The Words of the Handschin Family

The United Nations, Human Rights and Women: Partnership for Empowerment and a Culture of Peace

Carolyn Handschin
May 11-13, 2010
Larnaka, Cyprus
14th WFWPI Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East

Mrs. Elsi Christofias, First Lady of the Republic of Cyprus thanked WFWPI for its dedication to peace in the region, adding that "beyond our political differences, our vision and our daily work is peace". Mrs. Christofias spoke to an audience of experts in political, academic, social, professional and legal fields, representing fourteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Asia and Europe.

In a special ceremony on the eve of the event, Ms. Katie Klerides, President of the Institute for Euro Democracie and daughter of Cyprus' former President, spoke about experiencing the conflict of others. It helps to put our own conflicts into perspective. Long-time conference chair and first female Minister in Jordan, H.E. In'am Al-Mufti was presented an award for her outstanding contribution to peace in the Middle East. On acceptance of the award, she acknowledged the restraint and wisdom gained over the years while engaging for peace with many partners in the region- seen as critical to peace in the world -- that had so touched her personal life as a child growing up in Palestine.

The program intends to strengthen working relationships among leaders present through training and information sharing between UN programs and those of associations and institutions in the region. All sessions touched on education in human rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its monitoring Committee, in particular. Its current President, Mme Naela Gabr's message was read by Carolyn Handschin, WFWPI Director of the UN Office in Geneva. Mme Gabr described the importance that CEDAW places on women's participation in the public life of their countries. Conference co-chair, WFWP Director of Operations, Dr. Zoe Bennet introduced WFWPI President, Dr. Lan Young Moon Park, who spoke on core ethics of service and care, often under-rated actions for peace. She added that only with consistent conviction, courage, sweat and tears will these aspirations become a reality. In'am Al-Mufti explained that the peace process encompasses political, personal, and financial elements. She expressed appreciation to the Japanese sponsors and to those heroines who suffer silently, unappreciated who go even a step further to lift up others in unfortunate circumstances.

Session two, Human Rights, Roadmap to a Culture of Peace chaired by Ms. Handschin, included a presentation by Ms. Praxoula Andoniadou-Kyriakou, President of United Democrats Party in Cyprus on the balance of power, changing legal frameworks and equality in education. Dr. Eqbal Al-Othaimeen of Kuwait reported to the group, some of whom had celebrated at last year's conference when news of granting of political rights to Kuwaiti women was announced. She explained that though this was an opening for women's rights in Kuwait, difficulties assuring representation of women's concerns in Parliament remain. Discussions touched on women's power when coordinated, as when Jordan's women parliamentarians removed their hijabs in council. Yemen's ten women parliamentarians have wielded certain influence since 1990. How can more dialogue between women at the top be facilitated?

Session three, Making Human Rights Work was chaired by former Deputy Attorney General of Israel, Dr. Judith Karp. Carolyn Handschin described how to strengthen the UN human rights framework by stimulating greater civic participation through awareness raising and education. Learning to prepare country reports to CEDAW, the Human Rights Council or other agencies is vitally important to development and sustainability. As former member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ms. Karp added NGOs have done irreplaceable work during her tenure. Ms. Janelle Caloudis, of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cyprus, spoke on the developing body of rights of refugees, describing the global refugee situation and specific protection for women that have been put into place. Information sharing and media coverage to illuminate positives are a priority for the agency. Lively discussions on how to change public awareness about rights, change laws, educate children on rights in conflict zones, and development of country reporting by NGOs in Iran, Yemen and Palestine.

Session four, The Role of Women in History: Her story was an instructive overview of the often hidden or unrecognized influence of women on history. Underlying themes were the need to identify and cultivate true leadership qualities that include spirituality and nurturing, and the importance of providing appropriate education for young women leaders. There are women everywhere who are frustrated because they recognize needs of their communities and have capacities to lead, but are prevented from acting.

Session five began with Human Rights: Women and Work, moderated by Dr. Hiba Othman, WFWPI UN Representative in Lebanon and Assistant Professor at the American University in Beirut. Ms. Nada El Abdallah, coordinator for the new UN Resident Coordination Office (UNRCO) in Lebanon explained the UN's Delivering as One# initiative to coordinate work among different agencies within countries, together with government and civil society. Sixteen agencies are coordinating efforts in Lebanon. They are working within a 5 year plan, coordinating workloads at weekly meetings. In Lebanon, a working group on gender issues has formed, given discriminatory legal framework for rights; marriage, divorce, labor, inheritance, etc. and has invited NGO participation. UNIFEL (UN Peacekeeping forces in Lebanon)is working to establish the first gender unit, or "light footprint platform", which if effective will be reproduced throughout Lebanon. Ms. Stella Savides, President of the Women's organization of the United Democrates Party in Cyprus delved deeply into legal and social aspects of reconciling family and work.

Human Rights in Action, session six was moderated by Mrs. Khoula Al-Hosni, director of a network of over 900 NGOs in Libya. Dr. Areti Demosthenous, Director of the Institute of Historical Research for Peace introduced her programs for mutual understanding in human rights between Muslims and Christians in family life. No matter how important human rights are to the individual, failure to share a common understanding accounts for 85% of failed mixed marriages. She trains counselors to prepare couples to understand each other's cultures, values, rights and obligations before they marry. Ms. Dina Ismail, Press Attaché in the Cabinet of the Secretary General of the League of Arab States in Egypt described her early experiences in foreign cultures and how that influenced her life choices. While visiting Arab countries for her work, (Sudan, Iraq, Tunisia,..) she was struck by the obvious link between peace and women's empowerment, especially locally. Ms. Fahmia Al-fatih of SAVE Yemen, an NGO committed to prevent extremism-based violence, stated that no one is born a terrorist. Governments have anti-terrorism plans, but they usually are not effective because they come too late. Techniques to capture youth for extremism are known. Mothers and family members need to be involved as they have inside knowledge. Men in some Arab countries do not want women active in public life, but their capacity for prevention awareness is unparalleled and needed. "Women of Arab countries will not be submissive when they recognize the dangers. They can be trained in the notions of human rights and raise their children as peacemakers". Ensuing discussions highlighted the reach of these dangers into families. Gradual changes in language, behavior, dress were always noted as youth are extremized. Personal stories were told family members' recruitment while away at school and incentives used by indoctrinators. Some mothers avoided disaster by intervening (a statistic never reported) and some less fortunate, later received word of death of their child or cousin in a bombing. Fahmia explained the state of shock that descends on affected communities.

Each year a session is dedicated to presentation of reports on projects born at the conference. Ms. Fauziye Tayim Ataya, President of the Palestinian Community in Cyprus reported on the WFWPI program for children in Gaza. It includes cultural exchanges and visits, scholarships for Palestinian girls to the University in North Cyprus, medical and humanitarian shipments for sick and orphaned children and an adoption/sponsorship program.

Growing out of insights and decisions at the conference, The Cyprus Appeal to Women was agreed to by consensus in the closing plenary. 

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