paid maternity leave in the state of Maryland, for which she was warmly applauded by the audience at the seminar.  The Delegate bemoaned, “America has the highest GDP in the entire world.  Yet, its policies to support working families are the worst of any country in the developed world”.

Miller spoke with passion and commitment on a cause that is clearly dear to her: empowering women.  She stressed, “We need effective laws that are more responsive to women’s needs.  We need to strengthen the criminal justice system.  We need quick support for victims with telephone hotlines, emergency shelters, psychological care programs, education and public awareness campaigns that help change perceptions that violence is acceptable.  We need communities which encourage boys to develop a positive attitude towards women and equip them with ways of dealing with conflict.  We need the media to stop portraying women as sexual and visual objects.  We need to increase the number of women in politics, law enforcement and peace-making forces and ensure that there are equal economic opportunities for women”.

Miller made it clear, “We cannot empower women without the support of men – men who see women as equal to them and men who refuse to be silent about violence against women”.  She recognized Dr. Sambhu Banik, among the eminent gathering, who has been an advocate for women’s rights and has repeatedly raised the issue of female feticide in India.

Students of the Nrityaki Dance Academy performed Kathak dances at a seminar on empowering women and girls, organized by the National Federation of Indian-American Associations (NFIA).  They are seen here with Shweta Misra (left), founder and director of Nrityaki

While the seminar drew distinguished speakers and guests, it also attracted among the finest artistes in our Washington area.  It goes to the credit of Lakshmi Swaminathan, founder and director of the Bethesda-based Natananjali School of Dance, for coordinating with various dance groups to showcase their talent at the NFIA event.  Among the cultural performances were: ‘Raksha’ (protection), a fusion dance employing elements of Kathak, Kuchipudi, hip-hop and Bollywood, by Rhythmaya Dance, founded and directed by Nirathi Rao Kalavapudi; Bharatanatyam by agile and expressive Medha Swaminathan, a student of Natananjali; Kathak by Sneha Misra, Anshika Govil, Shreya and Anya Muju, students of the Nrityaki Dance Academy, founded and directed by Shweta Misra; a Bollywood-inspired fast-paced dance by Jeannie Baumann and Soma Kalb of Doonya Dance; and Kuchipudi by Pallavi Kulkarni, a student of the Kuchipudi Dance Academy, founded and directed by Lakshmi Babu.

Mrs. Angela Anand said to INDIA THIS WEEK, that her mission for organizing the seminar is to: encourage girls and women who are being trained and empowered by their instructors; highlighting policy-makers who are advancing the cause of girls and women, worldwide; and showcasing creative books and works by women.

Talented members of Rhythmaya Dance performed an enchanting fusion dance, ‘Raksha’ (protection), in keeping with the theme of the NFIA seminar – violence against women, and empowering women and girls

“Tonight’s discussion is a really critical one”, Rollins said.  “Women’s empowerment and gender-based violence and inequality are real human rights issues and development challenges that I and my agency, USAID, are devoted to address.  USAID recognizes that violence is one of the most debilitating features that impede a woman’s active participation in the economy and her ability to access resources and services.   We, at USAID, have a vested interest in promoting gender equality and inclusive development”.

Rollins believed that the most powerful agent of change on the issue of gender equality is the immense Indian diaspora, particularly the Indian-American community.  “Imagine the impact that the millions of Indians abroad can have in advocating for gender equality”, she told the audience.

It is noteworthy that two Indian-Americans are occupying prominent positions at USAID: Dr. Rajiv Shah is the Administrator of the Agency; and Nisha Desai Biswal serves as Assistant Administrator for Asia.

Maureen spoke about UNF which was founded by American philanthropist Ted Turner in 1998 to support UN issues and causes.  Recognizing that women and girls are the key to global development, she disclosed that in its 15-year history, the Foundation has given 51.1 million dollars to supporting adolescent women and girls.

Saba Ghori outlined measures to prevent violence against women including: strict laws which must be implemented; emphasizing the importance of women and girls in society; and engaging people in the community, especially men and boys.  Dr. Riju Srimal dwelt on the importance of education and economic opportunity and promoting entrepreneurship for women in India.


Community Special by MYDOSTI.COM

Community Special by MYDOSTI.COM

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