The following is Norah Kennedy’s remarks from the 7th Annual Celebration Luncheon Fundraiser event in support of Family Transition Place, held on March 8 at the Best Western PLUS Orangeville Inn & Suites.
Every year I write an article and then stand up here to talk about issues related to women’s rights, gender parity or feminist philosophy. I am writing this year with a confession: I am unable to do this, this year.
I have tried – my desk top is littered with half written attempts, centred on the theme of “Being Bold for Change”, the IWD international theme for 2017. I tried starting by extolling the virtues of our fore mothers and grandmothers who were bold and brilliant as they fought for the right to vote, to be recognized as persons. I’ve brought up the fact that women are making huge gains across the planet in education. I talked about the “boldness” that was required by the women who blazed the trails in academia and in business (where we still have work to do for equal representation on Boards and as CEO’s). And I proposed a call for action, for us to not be complacent today and be bold in our turn, to speak up against what we believe to be wrong, to stand up for human rights and dignity, where ever we see the opportunity.
And there I have stalled. Again and again. And I didn’t know why.
But a couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, a friend asked me, how, in the face of the work I do, do I stay hopeful. And I realized at that moment what my problem was. I don’t feel hopeful right now. The events of the past few months, a President in the United States who became elected after continuously saying and doing things that seem to galvanize a segment of the population to also say and do things that I find morally offensive, and then, so recently, the shooting at the Mosque in Quebec City – horrifically on our home turf – sapped, for a while, my belief in the fundamental good of humanity. I felt that the rhetoric of hate and intolerance was spilling over into every aspect of daily life, and, for a time, I was allowing it to make me feel hopeless and helpless.
I think whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the current political climate across the globe has a very real impact on each and every one of us. The rights of women, so hard fought for, so grudgingly won, feel like they are under attack. (The picture that sticks in my mind is the one of the room full of middle aged, white men, signing away the rights of women to make their own reproductive choices – regardless of what your view is about reproductive rights, my question remains – where were the women? Why are exclusively men making those decisions?)
But Women’s Rights are Human Rights, and according to Amnesty International, Human Rights are under attack all across the globe. The 2016/17 Amnesty International Report on Global Human Rights was released a couple of weeks ago. The opening paragraph reads: “2016 saw the idea of human dignity and equality, the very notion of a human family, coming under vigorous and relentless assault from powerful narratives of blame, fear and scapegoating, propagated by those who sought to take or cling on to power at almost any cost.” SALIL SHETTY,SECRETARY GENERAL When I heard this being reported on the radio, a spokesperson was being quoted expressing their belief that, because of recent political trends, Global Human Rights are actually in a rapid decline – to levels similar to the 1930’s. (Amnesty International Report, 2016/17)
I know the emotional and psychological toll this all takes on me. And I wondered, how is the younger generation coping? And so I asked a young woman of my intimate acquaintance, to write about her fears and anxieties about the world right now. I wondered how much of this existential angst is affecting the youth as they transition to adulthood. Here is part of what she said:
“55 years ago Martin Luther King Jr had his dream. His dream that his children could live in a world where they aren’t judged by the colour of their skin but instead on the ‘content of their character’. 87 years ago in Canada women were finally deemed as ‘persons’. And given the right to vote. But despite these gains, the language of sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and corruption played a large part in the recent election in the United States. Is it that a large number of people would still rather have a man lead their country, a man who has been accused of sexual assault, who has publicly demeaned women, disabled people, immigrants, rather than a woman?”
People talk about how far we’ve come, but have we really? To me it seems we are spiralling backwards. It is 2017. We have cars that can drive themselves yet we cannot abolish discrimination. How can we actually look at our planet earth and think that we are making a enough of a difference not to worry about what the future hold for us?” (E. McLaughlin, 2017)
I ache for young people today. I see the anxiety that so many of them are plagued with, and cannot help but understand it. How does one go optimistically into adulthood, when the feelings of uncertainty, intolerance and fear seem to be so pervasive?
But I’ve realized, to be honest, that hopelessness is a luxury we can’t afford. It’s not really an option. Hopelessness and Helplessness actively work against us. So perhaps this is where the “Be Bold for Change” theme of IWD comes in. A small act of Boldness – to be courageous enough to have Hope. To not give in; to not accept intolerance, hate, or extremism as the new normal and to work to engage others in speaking out for goodness, for kindness, for the respect and dignity of humanity – women, children, men, regardless of their country of origin, sexual orientation or religious belief.
I believe we have an opportunity – and in fact an obligation – right now to ensure our own politicians fully understand that we do not want nor will we accept the same language of intolerance and hate that is being used to gain power, as seen in other countries. Regardless of our political affiliation, we must take every opportunity to use the power of our voice and our words to ensure that our political leaders know they cannot not resort to those tactics here to win our vote. We must make sure they know we value (peace, justice and freedom?) truth, wisdom and human dignity above all else, certainly above winning or gaining power.
The final paragraph in the Amnesty International Report forward, after detailing all the ways in which humanity has failed stupendously this year, ends with these thoughts: “As we begin 2017, the world feels unstable and fear for the future proliferates. Yet it is in these times that courageous voices are needed, ordinary heroes who will stand up against injustice and repression. Nobody can take on the whole world, but everyone can change their own world. Everyone can take a stand against dehumanization, acting locally to recognize the dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all, and thus lay the foundations of freedom and justice in the world. 2017 needs human rights heroes.”
I am asking you to join me – in, yes,– boldness, to become these heroes. Hundreds of thousands of women and allies marched last month in unity. Thousands of people showed solidarity and support at vigils across the country in the aftermath of the Quebec City Mosque shooting. Whether it is by marching in the thousands, or gathering in peaceful solidarity or simply by showing compassion to a person in need, we have a responsibility to somehow take a stand against injustice and dehumanization. We have to do it for all our sakes, but primarily for the sake of the generation that is coming of age now, to help assuage their anxiety. They need to be assured that peace, justice and equality can exist in their world, and just as importantly, so can love, compassion, and acceptance.
When talking about International Women’s Day, we have to remember that Women’s Rights, are Human Rights. Perhaps we can’t take on the whole world. But we CAN and we MUST attempt to change our own world. For the women. For the Girls. For humanity.